A crime science approach to reduce human-elephant conflict in Murchison Falls National Park, Uganda
Once described by Winston Churchill as the ‘Pearl of Africa’, Murchison Falls National Park is home to some of the most diverse and beautiful wildlife species in Africa. After decades of war and poaching, wildlife populations are thriving as a result of the fantastic anti-poaching and conservation efforts of the Uganda Wildlife Authority and their partners. But now a new challenge is emerging, which is threatening to undermine conservation efforts; human-wildlife conflict. Elephants are decimating crops that people living around Murchison rely upon for their livelihoods. In other cases, elephants and people are losing their lives from road collisions and other accidents as elephants pass between the protected area and community land. Some communities are poaching elephants and other wildlife, with some of the deaths attributed to retribution killings.
Elephant conservation is critical to the success of Murchison’s recovery because they are important ‘ecosystem engineers’ and revenue earners through tourism. But it is also important that elephants do not become accustomed to crop raiding and human-elephant conflict is reduced. This requires novel solutions that benefit wildlife and local people.
A family group of elephants in Murchison Falls National Park.
Damage to a farmer’s maize plantation by elephants in early June 2019. Crops are often the only source of livelihood for local people living around the protected area, and elephants can destroy an entire plantation in a single night’s raid.
Introduction the North Murchison Elephant Project
The Center for Conservation, Criminology and Ecology (C3E) at Rutgers University, along with IEF its other partners, are taking a novel approach to address human-elephant conflict (HEC) and poaching in Murchison by drawing upon techniques in criminology. Crime science and situational crime prevention (SCP) uses modern scientific techniques to understand criminal activities and then tries to redesign the environment to reduce crime. Twenty-five techniques have been developed to make crime appear more difficult risky, less rewarding, excusable to offenders, as well as reducing factors that might provoke crime.
In fact, HEC and poaching is really not that much different to dealing with other types of crime problems. For example, like urban offenders, elephants seem to make ‘rational’ choices regarding when, where and what crops they target; they have been found to target the best crops and raid at night to avoid detection. And they can easily find creative solutions to getting around trenches and electrified fences. Like urban crime, crop raiding doesn’t happen randomly but in distinct ‘hotspots’. Targeting these hotspots with appropriate interventions will be more effective than just implementing where we think they should go.
We will apply these principles for understanding and preventing human-elephant conflict occurring in Northwest Murchison (see Box: 1:).
GPS tracking of elphant trails and snare removal in Murhison with a dedicated team of rangers from the Uganda Wildlife Authority.
There are four objectives of our project:
- Identify and describe the elephant ‘offenders’ in the area and their spatial-temporal movement patterns using ground observations, community surveys and GPS collaring techniques.
- Identify and describe the spatial-temporal movement patterns of the victims of crop raiding using surveys and interviews with local communities.
- Collect and describe habitat characteristics in which elephants and humans inhabit using land-cover maps derived from satellite imagery.
- Design HEC reduction measures using crime science techniques and the fieldwork data.
For Phase 1 of the project (2019 to 2020), we are conducting ground observations and surveys of elephants by car or on foot. These observations will be used to build ID photographic records for as many elephants as possible, and help us to assess who the elephant ‘offenders’ are. We are also working with local communities who provide are with regular information about elephants, and help us to collect GPS data on elephant habitats and trails.
For Phase 2 of the project (2020 to 2021), global positioning satellite (GPS) collars will be fitted to a small number of the male and female elephants. This will provide us with 24-hour coverage on their movement patterns within and between the protected areas, determining how they interact within their habitats and human-populated areas, and how these vary over space and time.
This research will contribute to formulation of effective landscape, management and enterprise development planning for Northwest Murchison.
Box: 1: A brief history of human-elephant conflict in Northwest Murchison.
The research will be conducted to the Northwest of Murchison Falls National Park in Northern Uganda. Up until the 1960’s, Murchison Falls Conservation Area was considered a world-class tourist destination. Unfortunately, thirty years of civil conflict and rampant poaching lead to a catastrophic decline of wildlife populations, reducing elephants from over 12,000 animals in the 1970’s to approximately 300 in 1991. Corridors used by elephants for their migrations between Murchison, South Sudan and Kidepo Valley National Park became fragmented and disappeared. In North Murchison, thousands of people were placed in internally displaced persons camps due to the activity of the Lord’s Resistance Army.
