Inside the Effort to Prevent Conflict Between Humans and Elephants in Africa
Anthony Ham, Smithsonian Magazine
September 11, 2023
The armed men aren’t supposed to be here. We are several miles inside
Buffalo Springs National Reserve in northern Kenya, and the driver I hired
for this reporting project and I are checking out a rumor that the
reserve’s elephants may have gone missing. Nearly 8,000 elephants have
inhabited the broader Samburu-Laikipia ecosystem, which covers around
21,200 square miles.
They should be easy to find, but the area is in the grip of drought, which
has exacerbated simmering conflict among armed local communities fighting
over livestock, grazing lands and limited water supplies. Some of these
armed groups have moved into protected areas like Buffalo Springs, driving
the elephants away, sometimes by shooting at them and sometimes because
elephants often flee areas of high human activity. Instead of pachyderms,
we find grazing cattle and herders with guns. They stop to watch us as we
Back at the park gate, an itinerant trader warns us to be careful. “Not a
week passes without something happening here,” says Daniel Lochilia.
“People are being killed. Good luck in finding any elephants.”
With so many armed men and their cattle in the reserve, the elephants have
likely fled to face an uncertain future in the human-dominated landscapes
that lie beyond. The issue is indicative of the battle to save Kenya’s—and,
more broadly, Africa’s—elephants, which has entered a new phase. A
pachyderm decline that was once mostly fueled by poaching is now being
driven by conflict between humans and elephants.
Elephants are notoriously difficult to count across such a wide area. But
according to a report by the World Wide Fund for Nature, as many as ten
million elephants lived in Africa in 1930. Fifty years later, the figure is
thought to have fallen to around 1.3 million elephants, although no one can
be sure of the exact number. Now around 500,000 live on the continent,
according to an expert with the nonprofit Save the Elephants, and savanna
elephants such as those found in Kenya’s north are classified by the
International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered. Smaller
forest elephants, which the organization assessed as a separate species for
the first time in 2021, are listed as critically endangered. From the mid
1980s, when poachers were killing an estimated 100,000 elephants for their
ivory every year, until recent years, ivory poaching was the greatest
threat to the species. With so many elephants being lost, scientists feared
they could go extinct.
In 2013, the Elephant Crisis Fund (ECF) was launched to help combat the
decline in elephants by reducing demand for ivory, stopping ivory poaching
and fighting the trade in ivory. “It has been an immense success, because
the Chinese government banned the domestic trade in ivory and was effective
in maintaining that,” ECF director Chris Thouless says.
With demand suppressed, ivory trafficking has slowed to a trickle, and
poaching has declined significantly. Thouless calls the results “a fragile
success,” because poaching could return if anti-poaching programs are
relaxed and demand for ivory spikes again in Asia.
But for now, human-elephant conflict is the main threat to the majestic
creatures. When drought and ethnic conflicts drive people into protected
areas, the displaced elephants do battle over water and food in the
villages and farmlands that surround the reserves. In such confrontations,
frightened elephants sometimes trample and kill people, and elephants are
often shot and killed in retaliation for the deaths and other damage they
cause. But conservationists are trying creative methods, using everything
from bees to craft beer, to reduce the conflicts.
Population figures are being updated all the time, but later this year,
experts will have a more exact measure of how savanna elephants are doing
when results from a major southern African census conducted by governments,
park authorities, conservation groups and scientists are released. But
based on the preliminary findings, experts are cautiously optimistic about
overall elephant numbers.
“Across the board, we’re seeing a small number of localized declines, but
we’re not seeing major declines of large populations,” says Thouless. “I
also don’t know of any populations which are in decline as a result of
poaching for ivory. It’s a complete contrast to the situation ten years
In some elephant strongholds, the species is doing exceptionally well. An
estimated 225,000 savanna elephants inhabit the Kavango Zambezi
Transfrontier Conservation Area—a patchwork of protected areas that spans
parts of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. This represents
around half of all savanna elephants in Africa.
But not all elephant populations are prospering. Outside of those
strongholds where elephant numbers are increasing or stable, “we’re seeing
a gradual loss of elephants from whole countries as habitat loss and
increased conflict take hold,” says Thouless.
In Kenya, which is home to an estimated 35,000 to 37,000 savanna elephants,
porous borders have allowed guns and ammunition to move into the country
from Somalia, Ethiopia and South Sudan. The weapons have fueled the ethnic
conflicts that push people into protected areas. “Before, in the historical
raids between communities, they used spears and pangas,” says David
Daballen, director of field operations for Save the Elephants. “Now they
The ready availability of guns has also made it easier for people to kill
elephants, either because the elephants are rivals for scarce resources or
because they threaten villagers’ safety.
