In the northwest corner of Botswana, part of the largest population of elephants in the world competes with people for access to water, food, and land.
The Ecoexist Team predominantly works in the Okavango Delta Panhandle, beyond the borders of protected areas, where the population of elephants equals that of people.
Shaped like the handle of a frying pan, the Panhandle is the place where the Okavango River enters Botswana, running along a narrow channel for about 100km, before dispersing across the alluvial fan of the Okavango Delta. Here, people and elephants share a landscape made up of the panhandle’s permanent swamp and approximately 25,000 square kilometers of extensive mixed woodland habitat to the east and west of the Panhandle.
At certain times of the year, elephants in the region move to the waters and resources of the Okavango Delta. Along the way, they pass near villages and settlements, using distinct pathways remembered and followed by elephants for generations.
The elephants’ movements increase at the end of the wet season, which coincides with the annual harvest of crops. During this time, for several months each year, people and elephants frequently cross paths, doing their best to stay out of each other’s way. Yet competition does exist for certain resources, especially around key water access points and in food-rich, fertile riverine woodlands. Here, encounters are frequent and negative interactions can happen.
Elephants also enter fields to feed on and trample crops. While some male elephants will seek out high risk rewards in this way, the situation is made worse by incidental crop damage caused by fields being cleared on or close to elephant movement corridors. Unknowingly, farmers are encroaching on these critical movement corridors and find themselves in extreme conflict situations.
Sometimes the encounters result in injury and death, for elephants and people. On average, 1 person is killed by elephants here every year and around 25 elephants are killed by people in self-defence or to control “problem animals” entering their fields and eating their crops.
For all these reasons, the Okavango Panhandle is a hotspot for human-elephant conflict. It’s a place where the mere act of planting a field every year is a gamble for farmers. It’s a place where many elephants roam beyond the boundaries of protected areas, yet are squeezed into smaller and smaller habitats as agricultural lands expand and human settlements grow.