Gabon and Kenya call for international support in the fight against human-elephant conflict.

Environment | Grasslands


By Julia Riopelle, Co-Editor-in-Chief

Published May 8, 2021

Two countries, opposite coasts, both calling for international aid in mitigating the never-ending clashes between wild elephants and rural communities.


On 4 May 2021, the Elephant Protection Initiative Foundation hosted a special event where Hon. Najib Balala, Cabinet Secretary and Minister of Tourism of Wildlife in Kenya, and Prof. Lee White, Minister of Forests, Oceans, Environment and Climate Change in Gabon, spoke on how human-elephant conflict affected their respective countries.


Elephants in Samburu National Reserve, Samburur, Kenya. Taken 26 May 2019 | Photos by Beks / Unsplash

Human-elephant conflict is a long-established issue in rural farming communities. Due to rapid population growth, urbanization and habitat fragmentation, there are increased incidents where elephants are forced out of protected areas in search of farmland food.


When wild elephants venture into human settlements, there are clashes with locals—leading to crop raids or in the most severe cases, injury and death to humans. The flattening of crops often means the destruction of a subsistence farmer’s livelihood. Thus, affected communities do not view the conservation of elephants as profitable and will in turn protect their income by killing these giant trespassers.


Hon. Balala explained at the event, ‘As soon as there is an elephant death caused by humans the [Kenyan] government is all over it. However, if a human dies from an elephant, there is little to no concern from the government. This in turn creates larger resentment of local communities towards elephants.’


‘One must address the needs of the affected people too.’


Kenya reports 50 to 120 elephants shot every year due to human-wildlife conflict, and that around 200 people died between 2010 and 2017 due to elephants. If there is to be a symbiotic coexistence between humans and elephants, one must address the needs of the affected people too. The EPI Foundation works with its 21 member states all across the African continent to conserve elephants and protect the livelihoods of the communities living alongside them.


Currently, the only widespread course of action after a human-elephant conflict incident is monetary compensation. However, simply paying an affected farmer, who has either experienced the injury or loss of a family member or crop, is treating a symptom rather than addressing the core issue. Human-elephant conflicts will increase in correlation with population growth and habitat fragmentation. The establishment of large protected areas and wildlife corridors is vital.


Monetary compensation will not remove the threat of future attacks. Often it may prove counterproductive, where it decreases the farmer’s incentive to defend their crops or results in corruption through false claims. Additionally, compensation has been shown to be slow to administer and often there are not sufficient funds to cover the losses of each farmer—leading to further conflict.


Kenya’s human-elephant conflict should be of international concern


In Kenya, many people do not get compensated at all due to the insufficient funds the government can allocate to this conflict. To tackle this, Hon. Balala set up a taskforce in 2019 to find ways to finance these compensations. However, three years onwards this has still proven to be difficult.


‘Sometimes, insurance on these issues requires $40 million per year, which the government does not have. However, they are the only ones responsible for addressing this issue as there is no one else who is helping. Even if the human-wildlife conflict occurred in a community conservancy or on private land, it’s the government who has to pay. This needs to be an international issue.’


Agriculture is at the core of Kenya’s rural economy; it accounts for 27% of the country's GDP and contributes to a further 27% of other sectors. More than 70% of rural communities are employed in the agricultural sector. At the rate of the country’s current population growth, Kenya’s economy will require the expansion of croplands into arid lands.


Hon. Balala emphasizes the importance of understanding both the carrying capacity of elephants in African countries, as well as measuring the monetary compensation needed for people. Currently, there are around 35,000 elephants in Kenya, a figure which has doubled in the past 30 years, increasing both the pressure on human agriculture and resources to sustain the elephants. The 12.4% of protected land in Kenya is highly fragmented, and a large portion of the country’s elephant population is in the small northern tip of the Masai Mara reserve.


Samburu Women, Kenya. Taken 26 October 2020. | Ken Kahiri / Unsplash

‘Kenyan Elephant populations have doubled in the past 30 years’, Hon. Balala.


A 2021 study by Tiller and colleagues investigated 15 years of elephant crop-raiding trends in the Trans Mara—where the majority is outside the Masai Mara nature reserve. The trends found that with a human population growth of 63% in the area, the agricultural system switched to pastoralism to meet the growing demand.


In return this resulted in an increased fragmentation of the land the elephants roam on. In 2000, the unprotected areas of the Trans Mara contained 200 to 300 elephants, with 263 crop-raiding incidents. In 2015, the team found that despite the elephant population decreasing to 100 individuals, the incidents increased to 392. It shows how damage to crops, property, human injury and even loss of life, undermines support for conservation efforts.


In 2016, the Kenyan Government declared the end of human-elephant conflict in the Laikipia Province, which is home to 6300 elephants. This was accomplished by building an electric fence of 163km in length—protecting two million acres of crop for smallholder farmers. Perhaps the same strategy can be applied in the Trans Mara and beyond.


Gabon’s forest elephant population is on a rapid decline.


Gabon has lost a third of its elephants in the past 15 years, a number estimated to be around 20,000 individuals. However, at the special event Prof. White stated that, ‘despite fewer elephants, the human-wildlife conflict is getting worse. Elephants are coming closer to human communities, even appearing in a vicinity of 30 to 40 kilometres of [the capital] Libreville.’