Since the cessation of hostilities in 2006, people are returning to the area seeking land and other economic opportunities. However, this land has since been taken over by wildlife, and elephants are damaging people’s crops. Consequently, some communities are poaching elephants and other wildlife, with some of the deaths attributed to retribution killings. These activities are very detrimental, undermining conservation and development efforts.
Therefore, successful management requires understanding their movements and land-use choices. If there are patterns, either temporal or spatial, this will determine the drivers leading elephants to leave the area to crop raid (e.g., do they leave when food is low, or when close water sources are dry). With this information, more effective management options could be divided (e.g., more guarding at particular times, provision of artificial water sources), which will improve the relationship between UWA and the local people, hopefully decreasing retribution killing and poaching in general.
Lamprey, R., Buhanga, E., & Omoding, J. (2003). A study of wildlife distributions, wildlife management systems, and options for wildlife-based livelihoods in Uganda. For International Food Policy Research Institute and USAID, Kampala, Uganda.
Andimile Martin grew up in Tanzania, surrounded by wilderness that he is devoting his life to protect. He began his efforts as a conservationist after graduating with a bachelor’s degree at the University of Dar es Salaam in 2005. Since then he has held various conservation positions with various institutions, including the Wami-Mbiki Wildlife Management Area Society, Savannas Forever Tanzania, Nature and Development Care, and the Bushmeat Free Eastern Africa Network.
After completion of a PhD in Ecology at the University of California Davis, Martin was awarded the International Elephant Foundation and Elephant Research Foundation M. Philip Kahl Postdoctoral Fellowship. Supported by this fellowship, he developed a project entitled “Understanding the behavior of African elephants as they move in landscapes with different protection status, habitat types and human influence in the Mahale – Katavi –Lwafi ecosystem of Tanzania”.
Through this project, Martin has become an elephant behavioral researcher and conducted foot transects to determine the geographical distribution of African elephants in the Mahale Katavi and Lwafi ecosystem, map the habitats and migratory routes used by African elephants in the Mahale Katavi and Lwafi ecosystem ecosystem and monitor African elephant groups to determine their activity budgets.
Gaius Wilson grew up in the Nilgiri (Blue Mountains) Hills of Southern India. Having been born and raised in the Niligiris, surrounded by tea plantations, grasslands and sholas (montane forests), it was only natural for him to develop a passion for nature and wildlife. The occasional visits made by leopards, sloth bears, wild boar, jackals, gaur and possibly tigers, around his house only deepened his interest in wild animals. Gaius received a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology at Madras Christian College, Chennai in India after which he helped set up an environmental education camp in Avalanche in the Nilgiris to teach awareness and conservation of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve to school and college students of the Nilgiris and elsewhere. In 2003, he enrolled for his Master’s degree in Wildlife Biology and conducted a 6-month project entitled “Studies on the status of elephant habitats and population estimation in selected forest ranges of Coimbatore Forest Division, Tamil Nadu, South India”, under the guidance of Dr. N. Sivaganesan. His project focused on a high human elephant conflict zone in Southern India and gave a deeper insight into the problems elephants and humans were facing. After successfully completing his Master’s degree (Outstanding), he worked on a camera trapping project in Bandipur Tiger Reserve during which time he met with Asian elephant expert Mr. Ajay A. Desai. Mr. Desai helped Gaius design his PhD proposal to study the impact of invasive weeds on elephants in Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Southern India. Gaius completed his PhD from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand in 2013.
In 2015, Gaius was awarded the M. Phil Kahl Post-Doctoral Fellowship from the Elephant Research Foundation and the International Elephant Foundation to study the home ranges of the Sumatran elephants in Aceh. His work is currently supported by Indonesian collaborators which include Syiah Kuala University in Banda Aceh and Aceh Climate Change Initiative. He is also supported by the Balai Konservasi Sumber Daya Alam (Nature Conservation Agency) and Pusat Kajian Satwar Liar (Wildlife Ambulance Program) of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. Over the last one year, Gaius and his collaborators in his project have successfully collared three elephants in Aceh. Their movements are being followed on a regular basis to study their home range patterns and habitat use, and test an early warning system to help mitigate the Human Elephant Conflict in Aceh. Over the last few years, Gaius has had the opportunity to travel to the world, including to the United States of America, Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Sri Lanka, South Africa, the United Kingdom, various countries in Europe, and Indonesia for his most recent work. Right now he feels that Indonesia is his home and is looking forward to setting up a long term elephant project.