Our mission is to support the lives and livelihoods of people who share space with elephants while considering the needs of elephants and their habitats.
The Ecoexist Project seeks to reduce conflict and foster coexistence between elephants and people. In areas of heightened competition for access to water, food, and space, we find and facilitate solutions that work for both species.
We connect science with practice. We gather social, ecological, and economic data to analyze the causes and consequences of human-elephant conflicts. With that analysis, and in collaboration with partners, we find strategies for coexistence.
In the short term, we empower farmers with practical, affordable, and effective tools to deter crop-raiding and reduce conflicts with elephants. In the long-term, we collaborate with local, national and international groups to create an enabling environment for a range of policies and programs that tackle the root causes of conflict.
Our approach is holistic. Our solutions come from many perspectives and ideas, and they work in tandem with each other.
We track elephants to understand their population size and changes over time, their seasonal movements, pathways, preferred habitats, sources of food and water, and their interactions with other elephants and people.
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“The seasonally water-filled pans to the north of the villages are a kind of “Elephant Paradise.” Ecoexist Field and Program Director, Dr. Anna Songhurst
Botswana’s eastern Okavango Panhandle is an important region for elephants. According to estimates based on census counts in recent years, the elephant population in the region is increasing at 9% per year. That is a surprisingly high number given normal rates of elephant births and deaths. The rate implies elephants of the eastern Panhandle may be crossing buffalo and border fences in from other areas to escape regions of higher disturbance, or they drawn to the Panhandle by certain habitats and vegetation types that are appealing.
Policy makers and conservationists are in discussion about possibly realigning at least one of the fences with hopes of widening a migratory corridor for wildlife. Adjusting a fence may provide more space for elephants to move in and out of the region, but it may also further intensify competition and human-elephant conflicts in areas that remain fenced. We still have a lot to understand about elephant movements in the Panhandle and surrounding regions before we can accurately predict the effects of such policies.
To be able to model and predict future elephant movements, we are conducting more research, and building on the the work Dr. Songhurst initiated. During her PhD research, she conducted bi-monthly ground surveys in the Panhandle, recording elephant footprints and estimating the numbers and behaviors of elephants. By digitizing and mapping the data, she was able to reveal 106 main pathways in the Panhandle, some used more than others.
From that analysis, we learned elephants are showing avoidance behavior. That this, they tend to steer clear of humans as much as possible. Though some elephants, mostly bulls, do seek out fields to raid, most elephants are opportunistic, raiding fields only if they happen to pass through or very close to them while otherwise on a path leading to water or other important habitats.
Given elephants seem to prefer areas away from people, this gives us an opportunity to work with communities and government land boards responsible for allocating new agricultural fields in careful planning. To inform appropriate land use planning, we need greater understanding of land and resource needs and uses, both current and projected, for people and elephants. It requires greater understanding of the elephants specifically—their numbers, movements, behaviors, seasonal habitats, and preferred resources. For these reasons, we have collared 20 elephants in the eastern Panhandle, 10 bulls and 10 females, and are tracking them every day for the next 4-6 years. We collared an additional eight elephant bulls in the western Okavango Panhandle.
Read about `Planning for Shared Space`
We gather social, biological, and ecological information about people and elephants in the region to develop a big-picture understanding of competition and to help build opportunities for zoning land use and reducing conflicts.
"Thinking 50-100 years from now, we would like to have good ways to control elephants. We will know where to put structures and gardens, and we can use chillis for protection. The fields will have no danger and we will have measures to manage conflicts. Even if they have their own space, we will know where the elephants go. It won't be 100%, but we will know the way forward."Resident in village of Eretsha
People and elephants in the Panhandle have managed to share space for many years. With time, they have learned to adjust their habits to stay out of each other’s way. They’ve learned where and where not to go, when and when not to move, how and how not to behave. For these reasons, the Panhandle is a good place to show human-elephant coexistence is possible. Yet the situation is far from ideal. People and elephants are living with fear, stress, and danger, and before things get worse, we need to alleviate the root causes of conflict.
