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On average, 800-1000 elephants die every year around the world due to intense human-elephant conflict. To this must be added the numbers of alternate species that are killed due to their conflict with human settlement. Many hippo, buffalo and antelope are killed due to their ravaging of crops and gardens.
Elephants kill and injure people across the African continent. Most of those killed are men, and many of these incidents occur during the night. In one study in Kenya alcohol was found to be a key factor in one third of the deaths; victims were drunk and returning home from the bar. Others died protecting their crops, herding cattle and walking at night between neighbouring villages. Human death, although less common than crop damage, is the most severe manifestation of conflict and is universally regarded as intolerable.
Crop damage is perhaps the most prevalent form of conflict across the African continent. When animals damage food and cash crops, they affect a rural farmer’s livelihoods. Elephants in large groups can destroy large areas of crops in a single night. While animals target staple food crops such as maize, they also damage cash crops such as cotton and cocoa. Crop damage not only affects a farmer’s ability to feed his or her family, it also reduces cash income and has repercussions for health, nutrition, education and ultimately, development.
Any conservation strategy that has the potential to succeed must include efforts to bridge the gap between people and the wildlife with which they share their land, and through the participation and cooperation of the rural people whose lives it will invariably affect. This is clearly illustrated by third world farmers epitomised by those living in the Zambesi Valley Basin, Central Africa who have a particularly hard time trying to grow crops in the dry season. In addition to a lack of water, they have to deal with marauding animals that are looking for food. Elephants, hippo and buffalo routinely raid crops and winter irrigated gardens, trampling them in the process and ruining the harvest. This has forced farmers to abandon dry season farming and resort to illegal game hunting to provide food for their families. This poaching often takes place in adjacent game reserves so these kills could be added to the primary figure resulting from the initial conflict.
In the light of this a series of irrigation blocks were targeted and provided with electric fences by a international aid organisation. These had the capacity to be irrigated to enable villagers to produce food at the height of the dry season when green food is traditionally scarce. The fences constructed were tried and tested 10 strand alternating live and earth wires coupled to high voltage energisers. These fences were tested by the animals on several occasions but were not breached.
In each case the fences eliminated the pressure from wildlife and crop production increased. Families had vegetables to eat during the dry season, and as food production became more secure there was a striking reduction in illegal game poaching in the surrounding game reserves. As a result of this the subsistence farmers were able to spend time on other income generating activities like poultry rearing, bee keeping and carpentry. In every situation the electric fence resulted in a positive solution to an increasing problem but there are other factors to consider.
The materials, installation and maintenance costs usually make electric fencing impractical for applications in poorer developing countries unless funded by international aid agencies.
A key factor determining the success of a fence is ownership. A fence that is constructed and maintained by a government agency will always be viewed as a government fence. The maintenance will be left to the government and the community will take little or no responsibility. Once maintenance is ceased animals will breach and cause considerable damage the fence often requiring a virtual rebuild. Rarely does a government agency have the resources to maintain a fence year after year, and inevitably the fence deteriorates. However, if the community builds a fence (with the cost of materials perhaps subsidised by a donor agency), and the community is responsible for its upkeep, then success may be more likely, because local people have a stake in its success. Nevertheless, many community fences have failed through local maladministration.