Finding Ways to Keep People and Elephants at Peace (Uganda)


Michael Schwartz, National Geographic

Date Published


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A gazetted national park doesn’t always stop wildlife from crossing into human territory. This is especially true of African elephant herds that follow historic migration routes.

In Uganda, elephants will occasionally leave the security of protected areas, even migrating across national boundaries. The frequent result: human-elephant conflict.

Unable to protect themselves from wildlife as well as people living in the developed world, rural communities have less tolerance for animals that unwittingly damage local livelihoods. When elephants raid villagers’ crops, they and people can suffer severe injury or death.

Kidepo elephant near the border of South Sudan. Photograph by Michael Schwartz.

In the face of this, the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) is deploying nonlethal elephant deterrents, employing local wildlife guards, and working to maintain safe migratory corridors in the hopes of reducing conflicts.

Kidepo Valley National Park—located in the remote Karamoja region of northern Uganda and adjacent to South Sudan’s greater Kidepo Game Reserve—is one of Africa’s most unspoiled wilderness areas.

Each year, a number of the park’s elephants migrate from the Narus and Kidepo valleys through the Lutokei Mountains and into the Kidepo reserve.

Kidepo Valley National Park near the border of South Sudan. Photograph by Michael Schwartz.

“Naturally when animals cross an international border, they no longer belong to your country,” said Cpl. Samuel Loware, of UWA. “But what we have done as the managers of Kidepo is a program called Transboundary.”

Assisted by the South Sudanese government, Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) soldiers now double as wildlife rangers. Additionally, the Ugandan Peoples Defense Forces have built barracks at the border near Kidepo’s Sand River, where their soldiers work in tandem with the SPLA and UWA.

Collectively, they rely on tracking data to locate elephant families and pinpoint areas where they can conduct conflict mitigation efforts.

Methods designed to keep elephants from wandering off their intended migration course and into neighboring communal areas by irritating but not provoking them include lacing picket fences around crops with chili, firing rifle rounds into the air, or blowing vuvuzela horns.

Such techniques have proved fairly effective. But since no trenches or fences exist around Kidepo’s borders, such as in key areas of Murchison Falls National Park, elephants still wander off track to eat crops—typically during early morning, when it’s more difficult to monitor their movements.

“The elephants come around midnight to eat the crops, and then they leave around 5 a.m.,” said Gertrude Adee, a Karamojong and community advocate. For villagers, “a mother with her calf is especially dangerous.”

Elephant bull in Kidepo Valley National Park. Photograph by Michael Schwartz.

Guardians Against Problem Animals

The agro-pastoral Nilotic Karamojong tribes in Karamoja rely heavily on crops of maize, cassava, and sorghum, as well as on their cattle and goats.

As it stands, UWA, the United States Agency for International Development’s Kidepo Critical Landscape Project, and the Karenga Community Wildlife Management Area are working together to help the Karamojong protect their harvests.

“At the moment we have a department called Community Conservation,” Loware explained. “These are members of the community trained by UWA to handle problem animals, specifically the elephants.”

At the village of Lorukul, several Karamojong were hired by UWA to guard community crops. In the event that elephants attempt to cash in on a free meal, guards will beat jerricans with sticks, while others blow loud whistles (locally known as trumpets) to ward them off.

Karamojong villagers from Lorukul pose with tools used to ward off problem elephants. Photograph by Michael Schwartz.

Not long ago, Karamoja was roiled by violent cattle rustling between Karamojong tribes, but with the return of regional stability, people are peaceably resettling the Kidepo Valley area.

To help prevent encroachment on Kidepo Valley National Park, 20 percent of visitor entry fees is shared with communities living in bordering parishes, spreading the benefits of tourism and generating local support for conservation. (Kidepo has been earmarked as one of the top parks in Africa, but it lacks infrastructure, which limits tourism and helps keep the park ecologically pristine.)

The good news is that in spite of the risks from Kidepo’s elephants, the Karamojong are now coexisting in a relative state of balance with the animals.

“Before there was a lot of poaching,” Adee said, referring to Karamojong retaliation against elephants over crop raiding. “But now because of sensitization, and the continuous arresting of poachers, they have respect for the animals.”

Karamojong villagers from Lorukul performing a cultural dance. Photograph by Michael Schwartz.

Lorukul residents are hoping that UWA will put up a fence around the park to eliminate any further conflict, but state finances for such a monumental task are limited.

Adee said she hopes “international communities will help create a fence, which will stop [elephants] from leaving the park.”

Until that happens, UWA’s strategies appear to be working—at least for the time being.