WKU professor gets funding to study human-elephant conflict (Kenya)


Jackson French, Bowling Green Daily News

Date Published

A Western Kentucky University professor is getting the funding necessary to begin what he expects to be a three-year study of human-elephant conflict in rural Kenya.

In many parts of Kenya, habitat loss, human encroachment into wild areas and the expansion of farming have given rise to a cycle of conflict in which elephants eat local crops and are sometimes killed as a form of retribution. It is a significant issue, according to Bruce Schulte, department head of biology, who is working on the project with several professionals from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology and Wildlife Works, a group dedicated to preserving forests and protecting wildlife.

Elephants are crucial to sub-Saharan Africa for the role they play in shaping the ecosystem, Schulte said.

“The elephants keep it functional, the whole ecosystem,” he said. “You really don’t want to take them out of the equation.”

During the dry season, elephants dig for water and create temporary pools that other animals use. They also spread certain tree species around because the seeds end up in their excrement, Schulte said.

“They modify the landscape physically,” he said. “They do a lot of things that affect other organisms through their actions.”

While the study focuses on rural Kenya, human-elephant conflict is an issue across numerous sub-Saharan countries, including Botswana, Zambia and Tanzania, Schulte said.

The project received $12,000 for funding for one year, Schulte said.

The project involves finding deterrence methods affordable to Kenyan farmers who often don’t have running water in their homes and collecting data on whose crops are being destroyed by elephants and to what extent, and the effects elephants have on local biodiversity.

The ultimate goal is to find ways to keep elephants away from farms without hurting them, he said.

Deborah Olson, executive director of the International Elephant Fund, said the group chose Schulte’s project because it researches methods of keeping elephants away from crops that haven’t been extensively tested in sub-Saharan Africa before.

“His project is one that we’re interested in because it’s testing a few human-elephant conflict mitigation devices,” she said.

The project is about providing safety and stability for farmers as well as protecting elephants, Olson said.

“From a human’s perspective, it would be like a tornado, but multiple times a year,” she said.

Schulte is an adviser to IEF, Olson said.

Lynn Von Hagen, a graduate student at WKU, is involved in the project as well and will take a semester off from school from May until December or January to participate in the study.

The project will involve testing numerous methods to stop elephants, including ghost pepper powder smeared on fences, a technique used successfully in some parts of Asia; strategic positioning of beehives and chain-link fences with large pieces of aluminum attached, which are supposed to crinkle loudly when the elephants try to get past them and scare the elephants away.

The African elephant is listed as vulnerable, a status between threatened and endangered, by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, though this is due more to the ivory trade than to human-elephant conflict, Von Hagen said.

“Not everyone loves elephants,” she said. “In some parts of Africa, they’re seen as pests.”