More maize AND more elephants

Jenny Mubita walks 30 minutes to the trial plot to till the land before the sun gets too hot. It's hard work digging holes in the sandy soil, but last year she saw the bumper harvest that other farmers produced, and she is keen to repeat their success.

Although she doesn’t know it, Jenny is in the front line of the fight against climate change, and is assisting the WWF internationally to extend the habitat of elephants and other wildlife in the area known as the  KAZA TFCA  – the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area – the newest and largest of its kind in the world.

Jenny lives in the Caprivi strip, a thin finger of Namibia that extends into the centre of Africa, and is surrounded by the four other states connected by KAZA: Angola and Zambia to the north, Zimbabwe to the east and Botswana to the south. She has a lot in common with other farmers in the area. The soil is sandy, the rains erratic, and elephants regularly trample and eat the crops they grow.

Producing more maize and millet while keeping the elephants at bay is a major problem for farmers like Jenny, and no more so than in neighbouring Zambia, where the national park of Sioma Ngwezi is home to more than 3,000 elephants. The park also contains 35 villages. Creating multi-use land areas, to give the correct term to parks where people can continue to farm and use the area’s natural resources in a sustainable manner is a new idea, and very much at the heart of the thinking behind KAZA.

Conservation agriculture is a key concept. If farmers can grow more food on less land, it will create space – wildlife corridors – for elephants to move freely without having to trample the fields. And if the fields are smaller, they are easier to protect.

Jenny pulls a line of string taut along the length of her 10x20 metre plot. Using a measuring stick she marks spaces for holes and carefully digs them out, using another stick to measure the depth. When the work is done, she will bring some manure from her cattle kraal and drop a piece in each hole, and when the rains come, the precious seeds will be planted. Each completed hole lies exactly 2.5cm below the surface of the field, to attract and hold water. To lessen the impact of rain a mulch of stalks from last year's crop is laid on top.

Nobody knows for sure what climate change will bring. Namibia is likely to be much drier, but erratic weather may bring more frequent flooding. Making the most of the little land available will be increasingly important; and that's what conservation agriculture does.

Across the border in Zambia Boniface Luseso has two things to be happy about. His 50x50 metre conservation agriculture plot yielded a dozen 50 kilo bags in comparison to his traditional field, four times as large, which yielded only three. This year he has surplus maize to sell. He is also lucky to be employed by the WWF project assisting with wildlife conservation  around Sioma Ngwezi National Park.

The project is training villagers to monitor wildlife and assist the Zambian Wildlife Authority, ZAWA, in anti-poaching measures. Crucially, the newly trained village scouts work together with villagers in Namibian communal conservancies across the border, informing each other about suspicious movements and directly challenging poachers.

Caprivi and Sioma Ngwezi straddle the heart of KAZA, which has a mission to improve rural livelihoods through wildlife based tourism. If elephants and other wildlife continue to thrive in the area, new lodges and camp sites will create jobs and income. With conservation agriculture food will be more secure, and with transfrontier wildlife corridors established, linking the five countries in KAZA, the elephants will have the space they need to roam.

Steve Felton
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