Increasing levels of human-elephant conflict around the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park necessitates the development of a better understanding of the influencing factors, so that this knowledge can be used to help people and elephants to coexist in close proximity. Although the communities in the Makgadikgadi region live outside the national park, they are situated in a migration corridor for numerous species.
The project aims to answer a number of questions, including whether there is a particular age class of elephant that raids crops, or whether there are certain group sizes that are predisposed to crop raiding. There is also little information on whether crop raiding is carried out by individual repeat offenders, or transient groups of elephants. The research will help to determine a demographic profile of the offending elephants and whether it is an issue of problem individuals or a land-use issue.
Researcher: James Alexander Stevens
Country: Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Botswana
Partner Organisations: Elephants for Africa
The newly-flowing Boteti River is attracting an influx of large groups of male elephants that come into close proximity with local communities, increasing the levels of human-elephant conflict in the area. To tackle this problem, it is vital to gain a thorough understanding of the issue, followed by the development and establishment of effective mitigation strategies.
Little is known about the group sizes and age structure of male elephant social groups. The Makgadikgadi region provides a unique study site to research these demographics as it mainly comprises male elephants. By undertaking the study inside the national park and across into areas of human habitation, it is hoped that a better understanding of the demographics of crop raiders will be gained.
Further factors to investigate include whether there are spatial patterns to crop raiding in this region, whether certain communities are more susceptible and if so, why. Previous studies have found that parameters such as human population density, mitigation techniques in place, and distance to water and national parks are all factors determining the probability of a farm being raided. Targeting the problem will become much more efficient if crop-raiding spatial patterns could be established in this region.
Studies that have reviewed compensation schemes have found that they are often unsuccessful as they do not deal with the actual problem, but rather try to increase communities’ tolerance towards elephants. Farmers in this study area have stated that the cost of reporting a raid is often more than the amount of compensation received and consequently not worthwhile. Conversely, it has been reported that farmers often overestimate the amount and value of crops lost due to wildlife.
The beneficiaries of this project are the local communities that live alongside national parks and receive few benefits, yet have to contend with the problems of local wildlife and bear the true costs. Elephant populations would benefit if solutions could be found to reduce the conflict as the threat of harm or death would be diminished.
The main objectives of the study are:
- Establishing demographics: Male social groups both inside and outside Makgadikgadi Pans National Park (MPNP) will be studied. This will include the monitoring of male elephant groups and determining group size and age of the elephants.
- Identification of crop-raiding patterns: Frequency of crop raiding in different communities monitored and information gathered on the features of different sites. This includes visiting sites after crop-raiding incidents and digitally mapping fields.
- Evaluation of economic costs: Damage carried out during crop-raiding events will be assessed and compared to farmers and wildlife officers’ estimates. Again this involves visiting sites after crop-raiding incidents, and measuring the level of damage.
Monitoring male African elephant groups:
To provide data on the age structure and group size of male African elephants, individuals are being located on routes through the MPNP, and their GPS coordinates, age, sex, number and physical condition recorded. All elephants, where possible, are being individually identified. If possible, hind foot measurements and size of faecal bolus are being measured to confirm the age of elephants.
Work will be carried out with local communities following a notification of a crop-raiding incident. Field signs will be used to determine the number of elephants involved, as well as measuring hind foot length and bolus size to estimate their ages.
The Footprint Identification Technique (FIT) may also be used, which involves taking photographs of tracks to determine the age, sex and identify of individuals with high levels of accuracy. This would potentially enable the determination of whether the crop raiding is caused by repeat offenders.
Assessing crop-raiding events:
To determine if there are certain features that make certain communities and farmers more prone to crop raiding, data will be collected, including the amount of crop damage caused, as well as the structure and density of crops grown in the field. The IUCN data collection and analysis protocol for human-elephant conflict situations in Africa will be followed.
Finer scale measurements of damage will be calculated using line transects at randomly-selected positions across a field to determine which crop species, if any, are being targeted and damage will be assessed. All fields in the region will be georeferenced to determine if there are spatial patterns of crop-raiding in the area.
The PhD research aims to increase knowledge about elephant crop raids, particularly focusing on understanding more about the demographics of the elephants involved and the characteristics of fields that may increase their susceptibility to being raided.
The 2016 ploughing season started slowly with low levels of rainfall recorded and therefore few fields were ploughed as well as farmers choosing to plough fields in the receding riverbed to make use of ground water. Data was collected by attending crop-raiding incidences in community lands bordering Makgadikgadi Pans National Park (MPNP). In total, 98 crop-raiding incidences were reported by 26 farmers. On average in 2016, farmers reported crop-raiding incidences to the study 3.8 times (range=1-21).
Damage assessments completed after each crop raid showed on average that when elephants had raided a field, 9.6% of the crops were destroyed either through trampling or grazing. Whilst at the end of the ploughing season, on average 29.4% (range=0.22-100) of the crop was destroyed.
