"When the Director of Conservation asked me to go on "elephant duty" for the first time, I will admit I was scared. But this is an important role for us rangers and you must perform your mission. When we got to the village, it was nearly sunset. The people were all gathered under a tree. They told me an elephant had been seen near their fields the night before. One farmer was angry as the elephant had eaten some of his corn. They looked worried about the night that was coming. If an elephant or a group of elephants decided to visit your neighborhood you would be worried too! Elephants are huge. And while they are beautiful and majestic, they can also be a danger to people, their crops and their homes. It is a problem for people living in the "buffer-zone" and there is no simple solution. At Gorongosa, we make every attempt to make sure people and elephants live in peace and that neither one gets harmed. That's why I was sent here today.
I sat with the people and told them I was here to protect them. I explained that sometimes male elephants, especially young ones, leave the park and go "exploring". If they find a field full of maize (corn) or other vegetables, they will not resist the temptation. I told them the young males like to eat the corn so they can grow quickly and get the nice lady elephants! They all laughed, especially the young men because they understood what I meant! I told them not to be afraid and to stay inside and not to confront the elephant - if an elephant gets scared, he might get defensive. I told them to leave the problem to me and my fellow rangers. They all thanked me and went to their homes to eat their dinner and go to bed.
There was a full moon that night so there was a lot of light. I waited in the maize field that the elephant had been in the night before. There was nothing. No sound except the sound of the river and the insects chirping. It's an incredibly peaceful feeling when you are out in the bush. No lights from towns and cities, no noise of cars and bars. Just quiet. It was so quiet I almost fell asleep. I had a hard time staying awake! I stood up every few minutes and walked around. Then I heard the sound of something big splashing in the river. I knew it wasn't a hippo because hippos avoid the places where people live. It had to be an elephant coming across the Pungue River, leaving the park and returning to the "scene of the crime".
I got very afraid. Elephants are huge and wild - a bull elephant could toss me into the air like a rag doll. But, thanks to my training, I also knew it was probably going to be a young bull. And they are not as confident as old males or even females. I could hear the sound of heavy feet on the earth and the sound of the elephant sucking in air into his trunk. He could have been smelling me - elephants have amazing sense of smell. Dr Joyce Poole, the elephant scientist, told me their smell was better than a bloodhound! I could hear him rumbling, a low, deep rumble, like the purring of a giant cat. I gripped my gun tightly for comfort and waited to see what he would do.
Sure enough, he started to eat the maize again - I could hear him tearing the maize off the plants and crunching them. I knew I had to protect this man's crops or else he and his family would have a hard time finding enough to eat and the people might want to take revenge on the elephant. Even though I was terrified, I walked towards the sound and then I saw him: as big as a house, with the moon shining on his back. My heart was racing so fast. I could hear it thumping in my chest. I started speaking softly because I didn't want to scare him too much. A frightened elephant is a dangerous elephant. I just wanted him to know I was there and I wanted him to leave. I just said "Go now…go back across the river. You can't be here." Very quickly, he turned and walked as fast as he could to the river and I could hear the giant splash as he plopped in. I swallowed hard and counted my blessings. Yes, I had a gun and of course I could have used to to protect myself. But the gun should be used only to scare them away - you fire in the air and they get scared of the big noise. Luckily, this night, I didn't even have to do that. The people in the huts just kept sleeping!"
Human-wildlife conflict is not unique to Gorongosa. All across Africa, wherever they co-exist the needs of people and elephants have to be balanced. If elephants are to survive in Africa, this issue must be solved wherever it occurs.
Our brave rangers play a critical role in protecting the lives of people and elephants in the buffer-zone communities around Gorongosa. But we are looking at new ways of making sure our rangers don't have to put themselves in harm's way. Dr Joyce Poole and her team will be working to identify the flash points where human-elephant conflict occurs around Gorongosa and provide villagers with the knowledge and tools they need to avoid conflict with elephants. We will be experimenting with new techniques to keep elephants away from crop-fields such as beehive huts and even using deterrents made from chili peppers - elephants hate bees and chilis!! This is an important issue and we intend we do our best to help solve it and share our knowledge with other people around Africa trying to solve this problem.