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Exploring local elephant knowledge in the Boteti River Region, Botswana

Exploring local elephant knowledge in the Boteti River Region, Botswana

Sharing local elephant knowledge to enhance human-wildlife coexistence

by Stephanie Bell
Stephanie Bell in Botswana

What local ecological knowledge (LEK) exists in relation to the African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Botswana communities? How will LEK aid in mitigating human-wildlife resource competition?

The research project “Exploring Local Elephant Knowledge in the Boteti River Region, Botswana” addresses these questions. Recent York University MES graduate Stephanie Bell began her major research project in 2019 in collaboration with Dr. Alice J. Hovorka (The Lives of Animals Research Team, York University) and Dr. Kate Evans (Elephants for Africa, Botswana). The Lives of Animals Research Team was founded by Dr. Alice J. Hovorka whose focus is enhancing the lives of animals through the examination of animal-human relations on a global scale. The Elephants for Africa (EfA) founded by Dr. Kate Evans is an organization that aims to conserve elephants through research and education in Botswana.

Within its beautiful borders, Botswana is home to nearly 130 000 elephants claiming the title for world’s largest elephant population. The Boteti River is an optimal spot for elephant conglomeration due its abundance of natural resources. The river is located on the border of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park in Botswana (also home to EfA research camp). The unique quality of the Boteti is that it is primarily a male elephant-dominated landscape. The overwhelming elephant presence is the main cause of human-wildlife conflict for residents; hence the need for social research in the area. Some conflicts that communities have faced include elephant crop raids, fear of elephants, and even death. Elephants can fall victim to human retaliation due their encounters with villages and agricultural fields. The competition for resources thus complicates human-wildlife living conditions and a toolbox of strategies to enhance coexistence is essential.

EfA is dedicated to enhancing human-wildlife coexistence in the areas along Boteti River Region in Botswana (EfA Photo).

A major gap in social science research is the underutilization of local or traditional knowledge, specifically, to better understand community perceptions in the field of conservation. The local knowledge explored in the project examines elephant-based information gathered over long periods of time through elder sharing, observations, and visceral/lived experiences. The research project follows a multidisciplinary model combining previously collected scientific ecological knowledge (SEK) and unexplored local ecological knowledge (LEK). Villages Motopi and Moreomaoto are the primary focus of the study in response to their human-wildlife tension from high elephant presence.

With aims of enhancing human-elephant coexistence, the research project first poses the question: "How can LEK aid in mitigating human-wildlife conflict?" A series of structured interviews categorized by knowledge holders were systematically conducted in Motopi and Moreomaoto among three groups of participants: Key-Informants, local-in depth, and educators. A qualitative analysis revealed that the preservation, exploration, and sharing of local knowledge informs environmental education at the local level. In turn, more well-informed decisions surrounding human-wildlife conflict can be made by sharing local elephant knowledge and distributing environmental education resources within villages. In response to these findings, infographics outlining local elephant knowledge were crafted, translated (into Setswana), and distributed in 20 locations- some of which include clinics, schools, national park gates, and so forth. Stephanie embarked on a dissemination of findings trip at EfA research camp in July of 2022.

Stephanie and Headmaster of Moreomaoto Public School, Botswana.

One of the most prominent calls-to action outlined by participants is “follow-up” in research studies. Therefore, over the course of three weeks Stephanie embarked on the long-awaited journey to EfA research camp in Botswana and put into motion both short-term and long-term goals based upon her research findings. An overarching solution proposed by participants was the installation of fencing to separate wildlife and communities. Increasing perceptions of security, fencing the villages were discussed as a potential long-term solution; consulting the landboard are the next steps. Stephanie also met with village knowledge holders, elders, and fostered partnerships in local schools with hopes of conducting environmental education workshops. Specifically, new partnerships at Motopi Primary School were established to give students access to environmental education workshops and experiences in the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. Preliminary plans for environmental education workshops for educators too, were discussed. Next, monitoring plant-species listed in the study as disappearing as a result of elephant destruction and grazing habits were discussed. A nursery for species was a long-term goal proposed as potentially beneficial. The continuation of LEK integration will allow the team to continuously connect with communities, help gain a preliminary understanding of current environmental conditions within the villages, help in the transmission of ecological knowledge, and finally serve as a good baseline of ecological information in areas that lack access to SEK research initiatives. A five-year re-visitation of community perceptions was discussed as a potential long-term goal to ensure implemented solutions are effective and remain sustainable.

Infographics depict both community perceptions and local elephant knowledge.

Posing the next question: "What local ecological knowledge (LEK) exists in relation to the African savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana) in Botswana communities? The project explores male elephant bahavioural patterns, their social dynamics, and the environmental influences of their presence on local landscapes. Data was collected remotely commencing in March 2020. Findings revealed knowledge complimented previously collected scientific ecological knowledge (SEK) and disclosed a baseline of elephant knowledge in Motopi. This being said, the similarities in data collected in LEK and previously collected SEK solidifies the validity of LEK in social science research studies. The local knowledge found in Motopi shed light on contradicting behavioural patterns, social dynamics, and environmental influences (friendly yet aggressive), (loving yet unpredictable), (productive grazing yet destructive), just to name a few. Participants also outlined a list of species of most concern due to elephant presence, as mentioned above. Participants had an overall desire to cultivate better relationships with elephants. The perceptions in Moreomaoto are a good model for other communities due to their higher tolerance of elephants. Elephant perceptions are varied among community members but are at the lowest in areas where environmental education is less accessible. The negative perceptions are unanimously driven by fear, however, with a better understanding of elephants, educators believe that students and community members can channel their fear of elephants into love.

Stephanie placing infographic on Motopi Clinic announcement board.

The team hopes that more scholars examine human-wildlife conflict by integrating interdisciplinary fields; an approach that mirrors this project's model. More specifically, hopes of inspiring academics to combine SEK and LEK to achieve comprehensive data sets and inform policy realms. This approach in social science research is innovative as it not only furthers the agency in which participants are able gain in the study but LEK has the ability to grasp large bodies of examinable knowledge quite efficiently. Collectively, all stakeholders can discover sustainable solutions for coexistence through their entanglements. The partnerships built in this project generates excitement in the EfA and Lives of Animals Research Teams. The shared  enthusiasm and outcomes generated from this project are expected to continue into future initiatives.

The information above contributes to a more environmentally conscious future and the visions for it through the collective of elephant conservation and social thought. Specifically, imagining the future of the natural world navigated through meaningful discussion and effective conservation management. In a world full of complicated social constructs, shedding light on environmental injustices, proper environmental education is key. Additionally, proper conservation management practices are needed but through greater interdisciplinary approaches. These factors could lead to potential improvements in the field by shifting environmental attitudes and perceptions in a more accurate direction. This study reveals information that has the potential to create a more peaceful space for humans and wildlife to exist. This study brings forth a call for immediate action and government intervention in combination with mixed approaches (LEK+SEK). Communities are in desperate need of tangible results. Through the sharing of LEK in schools and at community meetings, Boteti villages will be better equipped to mitigate future conflict with the African savanna elephant. Ultimately, fostering positive perceptions and relationships with the natural world instills a stronger will in humanity to preserve it. Empowering local communities who are suffering due to wildlife conflict is worthy of consideration in any research study going forward. LEK is truly the underestimated approach to conservation management and the preservation of vital wildlife. It is our job as academics to commit to those in need and to strive for change. This research study is truly larger than any one elephant.