Initial results suggest that fields that are more isolated and have a higher diversity of crops incur larger areas of damage. Using data from all three field seasons, fewer crop raids occur during full moon phases, with the frequency of crop raiding gradually increasing from January and peaking in April.
Elephants were tracked moving towards fields and inside the field (n=32). Preliminary data suggests elephants know where they are going when moving towards fields and analysis will be completed to determine how elephants move inside fields in relation to the distribution of different crops.
At the end of the ploughing season, all 26 farmers that had reported crop raids completed questionnaires to determine their perceptions of the resulting value of damage. These estimates will be compared with scientifically-measured estimates of damage to determine what influences farmers’ perceptions.
Data collection for this study has now been completed and analysis is ongoing.
The ploughing season started slowly this year with low levels of rainfall recorded and therefore few farmers ploughed their fields. As mentioned in my previous report the majority of farmers ploughed their fields next to the river using the molapo technique to make use of the receding river. In total I attended 82 crop-raiding incidences that were reported to me, which accounted for 98 incidences where a field had been entered by elephants. Farmers were raided on average 3.8 times over the course of the season with the number of incidences ranging from 1-21. All of the incidences, bar one where the sex of the elephants could not be determined, involved male elephants based on tracks found in the field.
Transects were completed in the fields to determine species composition and damage estimates. Elephants were also tracked walking towards the field and inside the field where possible. Having only looked at preliminary data it would appear that elephants know where they are going when moving towards fields based on one field but more analysis is required using other fields. More analysis is needed on the movement patterns of elephants inside the fields which will be completed on returning to the UK to see whether the movement is targeted or random.
Since returning to Botswana in November, 80 research sessions have been completed resulting in 491 individual or group sightings of male elephants. I was able to collect 37 hind foot lengths (HFL) of aged individuals.
Department of Wildlife and National Parks problem animal control reports were collected for all seasons of the project and values of compensation were collected for 2014 and 2015. Compensation reports for 2016 are still pending but I hope to be able to collect them. If they are not completed then I can calculate compensation based on damage estimates in the reports.
In May I presented at the Maun Research Talks hosted by the Okavango Research Institute and Kwando on my questionnaire data I collected in 2014 understanding local farmers’ attitudes towards elephants in the Makgadikgadi region.
Plans for the next quarter
In July I will be returning to the UK to continue analysing my data and writing my thesis. Before then I will be completing end-of-ploughing season questionnaires with the farmers that have ploughed their fields to determine how much damage they think the elephants have caused in their fields. I will then compare this with my estimates and wildlife officers’ estimates. I will also be spending time collecting data on elephants in Makgadikgadi Pans National Park with a focus on collecting as many HFL measurements of aged individuals to ensure I have enough data for my model to age elephants based on their HFL in this region. I will also be spending time digitising the problem animal control reports that I received. I can then use this long term data to see how patterns have changed. In June I will be presenting some of my work on the Wildlife Conservation and Communities course as a guest speaker for WildlifeAct.
In November 2015 I returned to Botswana to start my third and final field season of data collection. Initially the focus of my work was collecting data inside Makgadikgadi Pans National Park (MPNP) on male elephant groups and collecting hind foot lengths (HFL) of aged individuals to include in my footprint model. This model will then enable me to use hind foot print measurements taken from crop raided fields to age the crop raiding elephants. In the last quarter I have completed 52 research sessions that resulted in 331 individual or group sightings of male elephants. During this time I was able to collect 22 HFL measurements from aged elephants.
In January I started to become more involved with work in the communities visiting farmers that had ploughed their fields. Due to low levels of rainfall a lot of farmers have decided not to plough their fields this year. The majority of farmers that have are practicing “molapo” farming. This is where land is cultivated on riverbanks and they plough and sow seeds as the river recedes. This allows them to cope better with the lack of rain. To date I have attended 27 crop-raiding incidents all of which have occurred at molapo fields on the river boundary of MPNP. Collecting data in these types of fields has resulted in some challenges not previously experienced in other field seasons. The soil in molapo fields is much harder and compact than in fields further from the river where the soil is more sand based. This, coupled with the low levels of rain has meant that it has been hard to date to collect data on groups sizes and ages of crop-raiding elephants, as signs and tracks are much harder to see. It has also made tracking elephants through the field harder and therefore estimating the resulting damage.
I have still been trying to collect this data when possible but I have also started using random transects through the field to get damage estimates. This is a method developed by an MSc student who worked under my supervision last year so I will have comparable damage estimates for 2015 and 2016 using this method. One of my other aims was to track the elephants both inside the field and when they were moving towards the fields to try and determine whether their movement was random or directed. At the moment because the raids have been occurring at the river it has not been possible to track the elephant and record their movement towards the field as they cross the river to access the field. Some farmers have ploughed their fields further from the river but they have not experienced crop-raiding yet, possibly due to the early stages their crops are in. I still hope to be able to collect this movement data in these fields if they are raided.
