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Written by Christiana de roo

Inspired by our Southern Africa travels of 2019.

Humans and wildlife in southern africa are fighting over water and land.

Southern Africa’s conservation efforts are becoming increasingly difficult and expensive in the face of ongoing drought, climate change and a growing population. One consequence of these challenges is that it significantly reduces the potential for humans and wildlife to sustainably coexist. 

Under drought conditions, wildlife conservation – in southern Africa and elsewhere – becomes more difficult and expensive than in average weather conditions. Countries in southern Africa are taking radically different approaches to cope with drought and limit animal suffering at the same time. Because conservation becomes increasingly expensive in drought conditions, for the southern African countries, the largest rationale for ensuring the co-existence of human populations alongside wildlife, is to generate more money for conservation. The African Wildlife Foundation asserts that protected area authorities who manage wildlife areas are structurally underfunded, and therefore unable to face the challenges of today. What follows are examples of what approaches governments took, throughout this year.


Government’s Approaches

In May 2019, only five years after Botswana banned sport hunting of elephants, the country lifted the ban. Botswana lifted its ban because of increasing conflicts between humans and elephants and the consequent impact on livelihoods – loss of crops, destroyed fields. These conflicts have surged illegal poaching, as farmers want to protect their land. Botswana was not affected by illegal poaching before 2017, and was considered one of the safest countries for elephants because of their excellent conservation efforts. But elephants started to migrate into Botswana from neighbouring countries to find water and food, whilst fleeing from poachers. Conflicts between humans and wildlife increased and poachers followed the animals. The number of poached elephants in Botswana has risen from possibly zero to 385 in just one year, between 2017 and 2018. 

In May as well, Namibia was forced to auction 1,000 wild animals, in order to save grasslands and prevent livestock from starvation. An agricultural report from the ministry of Namibia reported the loss of 63,700 wild animals in 2018 because of the diminishing grazing conditions brought on by drought. Some parts of the country face the deadliest drought in 90 years. This October Namibia extended its State of Emergency, as it ends its sixth year of drought.

In October in Zimbabwe at least 50 elephants died of starvation. The country faces extreme drought and a collapsing economy, which results in great water and food shortages. Hwange National Park, the biggest one in Zimbabwe and one of the biggest of the world, is overcrowded. It has a capacity of 15,000 elephants but currently has 53,000 living in it. Elephants but also lions that are threatened with starvation leave their protected areas and search for water and food in nearby communities, causing conflicts between humans and wildlife. 

And Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe earlier this year together applied to lift the ban on ivory trade, which was put into place by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) in 2009. Governments of these southern African countries wanted to sell their stockpiles of ivory in order to generate more money for conservation. The three nations are home to 61 percent of all Africa’s elephants. Although ivory trade is unconscionable from an ethical point of view, conflicts between humans and wildlife in southern Africa are increasing as southern Africa’s worsening dry conditions cause the habitable zone to greatly diminish. Emmerson Dambudzo Mnangagwe, President of Zimbabwe, stated that “the money”, referring to $300 million USD worth of stockpiled ivory, “is needed for conservation for the next two decades”. After a heated debate, Cites rejected the proposal. Cites said that the ban lift of 2008 had fuelled the surge for elephant poaching, and that it feared a repeat.

Taking a much different approach from the southern African countries, in 2016, Kenya, which is home to more than 1,700 elephants, burnt 105 tons of ivory. President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, said about the record setting burn, “for us, ivory is worthless unless it is on our elephants”.

It is clear to see that the challenges southern African countries face are accumulating, whilst their approaches are not sufficient to provide solutions. Government approaches are not solving any problems, they provide injections of money that might prevent a crisis on the short term, but bring no sustainability for the future.


Elephant’s Surge For Food And Water

Severe drought threatens elephants with starvation. As elephants migrate to find adequate quantities of water and food, they often enter land owned by farmers. An elephant can destroy a field of crops in a matter of hours. Also, the increasing human population in southern African countries has forced humans to migrate into game reserves and forests, taking away land for the elephants to live. Natural habitats have been split up by infrastructure and converted into agricultural land and settlements. Of course, not just the elephant population is affected by drought. Elephants are forced to live on increasingly smaller pockets of land, resulting in increased density of remaining elephants. Elephants play a crucial role in Africa’s ecosystems by dispersing seed, but a high density of elephants can reduce tree cover, which shrinks woodlands and expands grassland habitats. The shrinking of woodlands and grasslands threatens browsing animals like black rhinos and bushwicks, who depend on trees for food and shelter. 

