They come by night, stripping saplings, flattening rice paddies, uprooting whole fields of corn. Voracious and practically unstoppable, they lay farmers’ livelihoods to waste.
But here in Western Uganda, where the most destructive animals aren't locusts or crows, but highly protected elephants, conventional pest control is not an option.
"Just two months ago elephants ripped up an acre of my sorghum crop and [my] two children had to go hungry," says Latib Kalema, whose village borders Queen Elizabeth National Park, home to around 5,000 of the hungry giants.
Because the animals destroy acres at a time, many of his neighbors have resorted to growing tobacco — less elephant-friendly than standard food crops, but also less profitable.
“I have no problem with elephants, as long as they stay in the park," says Kalema. "But once they come into our villages they become a real nuisance.”
Dwindling herd numbers
With a resurgence of poaching and herd numbers in alarming decline, African elephants have recently returned to the headlines. Earlier this year, the Ugandan army was implicated in an incident in the Democratic Republic of Congo in which 22 elephants were slain.
Despite conservationists’ best efforts, the gentle giants are not popular with everyone.
"Where elephant concentration is, that’s where the big problem is," says Patrick Agaba, project director for Uganda Conservation Foundation, who calls elephants the most destructive of all the park's inhabitants. "By walking along, it’s a destruction; turning around, it’s a destruction; eating, it’s a destruction, so there is a lot of damage. They can’t help it.”
When the crops are ripening, farmers have taken to sleeping out in their fields to guard against elephant raids, make noise to chase the massive animals away. But according to Charles Tumwesigye of the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA), farmers’ anger does sometimes boil over with fatal consequences.
“In the last two years I can recall one incident where the community, through a mob, killed an elephant which had raided their gardens," says Tumwesigye. "The whole village mobilized and people came with spears, and by the time our staff arrived it was too late.”
In another incident, he says, several people were arrested carrying pineapples filled with vials of acid, intending to poison the creatures.
Although the problem isn't new, Benon Mugyerwa, the national park's warden, says it is being newly exacerbated by burgeoning population growth.
“There is a high demand [for] this land, [and] people are digging up to the boundary," he says. "Originally, they used to put trees around the park boundary, but now, because the land is not enough, they need some food for eating, not trees.”
A new tactic
While traditional elephant control involved digging ditches, the pachyderms learned to fill them with dirt and find their way to unprotected crops, so rangers have called on some of the park’s smallest residents to tackle the problem: bees.
In Kalema’s village, wooden beehives now line a small valley that was once a favorite crossing for elephants. But since the hives were put up last year, Kalema says, not a single elephant has
passed this way.
Although it is only a pilot project, the UWA's Tumwesigye says that, so far, it seems to be effective.
“Elephants don’t like bees — the noise and the stinging, especially on their ears, they don’t like it," he says, adding that his organization plans to roll out more beehives in elephant-prone communities, along with additional deterrents like ground-chili paste and possibly electric fences.
The elephant conflict is part of a larger problem involving relations between local communities and the national park, he says, explaining that not everyone appreciates the parks’ protected status.
“They look at it as free land," says Tumwesigye. "Others look at it as a source of meat — they need the protein, there are free animals, free meat. Park officials are there to ensure that the integrity of the parks is maintained, [that] there is no poaching. They will always be in conflict with the communities.”
In the meantime, 20 percent of the park's gate proceeds are put back into projects that benefit the surrounding community.
It's one way to ensure that even if some villagers resent the elephants, at least they get more than trampled crops out of the arrangement.