By Ronald Musoke, Giants Club African Conservation Fellow, The Independent.
Published 25 February 2019.
Elephants are one of the most iconic and popular animals that attract visitors by their thousands to Queen Elizabeth National Park in western Uganda. Even the locals of Kafuru, a small village near the eastern fringes of the park know this.
MacLean Nagasha, a 17-year old student of Bakyenga S.S in Rubirizi, for example, says elephants are important because the government earns foreign exchange from the tourists. For her community, she says, the park provides firewood, thatching grass and timber.
But for other residents, like David Kwatampora, elephants represent anguish, pain and sorrow.
Sixty-year-old Kwatampora has been living here since 1972 and has witnessed the conflict between elephants and people almost daily. Just like hundreds of others in this village perched on the western side of the Kyambura Gorge in Kirugu sub-county, Rubirizi District, he is a peasant farmer.
He, like almost everybody here, depends on their small plots of arable land that are only separated from the park’s boundaries by a narrow dirt road. They grow cotton, maize, cassava and tomato.
Looking at the plants in full bloom, a first time visitor would think Kwatampora and his folk will in a few months harvest food and spare some to sell and earn millions of shillings. But that view vanishes when the villagers start telling mournful tales of their routine confrontation with their dangerous wild neighbours.
“The animals attack us every day,” says Jacob Baabo.
“We try to grow our crops in order to survive but all our labour goes to waste almost all the time,” says Moses Koyekyenga, 42, “We sometimes go without food and we have been reduced to labourers in neighbouring villages in order to find food for our families.”
Medias Kamarembo, a dimunitive but vocal woman who says she grows mainly cotton says she and her colleagues are failing to educate their children because of the non-stop elephant and buffalo raids on their crops.
Along the road between the park and the fields of crop are grass thatched huts where, we are told, villagers stay overnight as they keep watch over their crop. It is said that in just one night of “crop raiding,” elephants can destroy whole gardens, leaving the subsistence farmers desperate for food and money. So those who cannot endure the cold nights, battle the beasts in the morning and throughout the day.
“We need urgent help to ward off the elephants,” says Kamarembo.
Fortunately, it appears, help has finally arrived. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) is constructing an electric fence between Kafuru village and the park.
A gang of workers has, since October last year, been working on the fence. All grass and shrubbery has been cleared from a strip along the length of the dirt road that looks about 5 metres wide and stretches as far as the eye can see. Along it, an unending line of holes have been dug and round posts, each 3ft high, have been fixed and three lines of 2.55mm high tensile wires strung across the posts.
It is difficult to believe that this short and weak-looking fence can stop a buffalo, let alone an elephant which is big and powerful. The fence is about as tall as the waist of a tall person, yet an elephant can be three times taller. But Ibrahim Njenga, a Kenyan fence technician who is overseeing the work and has fixed the fences in Botswana, Gabon, and Kenya, says it works.
He says fences are only needed in short stretches where human-elephant conflict is worst.
“Our research shows that building electrified fences is the most effective way to succeed. We have worked out that a short-post fence with long electrified outriggers works best,” Njenga says, “We have already tried it in many places and it has worked very effectively.”
Njenga has done this kind of work for the last eight years and his gang of 10 workers is made of up of Ugandans with the majority coming from the Kyambura area. Njenga’s understudy, Modest Enzama, is attached to UWA and works directly with the fence builders.
Njenga explains that the fence’s effectiveness in blocking elephants is built around “outriggers;” wires that slant from the vertical posts at an angle of 45 degrees towards the direction the animal will approach from the national park side.
He says when the system is switched on, electricity pulses of up to 9000 volts drawn from solar-powered energizers feed into the wires. Then, when the wires touch an elephant on the soft flesh of its chest or its trunk, the animal is shocked and forced to turn away before it can reach the posts to destroy the fence and run into the fields.
The fence voltage is high, but the current is low meaning that it cannot electrocute a person to death. Anyone who touches it will receive a strong shock but not one that will kill them.
The UWA (Uganda Wildlife Authority) officials say that while the fence is not constructed to prevent people from crossing, it will help to demarcate the park’s boundary more clearly and assist park rangers in enforcing security and illegal harvesting of resources from the park, including poaching.
Njenga says the fence is effective on bigger animals like elephants, rhinos and buffaloes.