Conflicted with drought, protected wildlife areas in southern Africa are running dry of water and food. National parks are struggling to provide adequate feeding conditions for their livestock. Therefore elephants are forced to migrate to find sufficient amounts of water and food. But during migrations, they often enter land owned by farmers. Elephants can destroy a field of crops in a matter of hours, and their raids for food can last for weeks on end. Although it is understandable that farmers want to protect their land, for the elephants the danger becomes worse. According to Save The Elephants; “Of the multiple threats that elephants face such as poaching, drought and climate change, coping with an expanding human presence is possibly the most critical long-term challenge”. The human population in southern African countries is increasing rapidly, reaching one billion in 2018. So long southern African countries do not establish more habitable zones for wildlife to live, more conflicts between humans and wildlife will occur.

The Most Dangerous Thing In The Bush

Conservationists seek to maintain a balance between humans and wildlife, striving to ensure a harmonious coexistence. Charities like ‘Save the Elephants’ (STE) and the ‘Amboseli Ecosystem Trust’ are researching how a peaceful coexistence between elephants and humans can be achieved under worsening environmental conditions. Human activity encroaches onto game reserves and forests, taking away habitable land for elephants. In order to properly address the conflicts that occur between humans and wildlife, STE has done several visits to areas where they happen excessively. STE reported to be shocked by how they witnessed a “Complete lack of protection for poor local farmers.” Local farmers cried out that they were ‘constantly raided’, but had not even a fence to protect them from the hungry elephants. STE is finding ways to inform local farmers better on how to deal with roaming elephant populations. Farmers are helped with a toolbox with lists of less palatable crops to plant, that can form barriers around the crops that elephants like, and tips on how to dig trenches around farms. STE also does GEO-FENCING, providing GPS data that tracks the migration of elephants, informing researchers on elephants behaviours, whilst warning local farmers of approaching elephants. 

According to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), earth is dealing with an unequalled loss of land at “30 to 35 the historical rate”. Drought and deforestation increase each year, adding up to the loss of 12 million hectares of habitable land. SDG states that, “of the 8,300 animal breeds known, 8 percent are extinct and 22 percent are at risk of extinction.” When we look closer at the numbers for Africa, the crisis becomes more apparent. United for Wildlife asserts that 16 of the 20 countries that are most vulnerable to agricultural production loss due to climate change, are in Africa. And 80 percent of the African population is dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. Add to that the expectation that the current population of nearly 1 billion in Subsaharan Africa is going to double over the next 40 years, and you quickly realize that the most dangerous thing in the bush, is a human being.

We’re Running Out Of Water

Conservation International stated in 2018 that the earth already has a water problem. A study on ecosystem-based water security, published in the scientific journal Ecohydrology and Hydrobiology, asserts that traditional engineering approaches are not sufficient to tackle the water crisis in the face of climate change. Many of the traditional approaches to ensure global freshwater supply have proved to be unsustainable, because they are too expensive to install and maintain. The traditional approaches also do not adequately address any future global shortages of freshwater supply. Ian Harrison, a freshwater specialist at Conservation Internationalists, states in an interview with, “The scientific community recognises that the world’s freshwater ecosystems are in a dire state, with widespread habitat loss within and around wetlands, lakes, rivers, etc.; increased water abstraction and pollution; and increasing numbers of invasive species, which threaten native plants and wildlife.” The New Humanitarian reported in June that, following a drought in 2018, average rainfall at the beginning of this year was down by 50 percent in parts of southern Africa. In the report, a climatologist at the World Food Programme, Jesse Mason, stated, “We need to recognise the seasons are changing and we need to adapt. The pieces need to come together, from the global forecasting to the way we interact with farmers on the ground based on that information.” Ultimately, educating farmers will help adapt them to the environmental challenges ahead. Wildlife however does not have a voice, and it remains uncertain what will happen to them when earth runs out of water.


Elephant poaching will only cease when there’s no incentive left for farmers. Farmers are still making money from the ivory trade, as it remains one of the most lucrative illegal practices of the world today. Not only do farmers want to protect their vulnerable farms from raiding elephants, they are also highly susceptible to the high value of ivory. Ivory trade has to stop to curtail poaching.

Habitable zones and freshwater supplies will continue to deplete. Research by the global scientific society is urgently required in order to bring the needs of people and wildlife together when conservation is becoming more complex in the face of drought. Southern Africa’s elephants will remain gravely endangered until a solution for the earth’s water problem is found, and the needs of people and wildlife are brought together with improved conservation.


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