Steve Felton recently visited Tanzania where he joined village game scouts for a day. This is his report.
The body of a Maasai man is lying face down in the grass, feet protruding from his robe, eerily still. In busy contrast, a group of agitated herders are showing two village game scouts where the elephant had killed the man.
The story that emerges is that Malikwa Munyoki, a 36 year old Maasai herder with 6 children, had been going home around seven in the evening with friends. They had been enjoying a drink in Mkata village near Mikumi National Park in central Tanzania. It was almost dark when they came upon the elephant browsing in the trees. What made the elephant charge, nobody knows. The men fled, but Munyoki stumbled and was pieced by the elephant’s tusks. His friends thought he had escaped. Daylight brought the sad truth.
Village game scouts Gabriel Matei and Atamas Kalisiti were quickly on the scene. The truth is, says Matei, that there are more elephants outside of Mikumi National Park than within it, and there is no fence around the park.
Human wildlife conflict is hard to prevent, he says. The scouts can warn villagers using their own resources, such as cell phones, if they see elephants coming. “Just two hundred of them passed nearby today looking for fallen amarula fruit,” he said, “they also shake them out of trees. They can get a bit drunk on the fermented fruit.”
Tanzania has a far sighted policy of establishing Wildlife Management Areas adjacent to national parks, to give increased space to wildlife, and where villagers can benefit from wildlife through tourism operations. Despite its proximity to Mikumi National Park, Mkata village is not in a Wildlife Management Area, but the village does have a strong relationship with the park and TANAPA, the Tanzanian National Parks Authority.
Over a decade ago the local district council sent an agricultural adviser to Mkata to talk about agriculture, conservation, and living together with wildlife, and the village decided to set up a village scout game system. Scouts are appointed by the village chairman. They patrol on foot outside the park, and assist park rangers in vehicles inside Mikumi.
Both Matei and Kalisiti have been scouts for 10 years. “It’s in our blood,” they say. But of the original ten village scouts, they are the only two remaining. The others left because the allowance they were paid was too low.
Despite being only two, they are effective. There used to be a lot of poaching in the past, says Kalisiti, spreading his arms wide to indicate elephant tusks. When asked why the poaching was reduced he says: “Because of us.” He pulls out his cell phone to show a picture of an elephant carcass. If they find one they follow the poacher’s tracks. These usually lead to a village where footprints tend to get lost. Then they use “intel”, he says – information from villagers. But deterrence is better than catching poachers, and that’s why more scouts are needed.
WWF Tanzania means to make a difference in Mkata. It works closely with TANAPA, which has given village scouts a six week course at Songea University. WWF has promised to fund a further six week course, as well as uniforms, boots and tents. WWF is also collaring elephants in Tanzania to learn more about their movement patterns and, in some cases, provide early warning that could prevent human wildlife conflict.
Starting this month, July, a human-elephant conflict mitigation project is to be implemented by TAWIRI, the Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute, using drones to spot elephants and chilli peppers to keep them clear of crops.
That would help a lot in Mkata where the elephants are “like chickens in the village,” according to Matei. Compensation for damage to crops would also be beneficial. The Conservation Act of 2009 allows for compensation for crop damage, but villagers complain that payments can take over a year to process.
However, there are some benefits. The park contributes substantially to village infrastructure such as boreholes, and it paid for a solar installation to power the clinic. If the villagers would benefit from tourism, that would be a big help, say both scouts. But most of the people employed in the nearby lodges and as rangers in the parks are not locals, they say. Most come from the Arusha area.
Early warning will help. More boots on the ground – more village scouts, will also make a big difference, but income from wildlife in the form of employment in the parks and in tourism would make the biggest impact on villagers’ lives, according to Kalisiti: “We don’t have a problem with wildlife – it has a problem with us. If there was a system for people to benefit from wildlife, people would be happier.”