Plans for the next quarter
During the next quarter I intend to continue to attend crop-raiding incidences that are reported to me and travel to the fields in the area that have been ploughed to record the characteristics of the different fields. This region had a deadline of when farmers could plough to and this has now passed, so I do not anticipate further fields being ploughed even if there is improved rains. I will continue to work inside MPNP collecting data on male elephant groups with a focus on collecting HFL measurements.
Annual Report, February 2016
Since April 2015, a second data collection season was completed, attending reported incidences of crop raiding in the community lands bordering the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park (MPNP) including 87 crop-raiding incidences; 52% (n=45) of the fields ploughed were visited to collect data on elephant and field characteristics. On average in 2015, farmers reported crop-raiding incidences to the study 2.6 times (range 1-15). Where the sex of the elephants could be determined, all but one of the crop-raiding incidences involved male elephants. Group sizes of crop-raiding elephants ranged from 1 to 5 individuals, although the majority of incidences were carried out by 1 to 3 individuals.
By the end of the ploughing season, 97% (n=44) of the farmers visited during 2015 had completed questionnaires. These questionnaires aim to assess differences between farmers’ own estimates of the amount of damage caused by elephants during the season and the estimates or measurements of wildlife officers. These will be compared with scientifically-measured estimates of damage. The questionnaires also add data on expected harvest yields and attitudes towards human-wildlife conflict.
Data collection continues throughout the 2016 ploughing season, although low rainfall levels have so far resulted in few farmers ploughing their fields. Ultimately it is hoped that the results from this study will increase understanding of the demographics of crop-raiding elephants and reveal their motivation for carrying out such activities, as well as providing some assessment of possible future mitigation measures.
In August 2015 the main focus of the research changed from work in the communities and national park to primarily monitoring male elephant groups inside Makgadikgadi Pans National Park (MPNP). Routes were driven in MPNP and on sighting an elephant group, the group size, sex, age of elephants, physical condition, GPS coordinates, and time were recorded. Elephants were individually identified later from pictures if possible. From August until mid-September, 28 research sessions were completed resulting in 101 individual or group sightings of male elephants.
Having completed the 2014 field season it was observed that hind foot length (HFL) measurements that were collected to estimate age did not appear to match the ages of the elephants seen crop raiding. They also did not match the estimates that had been developed in a similar project in Kenya. There is the possibility that elephants in this region have larger HFL and therefore it was decided to build an age model based on HFL for the Makgadikgadi region. Whilst completing research sessions inside MPNP, HFL measurements would be taken of elephants that could be aged accurately. During this period 22 HFL measurements from aged elephants have been collected in order to add to the model.
In mid-September work was presented from the project titled, “Local farmers’ attitudes towards African elephants in the Makgadikgadi region, Botswana” at the University of Bristol, Biological Sciences Postgraduate Symposium.
Plans for the next quarter
The focus will initially remain on collecting data inside MPNP on male elephant groups and gathering HFL measurements. To date, there has been little rain in the Boteti region and therefore few farmers are active in their fields. As the wet season progresses more time will be spent in the communities informing and reminding farmers about the project to ensure that when the elephants start raiding their crops they will contact the project coordinator who will gather information on the elephants involved, damage estimates and characteristics of the fields.
During the 2015 field season, a Master’s student joined the project, carrying out a cost-benefit analysis of mitigation strategies in the region. Another Master’s student will join in January 2016 who will investigate crop-raiding elephants in more detail, to determine whether the same individuals are involved in crop raiding or if transient groups are to blame.
During this year’s ploughing season (January 2015 – June 2015), 52% of fields were visited, either through attending crop-raiding incidences or visiting to record the characteristics of different fields. A total of 87 crop-raiding incidences were attended.
End-of-ploughing season questionnaires were completed to determine farmers’ estimates of damage resulting from elephants and also to get the value for their harvest. This provides the value farmers place their crops at and by taking their damage estimate, it is possible to determine how much they would expect to compensated. This can then be compared to the study’s estimates of damage based on analysis in the field and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) estimate of damage.
Elephant research inside MPNP has been ongoing, with elephant group size, sex, age, physical condition, GPS coordinates and time being recorded. Elephants were individually identified from photos if possible. A total of 43 research sessions have been completed, resulting in 210 individual or group sightings of male elephant.
So far, all but one of the crop-raiding incidences where the sex of the elephant could be determined involved male elephant. Group sizes of crop-raiding elephants ranged between one and five individuals, although the majority of the incidences involved groups of between one and three individuals. Both of these findings were also observed in 2014.
Utilising data from the study, Elephants for Africa (EfA) has initiative a community education project based on mitigating the effects of elephant crop raids through chilli-pepper strategies, building on the existing DWNP Human-Wildlife Coexistence project. Following a farmer meeting in Khumaga, ten proactive farmers have been selected to work closely with over the next year to assist them with conflict.
The next quarter will be spent continuing to collect data on male elephant demographics, particularly hind foot length measurements.