The reasons behind a Tanzania elephant killing

In May 2009, villagers armed with torches chased elephants off a cliff in West Kilimanjaro, Tanzania. Six elephants died, including a calf that was stabbed after falling.

People often assume that people kill elephants for ivory, but a report in Land Use Policy suggests that the Tanzania incident was driven by other factors. For one thing, poachers usually take the animals’ tusks right away. In this case, however, the study authors saw photos of people with the dead elephants — with tusks still intact — taken the next day.

To suss out the reasons behind the killings, the researchers visited the area several times from 2009-11 and interviewed 58 villagers. The team also spoke with villagers in focus group meetings, observed the elephants’ effect on their daily lives, and studied documents related to the incident.

Elephants had become a source of torment for these people, the researchers found. The elephants raided about 900 acres of crops in three villages during the year of the attack and damaged water pipes. Because of a drought, the animals had travelled closer to villages and farms to seek food and water. People were forced to stay up all night to keep the elephants away from their crops. And they said that the government had ignored their plight, providing no compensation for their losses.

In addition to the drought, conflicts may have escalated partly because conservation programs boosted the elephant population. Large parcels of land in the area have become protected since the 1970s, and more wildlife corridors may be added — leaving less land for farmers to scrape out a living.

Many villagers expressed anger that the government appeared to prioritize wildlife above people. “We became very furious and said let the government choose either people or elephants,” one person said during an interview. Another said, “We were scared in 2009 of being dislocated from our village to pave the way for wildlife. We do not get any sleep as we think anytime something might happen.” And a third argued, “[W]e don’t receive any benefit from wildlife… we suffer so much, and we get nothing.” To address the problem, the authors say, government agencies and NGOs need to give villagers a voice in conservation discussions — “in practice, and not only in rhetoric”. Roberta Kwok | 30 December 2014

Correction: A previous version of the headline incorrectly implied that the study’s findings apply to all elephant deaths in Tanzania, rather than one incident.

Source: Mariki, S.B., H. Svarstad, and T.A. Benjaminsen. 2014. Elephants over the cliff: Explaining wildlife killings in Tanzania. Land Use Policy doi: 10.1016/j.landusepol.2014.10.018.

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