Sunday, August 7, 2011

Human-Animal Conflict?

A small fresh-water pan near Pandamatenga, Botswana where elephants often come to drink.

We crossed the cattle fence five kilometers north of Ben’s Elephant Sands, on our way up to Pandamatenga. This isolated farming area is completely surrounded by game areas and wildlife. It is the largest contiguous crop growing area in Botswana and produces much of the produce and grains that the country consumes. The farmlands are protected from elephants by a huge electrical fence, paid for by the farmers and government. Local subsistence farmers are also given lands to plant within this little island of agricultural productivity.

Its odd to be in an area that is the opposite of the rest of the world. In virtually every country place Earth the land is for the people and little isolated protected areas are fenced off for nature. Pandematenga is a little island of humanity isolated in a sea of wilderness.

We have come here to interview Andrea Bolla. She is a geographical scientist from Canada who is researching a PHD on human-animal conflict issues. This petit lady from Vancouver has some pretty big ideas about wildlife and people.

In the agricultural history of the human race, we have, arguably, been in “conflict” with the natural world we rely on. This conflict takes many different guises. Termites eat the fence posts that are built to stop larger game from eating our produce. Before the electrical fence was put in here, elephants or a large herd of buffalo could ruin thousands of acres of productive fields.

But without conflict we would also not enjoy the presence of wilderness on our planet and the very diversity that sustains us. Andrea argues that conflict needs to be studied to find out what constitutes unacceptable loses, and what measures are needed to mitigate those losses.

First, she suggests, lets define conflict. In every farmer’s field all over the world there are losses. These losses are caused by disease, blight, birds, lack of regular moisture, animals, a vast variety of things. Most farmers can handle a small amount of loss, maybe even up to 20%. In Pandamatenga, when the fence was built, ungulates like antelopes and others like warthogs were trapped within this barrier. Big animals like elephants, buffaloes, hyenas and lions were pushed out and kept out for the most part. Without the predators the antelopes increased and often eat the farmers crops. many farmers enjoy the wild animals and have chosen to farm here because of the romance associated with them. These antelope and warthogs and birds and other critters eat their crops, and some feel that this is an acceptable loss for living among them. Other farmers disagree, and call for a major reduction in the numbers of wild animals within the fences in order to boost production. So there is a balance of a sort that is constantly being discussed and maintained. Sometimes there is culling, sometimes there is not.

Andrea asks: “Is this balancing act actually conflict or a man-made semblance of the natural order of things?” She is using this closed system to study the relationships between man and nature, hoping to find guidance or at least some truisms that can be extrapolated from it. I ask her if what she discovers can be applied elsewhere, but she demurs. “Every system, every interaction between man and nature needs to be discussed on its own merits, and although some broad lessons can be learned and applied, we should not assume that what works for one place will work for another”.

She has a very valid point. The farmers in Pandamatenga are an anomaly in the region. Protected by a fence and the wealth to pay for it, they are commercial farmers for the most part, making a profit from their work. But most people in the region are subsistence farmers, operating without resources of any kind, living hand-to-mouth.

In Botswana, where many people make a livelihood from wildlife and nature, the benefits of living and farming among wild beasts are usually better understood than in most areas of Africa, where wild beasts are looked upon with an almost mythical fear we would usually reserve for minotaurs and dragons. The very idea of living with them in peace and harmony is an anathema. Often for good reason. Lions may eat children on their way to school, elephants can trample a family’s only food garden and predators can decimate livestock, leaving a farmer penniless.

This issue is shaping up to be the real challenge of the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. The KAZA, once established, will be home to almost a million people within it’s borders. In the Okavango, where wild beasts and people co-exist and mutually benefit from each other, our team has learned what it takes to do that. Read about the Jakotsha Trust from an earlier trip here. These are hard won lessons, and we are on our way to rural Zambia, where farmers and villagers will have to be included from the very beginning in any animal reintroduction that occurs in their area.

It’s clear from our time in Pandamatenga that people and animals can coexist by determining what are the issues and needs of both groups, whether there is indeed a conflict, and what can be done to mitigate that. Whether these issues will relate to the local subsistence farmers is something we are only starting to explore.

Megan Izen, left, from The City University Of New York (CUNY) doing video work while scientist Andrea Bolla looks out over a small fresh water pan near Pandamatenga.

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