Space for Giants, a Nairobi-based conservation agency is building the initial 10km of fence on the eastern fringes of Queen Elizabeth National Park, from Kyezazza near the small township of Kyambura, near the Kyambura Gorge, to Kyabakara—a stretch of close to 10km. Each kilometre has cost the agency US$ 6000.
Edward Asalu, the Chief Warden of Queen Elizabeth Conservation Area told The Independent that UWA’s plan is to erect an electric fence stretching over 100km from the cobalt plant at KCCL through Muhokya and Kikorongo towards Bwera up to Busunga where the park ends.
“We have started with 10km as a pilot project to see how effective it can be but from the reports I am getting, the results are looking good.”
The electric fence will only be erected in what Asalu calls hotspot areas—places where the feud between elephants and people has been going on for decades. Asalu says these areas include Kyezazza, Rutoma and Kakari while on the Kasese side; the Kicwamba area is quite problematic.
Julius Nabasa, a Ugandan supervisor of the team constructing the fence told The Independent that the electric fence has brought almost instant results.
He says the elephants had a particular course along which they would move and cross and destroy people’s gardens but that has stopped.
Valley of death
The fence is being built at a time when the confrontation between man and animals from the park has become increasingly fatal. Just four months ago, in September, Kwatampora woke up to the horror of his neighbour, Angelo Ndyoburungi’s death.
On the fateful day, he says, Ndyoburungi woke up to go to his farm but before he could start work, he was ambushed and gored by a buffalo. Gladys Muhindo, the deceased’s daughter in law told The Independent that although residents tried to save his life by rushing him to the nearby dispensary, he died from his injuries. He left seven children. His grave is just metres away from his mud and wattle house.
The horror of wild animals killing human beings does not stop in Kafuru. In the nearby Masoro village, the Kafuru residents say two people were recently killed by wild animals.
Such tales of desperation in this village might be anecdotal but they reflect the ever growing dangerous interaction between farmers and wild animals as both human and animal population swell.
Kwatampora told The Independent that the confrontations with the wild animals seem more these days than 40 years ago. He says back then it was only warthogs that occasionally crossed into their gardens and burrowed into their cassava and potato gardens. The elephant and buffalo attacks started around the 1990s, he says.
Olivia Biira, the community conservation manager for Queen Elizabeth National Park told The Independent that the problem of elephants’ havoc has been a long standing challenge.
She says cases of crop and property destruction, injuries, and even deaths are reported to her often and they strain relationships with some communities.
Asalu says the population of both elephants and human beings around the park has been increasing and that means that the human-wildlife conflict can only grow. He says a recent airborne survey found close to 4000 elephants in the park.
“All around the park, we have a hard time controlling elephants,” he says, adding that UWA has in the past had even its own staff get killed during missions to scare away the elephants from the communities.
Even President Yoweri Museveni has voiced his concern about the growing human-wildlife conflict around Uganda’s conservation areas. Museveni is a founding member of the Giants Club, a conservation programme that brings together political leaders, financiers, and scientists to endorse, fund, and implement elephant landscape protection projects. At a summit organized in Kenya in 2016, he called for a solution to the growing human-elephant conflict in Uganda.
Erecting the 10km electric fence is planned to be completed by the end of April. That is when its full effectiveness will be tested.
Asalu, the chief warden says UWA has in the past come up with several interventions such as bee farming (bees irritate elephants) as well as digging trenches in the park’s hotspots to try to stop elephants from going into the communities. All these have come with little success, sometimes owing to the high intelligence of the elephants.
When the trenches were dug, for instance, the elephants quickly got around this challenge by filling up the trenches with soil. Meanwhile other crossing areas were marshy swampland and the trenches could not be dug. The elephants soon saw these spots as good crossing points to the community gardens.
“We realized that these interventions were not adequate enough to handle this problem,” Asalu says to explain why success of the electric fence is critical.
But in other African countries where similar fences have been deployed, some people who live near fences break them in order to continue illegally entering the park to collect firewood or water or even poach bush meat. This sometimes renders the fence ineffective and elephants learn fast where fences are no longer electrified and take advantage. There must be strong local appreciation of the benefits the fence brings. The fence must also be maintained where it is damaged, to keep it effective.
Biira told The Independent that she hopes the electric fence will not only reduce damage to people’s property but also mend the relationship between the park managers and the communities.
Read the full story here. This story is reproduced here as part of the Giants Club African Conservation Journalism Fellowships, a Space for Giants programme to expand the reach of conservation and environmental journalism in the four countries where we work.