The elephants of Phirilongwe

14/03/2014 12:26

Written by Philip Briggs

Some 40km west of Mangochi, Phirilongwe Forest Reserve recently became the setting for the sort of irresolvable conflict between wildlife and humans that seems inevitable in the context of Malawi’s rapid population growth. Named after the 1,554m-high Mount Phirilongwe, this forest reserve was until recently the core territory of one of Malawi’s last free-ranging herds of elephant, estimated to be anything from 60 to 100 strong, based on a 2007 aerial survey in which 57 individuals were counted.

The Ndowa Hills surrounding Phirilongwe support a rapidly growing human population of around 3,000 subsistence farmers, split between 30 villages. As a result, the forest reserve has been subject to repeated encroachment over the years, and competition for resources between people and elephants is intense. The elephants cannot survive off the fruits of the forest alone, so they have taken to raiding surrounding agricultural land, regularly destroying crops and killing at least ten people. And the angry villagers have responded by using nail-embedded planks, guns, arrows, snares and poison to maim or kill any elephants that threaten their crops – of eight individual elephants darted to fit radio collars in 2007, three had partially amputated trunks and another two were scarred with bullet wounds.

The seemingly irresolvable conflict came to a head in 2009 when the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), African Parks Foundation (APF) and Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW) signed an agreement to translocate the Phirilongwe elephants 250km to Majete Wildlife Reserve in the Shire Valley. This plan met with widespread support from local villagers and chiefs, but shortly after the translocations started in June 2009, a court injunction was placed on proceedings at the application of a local businessman, Ismail Khan, and his organisation Friends of Phirilongwe (FOP), which demanded that an Environmental Impact Assessment be conducted before the elephants were relocated. According to FOP, the elephants had great potential to develop as a key tourist attraction in Mangochi District, they also played an important role as protectors of the forest reserve against further human encroachment, and the human conflict could be resolved simply by fencing Phirilongwe as a wildlife reserve. A spokesperson for the DNPW agreed that in principle this would be ‘the ideal scenario’ but pointed out that ‘there is no finance and there is no suitable area … the only solution is to move them out to an existing reserve that’s properly fenced … because at this stage these elephants are very aggressive: they hate people, the people hate them’. Meanwhile Chief Nankumba, spokesman for the Traditional Chiefs of Mangochi, threatened to lead a march on the District Commissioner’s office if the injunction wasn’t lifted, stating: ‘We have lost human lives, crops and property to elephant stampedes ... The elephants must go to Majete now.’

The injunction was duly lifted, and by 4 July, when the operation ended, a total of 83 elephants had been captured and released into Majete. Jason Bell-Leask of IFAW reported that ‘12 of the 14 groups of elephants captured and relocated included individuals that had suffered injuries caused by human intervention – seven of the elephants had trunk amputations caused by snares, one had a deformed foot from a gin trap injury, actual snares had to be removed from three of the elephants, one elephant was blind in one eye from a gunshot wound, and a number of others bore scars from bullet wounds and snares’. It would be difficult to take issue with Bell-Leask’s assertion that ‘moving the elephants was, without argument, the only solution to a terrible situation for both the elephants and the community … this is a victory for both elephants and people’. In the big picture, however, there is a certain hollowness to the victory. Yes, the elephants are safely fenced away at Majete, the people of Phirilongwe can breathe more freely in their absence, and we should be glad for that. But somehow the victory feels like one minor subsidiary battle won in the course of a ceaseless campaign to tame the world’s diminishing wildernesses.

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