Competition between elephants and people is often intensified when land uses are overlapping and poorly planned. National policies can impede elephant movements while unwittingly putting farmers and their fields in the middle of elephant pathways. For example, to expand production, there are incentives for farmers to clear and plough larger areas of land. Yet, farmers and land boards responsible for allocating fields lack accurate, on-the-ground information about where and when elephants move through the villages and surrounding fields.
To support more careful land use planning, we are gathering social, biological, and ecological information about resource use among people and elephants. We are tracking the patterns of elephant movements and habitat use, along with human resource uses to gain a big-picture understanding of human-elephant competition in the Panhandle.
Modeling and mapping elephant movements and habitats and human settlements and farming will help us predict potential flashpoints of conflict while also highlighting opportunities for land use planning. To this end, we are working with local partners, including the Tawana Land Board, the Seronga Sub-Land Board, and the Southern African Regional Environment Program (SAREP), to implement a land use conflict information system, or LUCIS.
The LUCIS system is a tool for local land boards to allocate land more effectively. It helps ensure agricultural lands are zoned and allocated in fertile soils away from the main elephant pathways. Mitigation efforts to protect fields can then be placed strategically to keep such agricultural areas safer from elephants. The zoning will help keep elephant pathways clear of human settlements and fields, allowing them free movement to access water and resources from the Delta.
Read about `Learning Together to Protect Fields`
We facilitate cooperation among farmers and villages to work and learn together how best to deter elephants from crop-raiding.
"I tried the chili, dried it, pounded it, and laid it near the field. The elephants changed their path when they smelled it!"Disho Mongomba, Farmer in village of Gunotsoga
Often the people who live closest to elephants have the least amount of sway in policy and legislative decisions. We are working to amplify the voices and concerns of rural residents in the Panhandle so policy makers and the wider public can hear them. Farmers need to be able to share their ideas, drawing on their own experiences of living with elephants.
We also support farmers and communities to learn together how best to deter elephants from entering fields and crop-raiding and how to be safe around elephants. Though farmers throughout the Panhandle face the day-to-day struggle of protecting their fields from elephant crop-raiding, they often work in isolation of each other.
The government has an active Problem Animal Control unit in the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) and compensates farmers when elephants damage and raid fields. The DWNP also has a human-wildlife coexistence project to help farmers mitigate and prevent human-wildlife conflicts. Yet many farmers still do not feel empowered to manage the conflicts they are experiencing with elephants. We are working with DWNP and farmers to address this and empower people with the knowledge, tools, and resources to work together in managing conflict.
This approach--Community Based Conflict Mitigation--entails shared responsibility, improved communication between the government and local communities (to reduce human-human conflicts!), and a set of effective, affordable, and adaptive tools and techniques to prevent elephant crop raiding.
One tool we emphasize is the chili pepper deterrents. Elephants have sensitive noses and detest the chemical in chillies that makes them hot— capsicum oleoresin. But this means chillies can be very effective for deterring elephants. When chillies are dried and crushed, then mixed with elephant dung, farmers can use them to make “chili bombs.” The smoke from the chili bombs helps keep elephants out of farmers’ fields. Chillies are generally not grown locally, so we have helped Village Development Committees (VDCs) establish communal chili plots in each village. So far three such plots have been established. These are meant to create a sustainable, local supply of chili for people to use in deterring elephants from crop-raiding.
Read about `Harvesting Early and Boosting Yields`
We lead collaborative research to help farmers develop more productive, sustainable farming techniques, and more resilient cropping strategies.
"Some farming systems should disappear, some should remain for the coming generation, and some can help control elephants."Mosupi Simba, Farmer in village of Gunotsoga
It is a challenge for people to grow crops in Kalahari soils and as a result yields are often low. With the extra risk of elephants raiding crops, farmers are vulnerable and often don’t have enough food to feed their family.
