Coexistence Series Part 2: Interviews with ZSL conservationists Becky Shu Chen and Fridah Mutili on human wildlife coexistence in elephant landscapes

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Fridah Mutili, ZSL Kenya's Community Technical Manager


Could you please start by introducing yourself and telling us a bit about the project you are working on?

My name is Fridah Mutili, I work for ZSL Kenya and we work in the Tsavo Conservation Area, which is one of the key biodiversity areas in Kenya. I joined ZSL 5 months ago as the Community Technical Manager and we work to help communities to mitigate against human-wildlife conflict and climate change by building their resilience. We support them to set up VSLAs and also to establish alternative livelihoods so that they are able to cope with the cost of living alongside wildlife.

Are there any Human-Wildlife Conflicts in your conservation landscapes? Could you please tell us more about it? Is HWC new to in this region and if so, why do you think so? 

There are severe conflicts in this region with several species including elephants, lions, leopards, baboons and other small cats, like civet cats, and other smaller mammals. The most severe cases are human-elephant conflict, the community consider them a big threat because they pose a challenge to their life, to their property and to their crops, making it a big issue with the community and the severity of the conflict is bad – the communities neighbouring TENP experience severe HEC with herds of between 7 and 15 elephants being driven out daily. Although the community are used to it, they are still extremely fearful and no longer call because we cannot keep up with driving the number of elephants off from their land.
This problem has existed for over three decades, but it has been exacerbated by the growing human population and land-use change. These are becoming key drivers in this conflict, and now with climate change and longer drought periods, you find the elephants moving out from the park in search of water in the community space. In the past five years, the conflict has been growing day by day. 

What mitigation measures have been taken by your team so far to promote coexistence?

To mitigate this threat, we are working very closely with our partners. The Kenya Wildlife Service set up new outposts to help rapid response for human-elephant conflicts, and we support the outpost patrol teams to drive off elephants. Most importantly, we are empowering communities to be able to safeguard themselves by implementing farm-based approaches. We have explored chilli fences, and our partner Tsavo Trust has explored beehive fences, although efficacy of this has been relatively low because of low colonisation of bees as a result of the heat and lack of water. There is also a proposed electric fence, an elephant exclusion fence, that partners are trying to fundraise for to protect the community from elephant incursions but still allowing other small mammals to pass through.

What does “co-existence” longer term mean to your team? Is your team hopeful you can reach co-existence?  

Co-existence is for the community to be able to allow these animals to graze and access water points in the community land. With concerted efforts we feel that it is possible to help the community to live alongside wildlife and coexist. One thing we have piloted in our project which has had very positive results is facilitation of bus trips into the National Park for the community members, allowing them to be exposed to wildlife inside the park and to see them in their natural habitat and appreciate that wildlife can be peaceful and so to find ways to coexist with them. We know coexistence is a way off, especially when it comes to elephants because they can be so aggressive. But communities have found ways to coexist with other animals, and so we are continually working towards this goal for elephants too.

What people can do to support “coexistence” in the long term? 

I believe more and more people should visit the National Park, especially the local residents. When we carried out our community bus trips into the Park, we found that people who were living less than 5km from the Park boundary had ever had the opportunity to visit Tsavo West as a tourist would and enjoy wildlife in this way. With more people travelling to the Park, this would help boost revenue for our partner KWS (Kenya Wildlife Service) who would then be able to continue and have more resource to provide rapid response to HEC incidences. Finally, I would encourage everyone to plant at least one tree to fight climate change and help our animals and improve forest cover.

Becky Shu Chen, ZSL Conservationist

Could you please start by introducing yourself and telling us a bit about the project you are working on?

My name is Becky, I have been at ZSL since 2012 and in the past 9 years I have been leading on the conservation programmes in China. These have focussed on endangered species conservation and environmental education. I am originally from a province called Yunnan, which is located in the southwest of China and is on the border with Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. My province is home to China’s last 300 elephants. Elephants are eating machines – they can eat around 200kg in a day and they need big living spaces. 

Are there any Human-Wildlife Conflicts in your conservation landscapes? Could you please tell us more about it? 

Since the 1990s, following the growing number of Asian elephants and increasing encroachments of human beings into elephant habitats, elephants began roaming out of the reserve and into areas with crops and occasionally they break into peoples houses. If human and elephant meet, unexpectedly, on narrow paths, they may injure or kill the person. 

What mitigation measures have been taken by your team so far to promote coexistence?

Elephants are a Class I protected species in China, which means that there is a strong political will to support conservation. In China, there are different stakeholders already working on elephants; for example, there are multiple research teams, insurance companies, tourism agencies, forestry departments and local communities. These stakeholders have their own agendas and different priorities. My role is trying to coordinate people together to make sure everyone is included and understands the whole picture so that we can identify the gaps and use existing resources in the most effective way. 
We have organised several workshops, with neighbouring countries as these are international elephants – they have in the past travelled into Laos. Conservation of this population needs support from other governments as well. There is evidence that this population needs more effective conservation planning, and I am helping to author reports and share knowledge with the IUCN Asian Elephant specialist group. We recently published a guideline with Transport Working Group that use cases studies to demonstrate ways to mitigate negative impacts of linear infrastructures on elephants.  To engage public who has little knowledge about human-elephant conflict, I founded a Ted-style conservation salon “We Care” in the capital city of Yunnan that brought in conservation practitioners to share their inspiring conservation stories to people from different sectors of the society. “We Care” has an estimated 2.5 media coverage so far.

What does “co-existence” longer term mean to your team? 

Human-Elephant Coexistence is a challenging issue. A herd of 15 elephants of China just made the global headlines two months ago. They trekked 300 miles and reached the capital city of Yunnan where 8.5 people live. “Coexistence” has drawn global attention. These elephants are like whistlers for us to look into human-wildlife relations. The future expansions of elephant ranges into urban landscapes could happen more. How to secure the safety of both people and elephants is the key to the coexistence.

Is your team hopeful you can reach co-existence?  

Yes. Conservation technology for example will help us monitor both elephant and human activities. China, for example, has used drones to trace the “wandering elephants” so that they can evacuate people out of the way to avoid any interface with the elephants. Also, I believe that people are creative. I hope that more innovative ideas and resources from other sectors of the society can be directed to help the communities to live along with the elephants.

What people can do to support “coexistence” in the long term?

Everyone can be part of the conservation journey. There are three simple ways: First, never buy ivory and other illegal wildlife product; Second, choose certified or wildlife friendly forestry products that can generate incomes for the local communities; Finally, disseminate conservation messages. The more people are aware of the stories about human-elephant conflict, the more creative ideas can be generated to address this complex issue.  By the way, August 12th is the World Elephant Day. In Chinese, we say “大象日快乐”.

Addressing human wildlife conflict - the great elephant move of 2021

Mitigating Human Wildlife Conflict


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