Elephants can do a lot of damage. “During this latest drought, we even saw
elephants going into the villages for the first time, raiding food in
houses and knocking the houses over when people were actually inside at the
time,” says Daballen.
And as the human population grows across Africa, developments block
elephant corridors and occupy areas that were once the domain of wildlife.
Just in Kenya’s northern Isiolo County, which includes Buffalo Springs, the
human population has nearly tripled in just over two decades, from 100,000
in 1999 to almost 300,000 in 2023.
To help reduce conflict, conservationists and local communities are
implementing several measures. Lucy King, the head of the human-elephant
coexistence program with Save the Elephants, has compiled the
“Human-Elephant Coexistence Toolbox.” It brings together more than 80
different solutions, such as promoting elephant-proof ways for storing food
and building walls around water sources.
One of the most popular conflict mitigation strategies involves bees. Their
efficacy in keeping elephants at bay was identified almost by accident when
a northern Kenyan farmer told conservationists that one of his trees wasn’t
being damaged by elephants because it had a beehive in it.
“This is not a story of Westerners coming to Kenya and discovering this,”
says King. “This came from traditional Africans working in the bush.”
To keep elephants out, conservationists funded local farmers to build
beehive fences. This involves mounting wooden or plastic beehive boxes 4 or
5 feet off the ground every 65 feet or so with wires between them. Dummy
hives in between the active hives prevent colonies from fighting with each
other because, King says, African bees are much more aggressive when it
comes to defending their hives than European or North American bees. It
takes 12 beehives and 12 dummy hives to enclose an acre. If an elephant
tries to push through the fence and disturb the hive, the bees attack. Any
sting to the softer skin around the elephant’s eye, mouth or even the
inside of the trunk can cause pain and swelling, prompting elephants to
With this tactic, farmers not only better protect their crops but can also
sell the honey, which provides an alternative source of income. Since the
program’s inception, Save the Elephants has funded more than 650 beehives
in southwestern Kenya alone, and communities in 23 African countries have
adopted the program. Helping farmers protect their crops and develop
alternative income streams with bees has also earned conservationists the
trust of otherwise resistant farmers. This in turn makes possible
conversations about other issues, including protecting elephant corridors.
But for all its successes, the beehive prevention method has limits. One
area where the beehive solution hasn’t worked is northern Botswana, in an
area of the Okavango Panhandle that is home to 20,000 humans and 18,000
elephants. There, the elephant population has doubled in the past 15 years.
Unlike in Kenya, the local farmers have no tradition of beekeeping. And the
dry winter climate makes it difficult for the bees to survive.
Instead, local nonprofit Ecoexist uses tools like chili fences and
solar-electric lights to deter the pachyderms. “Elephant Express” school
buses now ferry schoolchildren safely across the corridors they would
otherwise have to cross on foot, dodging the giant creatures as they went.
Ecoexist has also mapped the corridors, and local authorities now use these
maps to reject planning permission for new buildings that would block the
At the heart of Ecoexist’s approach is trying to help local farmers profit
from living alongside elephants. To do this, the nonprofit helps formerly
subsistence farmers increase their crop yields, thereby reducing the need
to expand farms into the elephant’s world. They also buy the farmers’
surplus millet at double the market price, provided the farmers have
protected their fields from elephants, practiced sustainable agriculture by
rotating their crops and refused to expand their footprint into elephant
Because they only receive the favorable market rate if they keep their end
of the bargain, says Ecoexist policy director Graham McCulloch, “it
reinforces for farmers that there is this opportunity and this benefit, but
only because they’re coexisting with elephants.”
Ecoexist isn’t a charity. A few years ago, the nonprofit set up the first
licensed microbrewery in the city of Maun, Botswana—the Okavango Craft
Brewery—where it uses the millet it purchases. “We wanted to create a
market-linked incentive, not a subsidy,” says McCulloch.
Next up, the organization plans to reward local communities for their
elephant-friendly practices by selling carbon credits on the global market.
Also known as payments for ecosystem services, such credits enable
international companies to buy into sustainable projects such as Ecoexist
and the communities they work with as a way for the companies to offset
their own carbon emissions. Such a move would ensure that the entire
community, and not just those within the community who farm, benefits from
living alongside elephants.
But McCulloch notes that living with elephants is difficult, and mitigating
conflict is really hard work. “The more we chip away, the more we can build
the tolerance level,” he says. “That’s what coexistence is all about.”