Deep in the hearts of Kibale and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, where the lush rainforests are dense, damp, and teeming with life, a delicate balance exists between humans and wildlife.
These protected areas are renowned for their role in conserving the world’s critically endangered mountain gorilla population, as well as its rich biodiversity of plants and animals and abundant wildlife, but for the communities living in close proximity, the coexistence with wild animals can be challenging. Crop destruction, loss of domestic animals, and human attacks are common problems that have far-reaching consequences. Livelihoods are undermined, farmlands are sometimes abandoned, and lives are lost, leaving communities in a precarious situation.
Amid all this the question arises: Can humans and wildlife co-exist?
Humans and wildlife have been coexisting for thousands of years in various ecosystems around the world.
Dr. Taddeo Rusoke, a renowned conservation expert, has documented successful crop protection interventions in Uganda’s Kibale and Bwindi Impenetrable National Parks. Kibale National Park is known for its thriving tourism industry and primate population, while Bwindi Impenetrable National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site and critical wildlife habitat for endangered mountain gorillas and boasts over 1,000 endemic plant species, making it a botanical hotspot of unparalleled biodiversity.
Kibale National Park is home to many primate species, and farmers in the area face challenges as these animals often damage their crops. Rusoke conducted a study in 2017 to understand the impact of wildlife crop damage and found that interventions to mitigate crop damage, whether developed by protected area management or local communities, may be effective against specific animal species. In Kibale National Park, farmers use trenches to deter animals, but these are often poorly maintained, allowing elephants to cross into crop gardens.
Similarly, in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, farmers have implemented various crop protection measures, such as woven bamboo fences, beekeeping, and planting buffer zones with less attractive crops for wildlife. These interventions have successfully reduced crop losses, improved local farmers’ livelihoods, and minimized negative impacts on wildlife populations.
Rusoke’s groundbreaking research demonstrates that when crop protection interventions are carefully planned, taking into account the participation of local communities and the ecological behavior of primates, they can effectively reduce crop damage and foster harmonious coexistence between farmers and wildlife in national parks. With a focus on well-designed strategies, Rusoke’s work sheds light on the positive outcomes that can be achieved by bridging the gap between conservation efforts and the needs of local communities. His research not only highlights the potential for successful coexistence between humans and primates but also underscores the critical role of community engagement in finding sustainable solutions to crop protection challenges in wildlife-rich areas. Traditional approaches remain a widespread practice.
Community-Driven Solutions for Crop Protection Success
Dr. Rusoke highlighted that farmers often develop their own strategies to protect their crops from damage caused by wildlife threats. However, challenges arise when effective crop protection interventions are lacking, or when interventions only target specific species, leaving other animals free to cause damage. The loss of crops, such as bananas, can have severe impacts on farmers’ livelihoods and food security. Therefore, there is an urgent need for crop protection interventions that consider community farming practices, and the influence they have on the nature and intensity of crop damage caused by wildlife.
He also explained the interventions implemented by the authorities managing Kibale National Park to mitigate crop damage. These interventions include the construction of elephant trenches, which have proven to be effective in preventing crop damage. These trenches are designed to be three metres deep and two metres wide, and when properly maintained, serve as a barrier that prevents animals such as elephants, buffaloes, and pigs from crossing and damaging crops. As a result, farmers in the area no longer experience crop damage from these animals, greatly benefiting from these interventions.
Rusoke highlighted additional interventions being used in Uganda to protect crops from wildlife damage. One approach is planting buffer crops, such as tea and coffee plantations, which are unpalatable to wildlife. This creates a barrier that makes it difficult for elephants to cross from the forest through the tea plantation and into farmers’ gardens. Another method is the use of beehives. These beehives are set up at the boundary of the protected area, spaced about two metres apart, with a wire passed across the beehive entrances. Once the beehives are fully occupied by bees, any disturbance, such as elephants shaking the wire, will trigger the bees to come out and sting the elephants, causing discomfort and deterring them from crossing over into the farmland. This encourages the elephants to return to the protected area.
He also emphasised that the trench method used for environmental protection is considered sustainable. The trenches are typically dug with the removed soil deposited on the private land side, away from the protected area, to avoid attracting elephants to fill the trench back up. Measures are also taken to prevent soil erosion for sustainability. Certain crops, such as Guatemala plants (commonly used for soil improvement), are strategically planted at the edges and backs of the trenches to prevent soil loss and runoff. These crops also aid in stabilising the soil along the trench line, ensuring that even if the trench is not actively maintained, there is no loss of soil quality due to erosion or other factors. This approach contributes to maintaining the sustainability of the trench method in environmental protection efforts.
Traditional approaches to crop protection remain prevalent among farmers who may lack resources or knowledge. For example, some farmers use makeshift beehives made from forest materials, such as baskets woven with plant fibres, and smear them with cow dung to create walls. These improvised beehives are also effective in deterring elephants from crossing over from the forest and damaging crops. While these methods may differ from modern interventions like trenches and modern beehive setups, they serve as an alternative means for farmers to protect their crops from wildlife damage.
Communities also contribute to crop protection efforts by building watchtowers. Farmers climb on top of these watchtowers and keep records of any animals that may cross into their gardens from the protected area. For instance, if baboons are spotted crossing into the gardens, farmers can easily observe them from the watchtower. They may use various methods, such as making loud noises with plastic materials or sounding drums, to scare the animals and drive them back into the protected area. These watchtowers serve as an effective way for farmers to monitor and deter wildlife from damaging their crops, enhancing crop protection efforts in the community.
Farmers also employ various methods to guard their gardens against wildlife intrusion, including the use of dogs. When these dogs detect animals such as baboons or monkeys attempting to cross into the gardens, they bark loudly, alerting the farmers. This noise often scares the animals away, causing them to retreat back into the protected area. Guardhouses, are temporary shelters and are also utilised by farmers to protect their crops. When farmers spot animals approaching their gardens, they can sound alarms or call the protected area authorities or nearby danger posts using their phones. These authorities then come and scare or shoot the animals, driving them back into the protected area.
Sometimes farmers take their own initiatives to set up what is known as baboon live traps. These traps are baited with yellow bananas or other food that baboons are attracted to, and they are set up in community gardens or outside the protected area where baboons are known to roam. Once the baboons are trapped inside these structures, the community is allowed to kill them as a strategy to deter them from damaging crops. The idea is to target the troop leader, as baboons live in groups called troops, and killing the leader can disrupt the organisation and cooperation within the group. This has proven to be an effective intervention to discourage baboons and other animals from causing crop damage.
These community-led innovations and interventions have proven to be effective in mitigating human-wildlife conflicts in the area, said Dr Rusoke.
Dr Rusoke responded to the question about climate change and its effects on wildlife crop protection interventions by mentioning that flooding in certain areas can impact the effectiveness of interventions like digging trenches. In such cases, alternative measures such as erecting fences may be more feasible. He also mentioned instances where authorities resort to scare shooting to drive animals back into protected areas. However, he noted that the impact of climate change on these interventions may be complex and not entirely clear, as some interventions may have limited effectiveness.
With well-designed strategies and community engagement, successful coexistence between humans and primates can be achieved.