Planet Earth

Elephants Gone Wild

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorApr 26, 2009 12:38 PM

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Half of Zimbabwe's 12 million people already rely on emergency food aid. Now, according to this UN dispatch,

food shortages are being compounded by elephants eating and trampling the villagers' crops.

The scenes sound like something out of a Hitchcock movie, with villagers also guarding their agricultural fields from marauding baboons, wild pigs, and flocks of quelea birds. Oddly, many of the animals are coming from Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe's biggest animal sanctuary. There, the elephant population exceeds 100,000. One villager tells the U.N. that

"We light fires to drive away the elephants. In most fields we light unattended fires 50 metres apart to scare the elephants away, but you find that the fields are quite large and policing every inch becomes a problem - at times the elephants are aggressive and they attack the villagers, who are forced to flee."

What's weird about this story is that we're accustomed to hearing about humans preying mercilessly on Africa's vulnerable wildlife. And elephants were once among the biggest victims. But it seems that anti-poaching efforts have enabled elephants to rebound nicely in some African countries, perhaps beyond sustainable numbers, as Ted Kerasote ruminated here a few years back.

However, the bigger picture is more complex, with some researchers recently asserting that the illegal ivory trade is still so robust that large groups of elephants in Africa will be extinct by 2020.

If the severity of this particular situation in Zimbabwe true, then I suspect it's only a matter of time before the elephants there experience the full wrath of villagers.

Wildlife conservation in Africa has long been a complicated affair. It's even dicier in countries such as Sudan and Rwanda, which have been torn apart by war, sectarian violence, and environmental degradation.

So as unfortunate as the elephant rampage in Zimbabwe sounds, it hardly seems representative of the vexing wildlife conservation issues felt elsewhere in Africa.

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