We are working with farmers to improve yields and find ways for fields to withstand the damages of elephant crop raiding. The work includes experimenting with different cropping strategies and farming techniques and exploring ways farmers could harvest earlier in the crop season before the elephants begin their migrations to the Delta waters and identifying crops that may be more elephant resilient. Through farming techniques such as “conservation agriculture” we are finding farmers can produce higher yields on smaller plots. Smaller fields, in turn, are easier for farmers to patrol and protect from elephants. Also, higher yields mean if and when elephants do raid, farmers are less likely to have lost all. Our overall goal is to help farmers by improving their food security and making their crops more resilient to crop raiding events when they do occur.
As with all of our work, we are collaborating closely with local researchers in Botswana and other parts of Africa. We have input and guidance from the Ministry of Agriculture’s Department of Agricultural Research, the Botswana College of Agriculture, and others. The Department of Wildlife and National Parks and the Land Board are involved too. Their participation is essential for experimenting with new farming practices that go hand in hand with the use of chili peppers and other tools for deterring elephants from fields. This kind of communication across government sectors—wildlife, agriculture, land use planning, and tourism—and with local communities and researchers is essential for building a long-term, effective strategy and future of coexistence between people and elephants.
Read about `Building an Elephant Economy`
We facilitate private sector support for elephant-friendly, elephant-themed commerce in the Panhandle. Through tourism and microenterprise development, we are creating ways for elephants to signify benefits for people, not just danger and loss.
"I'm a guide, a poler. So, I do see benefits. If we have guests, I'm happy to see elephants."Resident of the village of Gunotsoga
Botswana is renowned for its spectacular wildlife and world class safari camps. Tourists from all over the world travel to the Okavango Delta for a chance to see big numbers of the “big five.” Elephants are maybe the most iconic.
Several of the top safari camps are located just beyond the villages of the eastern Panhandle, in lands known as Wildlife Management Areas. Because these areas are tribal lands, safari companies pay rent on leases and share a portion of the revenues earned from tourism. Meanwhile, many people in the Panhandle find employment in the tourism industry, working in camps as guides, housekeepers, and cooks.
However, to date, villagers in the Panhandle have had little involvement in co-managing or owning tourism operations. Though many people have talents and skills, few have been able to connect their arts with audiences or markets. As a result, their returns from the safari and tourism industries have been relatively small. Also, few tourists venture beyond the Delta camps to visit the Panhandle, and locals have had few opportunities to tap into the tourism economy. As a result people in the Panhandle tend to experience more costs than benefits from elephants.
One of our goals is to turn this equation around. We’d like to see people benefitting more from living so close to so many elephants. By reaching out to private sector investors and companies, we are helping create an “elephant economy” in the eastern Panhandle. This entails facilitating communication and collaboration between residents—so many of them artisans and artists with talents in music, dance, storytelling, and crafts—and private companies to develop and market micro-enterprises for elephant-themed, elephant friendly products and handicrafts, along with small-scale community-based tourism experiences for visitors. A Panhandle Cultural Fair will showcase local cultural arts and products primarily with elephant themes, identifying talents and helping market the Panhandle as an elephant-based destination.
We envision a place where elephants benefit people more than imperil them. A place where people benefit elephants more than imperil them. That place is the eastern Panhandle.
Everything we do at Ecoexist is about finding ways for people and elephants to share space. We think about conflict and coexistence from many different angles. We focus on long-range planning and short-term mitigation. We think about the needs of farmers in their nearby fields and we think about the needs of elephants across vast spaces and habitats. We strive to understand the human side - how people are living, what their aspirations and concerns are, what they need now and what they dream of for their children. And we strive to understand the elephants too - where, when, and how they are moving, what their patterns and behaviors are, and how their population is changing. We listen to people and, as best we can, we listen to elephants.
See updates on our work on our blogs in Reporting Back