All too often research projects gather dust on shelves once completed but in Uganda the findings of one such project has now produced very practical action. Uganda Conservation Foundation (UCF) has taken the earlier Elephants, Crops and People (ECP) research programme into elephant, human interaction and turned it into a practical project in conjunction with Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) and on the initiative of the local communities. The communities hand dug a 2m x 2m trench, with fencing in the valleys, along a 20km stretch of ridge which it is hoped will keep elephants and other non-jumping animals from raiding community crops and destroy.
On the eastern border of the Ishasha Sector of Queen Elizabeth Protected Area (QEPA) there is a hard edge of subsistence farming communities. Competition for land and resources is growing as community densities increase. The sector hosts the largest elephant population in Uganda and this is growing due to increased and successful security by UWA. The elephants are moving back into and using some areas more, which in itself could cause an immediate increase in crop raiding, and collapse of community relations followed by a subsequent vastly increasing rate at which elephants and other wildlife are killed in retaliation and also, by pure resurgence of poaching pressure. Reducing these incidents can make the difference between survival and poverty. In situ wildlife, especially elephants, will only have a hope of survival to the benefit of the worlds future generations if the people have an economic benefit from its existence; aesthetic values are simply not enough.
There are potential benefits to both the communities and wildlife conservation in this project. The anticipated benefits and outputs include a reduction in elephant, buffalo and other mammal crop raiding, a reduction in illegal cattle grazing, a reduction in elephant and human deaths associated to crop raiding, improved park – community relations, testing / trial of pilot techniques to reduce crop raiding in valleys where a trench can not be dug and not least communities will be able to harvest crops for the first time in many years.
Wildlife has been monitored freely moving across the project area crossing out of the Park into community lands and crop raiding. UWA report that this has led to the poisoning of lions in some areas neighbouring the Park and a lion was killed in Kihihi Sub-County. Kobs were constantly being hunted down as they crossed over to the community villages.
An encouraging aspect of this project has been the enthusiasm of the local communities which was demonstrated by their digging the first sections of the trench on a voluntary basis one day per week. Subsequently the revenue sharing scheme and now the additional funding sourced by UCF has given the additional benefit of providing temporary paid employment for these subsistence farmers, a welcome additional income. All excavations are carried out by hand and the UCF funding includes provision for appropriate local tools for this work.
Not surprisingly the communities are anxious to progress the works and this enthusiasm has to be reined in at times. For example in one wetland area the labourers continued excavations despite the trench filling with water at a depth of only 1 metre. It had never been the intention to use the trench in the wetland areas where alternative strategies will be required and the communities have now realized the rationale behind this advice.
In supporting this project UCF is very mindful of environmental considerations and impacts and is taking advice on the most appropriate mitigation in the valley and wetland areas. Specific issues will include the best constructions for the valley barriers, appropriate drainage provision to allow free flow of natural water courses, measures for prevention of blocked drainage and for alleviating sediment collection. Further funding will need to be sourced for these more complex areas.
The trench is not a permanent solution to wildlife crop raiding and must be used in conjunction with other measures, and be maintained; to be effective but it has already received the appreciation of the community farmers. On a recent visit a member of the UCF team was thanked profusely for the assistance being given and told that positive results were being seen already with a reduction in incidences of crop raiding in areas where excavations have been carried out. Completion of the whole project will take time but provided the additional funding is sourced UCF hopes that this work will make a real difference to the lives and livelihoods of these subsistence farmers. In addition the work of Uganda Wildlife Authority in protecting and conserving the wildlife should be greatly enhanced.
This project is a vital component to the future of the already highly threatened elephant populations of the region.