South African elephants get to choose their pick of the crop – literally!

Mar 15, 2023 | Commentary

By Elephants Alive

Remember your school cafeteria? You have probably pushed those memories to the furthest corner of your mind… And we don’t blame you! However, we are asking you to dig them up, just briefly, and bring to mind the serving counters, with their rectangular dishes, each holding a different (but oddly similar looking) component of the daily menu. See it? Sorry, we’re getting to the point shortly! Now imagine it isn’t you standing in the queue, but two big bull elephants, getting to pick and choose what they’d like to put on their lunch plate. Well, that’s exactly what we did in South Africa! (You can now put those memories back where they came from by the way – hopefully for good this time). 

Still a little confused? Let us explain. 

In Southern Africa (Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Eswatini, Zambia, and Zimbabwe), more than 90 million people live in rural areas. These Southern African states also hold approximately 80% of the world’s savannah elephants, even though only roughly 12% of the region is set aside for protected nature reserves. The majority of these reserves are adjacent to or surrounded by rural community lands, inhabited by some of the planet’s poorest people. These low-income subsistence farmers compete with wildlife due to limited arable land, minimal to no irrigation access, and cultural ties to the nature reserves. If we add all of this up, it is not difficult to fathom that interactions between rural communities and elephants are inevitable and, in many regions, a daily occurrence! 

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Elephant crossing village © Zacharya Mutinda via Save the Elephants

Take Mozambique, for instance. 55% of Mozambique’s human population lives on less than $1 per day. These communities live off subsistence farming, and are often left vulnerable to climatic events and conflict over limited food sources with elephants and other wildlife. Elephants in particular, are known to crop-raid; meaning they feed on farmed crops such as corn and cassava, often destroying a years’ worth of the family’s food source. In most instances, the affected communities have neither the experience of coexisting with elephants nor the financial resilience or tolerance for dealing with such events. As a result, Mozambique has been identified as one of the countries with severe levels of illegal elephant killings. 

dead elephant A victim of human-elephant conflict © Namibian Broadcasting Company
A victim of human-elephant conflict © Namibian Broadcasting Company

Whilst the percentage of the total population living in rural areas is decreasing, and the average annual population growth over the past 40 years has decreased from 2.5% to 1.7%, the overall rural population in Southern Africa is still increasing. So the chances of elephants and humans increasingly crossing paths, are quite substantial, to say the least. 

But then, what is the solution? 

Poaching rates are lower where levels of human development are relatively high. Poverty and corruption are known to be stronger catalysts of poaching than the lack of law enforcement. Using farming methods that promote economic advancement and discourage elephants from crop-raiding, is a win-win situation for safeguarding elephants and their migratory corridors connecting protected areas. 

Short-term poverty reduction includes a rapid decrease in crop-raiding which negatively affects food security. Elephants Alive, together with Mozambique Wildlife Alliance as our partners on the ground, has implemented a Rapid Response Unit in a unique Mozambican wildlife corridor which includes 6 specific districts, covering an area of 36.707km2 and housing around 140,000 individuals. This Rapid Response Unit has proven highly effective in reducing human-elephant conflict within their area of operation. In addition, the project has succeeded in empowering local communities with safe and effective tools to ensure their own safety when encountering crop-raiding elephants and wildlife.

Yet snags still remain: crop-raiding tends to occur primarily at night and whilst enabling farmers to protect their crops is helping food-security, it does not automatically translate to poverty reduction. Elephants Alive therefore set out to investigate ways to protect farmers crops without needing human intervention, as well as improving farmers livelihoods through farming potential high-value crops. Beehive fences have already proven to be effective barriers to food crops throughout Africa. 

So we asked elephants what they think we should do…

As our research has always been led by elephants, we decided to ask them to guide us this time as well! We studied elephants’ preferences towards 18 different types of crops, the majority of which are of high combined economic value (food, essential oil, medicinal and bee fodder value) and suitable for growing in Southern African climates. The experiments allowed us to evaluate several plants that have never been tested in terms of their palatability to elephants.

One of the elephants at HERD Hoedpspruit, during the cafeteria-style experiment © Elephants Alive
One of the elephants at HERD Hoedpspruit, during the cafeteria-style experiment © Elephants Alive

Our results showed that it would be preferable to plant cassava as a staple compared to any corn variant which was highly favoured by the elephants. Herbs such as borage and rosemary with medicinal and aromatic properties, respectively, were strongly avoided together with bird’s eye chilli (a well-known elephant deterrent crop). We found that lemon grass and sunflowers, presented as whole fresh plants to the elephants, were highly sought after by the elephants. This is surprising, as both plant types have been described as unpalatable to both Asian and African elephants alike. 

According to our overall scoring system, four food types proved best suited for the proposed corridor region (Bird’s Eye Chilli, Cape Gold, Cape Snowbush and Rosemary). Of these, only Bird’s Eye Chilli had been tested before! The other three plant types have been used in producing essential oil and hold great promise for income-generation. The global market for essential oils continues to reflect a strong upward trend, having increased by an average of 15% from 2018 to 2019. Global production is valued at USD6.5bn and projected to rise to USD15.8bn by 2024–2025. 

A farmer ready to protect his crops © Jessica Van Fleteren via Save The Elephants
A farmer ready to protect his crops © Jessica Van Fleteren via Save The Elephants

Research like that of Elephants Alive saves time and resources, and avoids demoralizing already poverty-stricken communities. The next phase involves the installation of bee-hive fences in the identified Mozambican wildlife corridor (planned for May 2023), as well as further research into more plant types according to the climatic conditions of the proposed areas in which they could be cultivated. Market research is needed, as well as yields to sufficiently equip communities with the right produce. The knowledge gained through these novel cafeteria-style experiments is a major step forward in safeguarding elephant migration and ecosystem corridors and promoting human-elephant coexistence! 

And don’t worry, we won’t ask you to recall those dreaded memories of your high-school cafeteria ever again… 

A collared elephant moves through rural communties. Lake Jipe © Elephants and Bees Project via Save the Elephants
A collared elephant moves through rural communties. Lake Jipe © Elephants and Bees Project via Save the Elephants

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To read more about this research 

For more information regarding our research and conservation work, please email or contact Dr. Michelle Henley

Special thanks goes out to the following partners: HERD Trust | Hoedspruit Elephant Rehabilitation and DevelopmentU.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)Oak FoundationJamma InternationalSave the ElephantsIUCNThe Rufford Foundation

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