As in Kenya, rural Gabonese are suffering from elephants trampling their agricultural lands. However, as 86% of the country’s population lives in urban areas, habitat fragmentation is not the primary concern for driving the human-elephant conflict. Instead, cross-border poachers who act in the forest reserves push elephants out, who migrate towards villages for refuge.


The World Bank has already allocated $9.1 million to Moukalaba Doudou, Loango, Mayuma and Waka National Parks in Gabon, with the primary aim being to reduce poaching and wildlife trafficking. Nonetheless, Prof. White is still called in to manage the opposition towards elephant conservation on the daily.


‘The Horn of Africa does not come close to generating enough revenue to conserve these areas and provide compensation to communities there’, voiced Greta Lori of EPI foundation at the event.


Elephants in Amboseli, Kenya. Taken 20 June 2020. | Neil and Zulma Scott / Unsplash

Human-elephant conflict has been linked to climate change


A study conducted by Bush and colleagues found that trees in Lopé National Park, Gabon, are reproducing fruit less often. The average ripening dropped from every one-in-ten trees to one-in-fifty trees between 1987 to 2018.


Fruit is a main resource in the diets of many African megafauna and its production is closely linked to climatic cues. Many afrotropical fruits only flower when the temperatures drop; these have occurred less frequently due to the temperature increases linked to climate change. Climate change has increased the average temperature in Lopé National Park by 0.25 degrees Celsius.


As a result, photograph databases of Gabonese elephants have found that their external body condition has declined over time. This can have a significant impact on the reproductive health of female elephants, implicating future population numbers. The study was also able to link the decreased ripening of fruit to the increased presence of elephants in agricultural areas.


Gabon, Kenya and other EPI member states require funds to mitigate this conflict


As monetary compensation alone is not a sustainable solution towards alleviating the pressures of human-wildlife conflict, alternative strategies have been proposed. These include on-site acoustic deterrents, selective culling and elephant relocation. However, relocating ‘problem-individuals’, requires substantial funds for helicopter transport and specialized training for the team involved.


Another solution is the construction of electric fences around cropland, which has proven to be successful in the Lakipia Province, Kenya. However, these cost between $1000 to $10,000 per kilometre and are a site-specific solution. It is hard to effectively apply fences to highly fragmented areas. There is also the problem that tusks do not conduct electricity and the elephant may still be able to cause substantial damage to the expensive fence.


Smithsonian National Zoo using aviation and aerospace technology to create a first-of-its-kind global animal-tracking system in efforts to mitigate human-elephant conflict. | Smithsonian National Zoo / Flickr

One can also not fence elephants into protected areas without risking proliferation of their populations—diminishing the resources other organisms rely on and restricting healthy gene flow between elephant lineages. Thus, special advisor to EPI, Grant Burden explains, ‘This option may be useful in the short term, but not very effective down the line.’


Planting crops which are not ‘elephant friendly’ (i.e., unpalatable chili crops), can be effective as a low-cost, small-scale solution. Although, a downside is that such crops may not always be as profitable to the farmer themselves. Some farmers have implemented bio-acoustic methods, such as beehive fences, to deter elephants. These have the added benefit of not only offering protection, but also honey and pollination services. Early detection of approaching elephants via infrasonic detectors and GPS collars has also been put into practice, in order to warn farmers of the threat early on.


As Greta Lori concluded the EPI foundation special event:


‘Solutions forward will need to address racial, social and environmental inequality in the access to natural resources. In such instances, we cannot just protect biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake—especially in the issue of human-elephant conflict.’



Featured Image: Larry Li / Unsplash

Bush E., Whytock R., Bahaa-el-din L. et al. (2020) Long-term collapse in fruit availability threatens Central African forest megafauna. Science. Volume 370, Issue 6521, Pages 1219-1222.

EPI (2021) ‘Africa’s answer to the elephant crisis.’ Elephant Protection Initiative Foundation. EPI. Available at: https://www.elephantprotectioninitiative.org/gabon [Accessed 15 May 2021]

FAO (2021) ‘Kenya at a glance.’ Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Available at: http://www.fao.org/kenya/fao-in-kenya/kenya-at-a-glance/en/ [Accessed 15 May 2021]

Global Wildlife Program (2021) ‘Project: Wildlife and Human-Elephant Conflicts Management in Gabon.’ World Bank. Available at: https://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/405981579205157263/Gabon-20180927-Dec11.pdf [Accessed 15 May 2021]

IUCN (2021) ‘Technical Brief: Review of compensation schemes for agricultural and other damage caused by elephants.’ International Union for Conservation of Nature. Available at: https://www.iucn.org/sites/dev/files/import/downloads/heccomreview.pdf [Accessed 16 May 2021]

Schaffer J., Khadka K., Hoek J. and Naithani K. (2019) Human-Elephant Conflict: A review of current management strategies and future directions. Front. Ecol. Evol. Volume 6, Article 235.

Tiller L., Humle T., Amin R. et al. (2021) Changing seasonal, temporal and spatial crop-raiding trends over 15 years in a human-elephant conflict hotspot. Biological Conservation. Volume 254, 108941.



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