There's a T-shirt I picked up from the 1997 CITES Meeting in Zimbabwe that depicts villagers trying in vain to protect their crops and homesteads from rampaging pachyderms, while tourists safe in their Land Rover exclaim; "Aren't those elephants wonderful?"
When we were helping local residents establish ≠Khoadi ||Hôas Conservancy in northwest Namibia, elephants were at the top of the list of complaints from subsistence farmers competing with wildlife for shared and limited resources. This part of Namibia was one of the few places during apartheid where white (mainly German-speaking) farmers were compensated and relocated and blacks forcibly resettled to create a Damara "homeland." Marginal farms with names like "Nil Desperandum" became communal lands. With the exception of a few precious springs, the rest of the region's water was underground - either beneath the sandy riverbeds or trapped in deeper aquifers. The government sank wells and people settled with their animals in the very places where elephants were accustomed to drink, with busted wind pumps and damaged water installations frequently the result.
For decades the black residents of the region were alienated from their natural resources, having no formal land tenure and realizing little benefit from wildlife conservation. They were excluded from formal game reserves where they previously foraged and grazed their herds, and except for an occasional windfall in meat the rest of the proceeds from hunting and safari concessions granted in their area went to the government and the tour operators, not the local residents. Conflicts were inevitable and poaching was a serious threat to wildlife survival.
The desert adapted elephants in ≠Khoadi ||Hôas range widely in search of water, traveling 60 miles a day at need. A lone bull may be an unnerving neighbor when you live in a traditional hut, but usually will not be a significant threat to life or livestock. A breeding herd is another manner, and though rare, confrontations between elephants and people have caused the deaths of people as well as elephants. Take a good look at the image to the left and see how well the giant matriarch of this herd blends in with the rocks and thorns. Coming upon her unexpectedly could have tragic results, as we learned when we stopped one afternoon at a farm called Brakwater to register residents as beneficiaries of the emerging conservancy.
Brakwater farm has been so well maintained it looked as if its previous German owner were still in residence. Manfred Bause- an extremely light-skinned person of mixed ancestry, had farmed there since 1970 and had Damara farm workers in the manner of a Boer landowner. His wife was supervising the construction of an outdoor slaghuis or abattoir when we arrived, but at the first mention of elephants she promptly walked away and refused to speak further. Her husband came out of the house and asked what the problem was. Our colleague Bernadus "Bob" !Guibeb started to explain the conservancy and the reason for our visit, and suddenly there were tears in Manfred's eyes as he told us in bitter Afrikaans about the elephant that had killed his son.
It happened in 1990 when Manfred's eleven year old son and a companion were moving the family's cattle to better grazing at a place called Mooi Rivier or "Beautiful River." What they took for the dust of their animals was in fact a breeding herd of elephants, and the matriarch was aware that something was on their trail. She waited behind a tree and when Manfred's boy rode past the animal jerked him from his horse and threw him to the ground, killing him. Though tragic, what haunted the father most was what the elephant did next.
The boy's horrified companion recounted that the elephant seemed agitated after the attack and dug a hole in the soft sand. It then lay the body in the hole and removed its shoes. It covered the body with earth and branches and laid the leather veldskoens gently on top. Then the elephant walked away.
I have heard other stories of elephant dexterity that lend support to this remarkable feat. Elephants are highly intelligent and capable of doing things with astounding sensitivity and intention, but it is an alien intelligence nonetheless and we are left to divine meaning for ourselves. The meaning I took from this story was something like contrition, but to Manfred the elephant was a demon, much as if Ahab's whale itself had risen from the abyss of the bush and devoured his progeny as deliberately as the whaler's leg.
We learned later that Manfred arrived soon afterward at the government conservation agency office in Khorixas armed with a rifle and looking for the senior warden. Finding a junior officer instead, he aimed the weapon at the uniform of those who in his grief seemed to place a greater value on wildlife than the lifer of his child. He was persuaded to put down his weapon and the government went out and shot the wrong elephant before they found the matriarch and now the new conservancy opened the wound afresh.
Our companions were young Damaras and deeply moved by the story. They also knew how to speak respectfully and sensitively in a crisis when it became clear that the best thing we could do was validate his grief and explain why this new approach to conservation would be different. When he learned that he had come to Brakwater from Grootfontein, where I had been an English teacher several years before, Manfred took me aside and picked me a basket of oranges from the trees in his garden. In the end, he signed the conservancy register, but refused to let any of the the other workers on his farm. We left with very mixed emotions, but recognized that while the tangible benefits of the conservancy were important to its members, the intangibles mattered just as much, or more.
≠Khoadi ||Hôas established a safety net for people like Manfred who lose a family member in a tragic elephant encounter, or farmers who suffer unprovoked livestock deaths or water point damage. Since it was not possible to relocate the elephants. Today the Conservancy is thriving, and elephant numbers are increasing robustly. Its name means "Elephants Corner" and its logo was proposed by the Conservancy leadership and designed by me. After 10 years there is still tension, and conflicts still happen. But people and wildlife coexist here, and it is possible to farm, with elephants.