Conservation volunteering with Elephant Human Relations Aid

Peter Cooper
elephant1 246x300 Conservation volunteering with Elephant Human Relations Aid

(c) Pete Cooper

There are many conservation volunteering opportunities but few have a real impact on conservation. One that does is Elephant Human Relations Aid, based in Swakopmund, Namibia. EHRA seeks to resolve the dramatic tensions between local elephant herds and the communities with whom they have to co-exist. This small charity is already having a positive impact on the lives of both man and elephant – and volunteers are playing a real part in the process as I found when I joined EHRA back in January 2013.

As Rachel Harris, EHRA’s administrator explains, “EHRA was registered as ‘a not-for-gain organisation’ in 2003 by my partner Johannes Haasbroek. It was started to help provide an answer to increasing elephant – human conflict in Damaraland and to provide an alternative solution to culling herds of elephants, which had returned to the area after around 30 years absence following high levels of poaching in the 1960s and 70s. When elephants returned they sought out water, mostly found on farms, which brought local people and elephants into contact for the first time. The farmers did not know how to react to their presence.”

“Desert subsistence farmers have few resources, and in their search for water elephants often pull up and damage pipes, wasting the scarce water. Although man and elephant have other conflicts of interest, water is the primary issue.”

“The project was set up with volunteers as an integral part of the programme. This means that EHRA wouldn’t exist without them! Volunteers provide manpower and funding for all the anti-conflict work. It is a win-win situation and we also try and run the volunteer programme in a way which offers people an excellent experience for their hard work and money,” says Rachel.

Tensions between the needs of wildlife and people play out globally and provide one of nature conservation’s greatest headaches. Already impoverished subsistence farmers living among eight tonne giants that can drain your whole water supply is a life and death problem for humans and elephants. Our ‘problems’ in Britain, where many see urban foxes as the bane of the earth are greatly humbled into perspective. If elephants and the farmers are going to thrive, they need to be able to live alongside each other.

A water protection scheme was quickly set up by EHRA  and volunteers have so far built 125 walls that protect farmer’s wells from elephants. The work is exhausting and lifting heavy rocks, hand-mixing cement in a wheelbarrow and shovelling sand out of the foundations under the full Namibian sun is enough to challenge even the most sturdily built. Yet through fast-forged friendships with your fellow volunteers, it gives a true appreciation of what is meant by ‘team building’. Seeing the finished, elephant-proof well at the end of the afternoon is overwhelmingly satisfying.

Educating local schoolchildren about elephants is the best way to encourage peaceful co-existence in the future. “EHRA has renovated the local school, which is home to around 300 local children from farms affected by elephants’ presence,” says Rachel. “In addition we have a community education programme called the PEACE Project, which provides information on elephant behaviour, with the aim to empower local people with the knowledge they need to keep themselves safe during elephant visits. The idea is that people understand the elephants and have some form of empathy for them, rather than regarding them as a large dangerous cow!”

“We monitor two main groups of elephants from the Ugab and Huab River basins. In addition we’re trying to compile new data on new groups of elephants which have moved in to the Khorixas area in the northern reaches of our area.  In total we are talking about no more than 120 elephants in total.”

Volunteers monitor the elephants during a ‘patrol week’, providing an opportunity to really become part of the wild – driving through the desert wilderness dawn to dusk on the trail of the elephants, preparing meals over a camp fire and sleeping under the stars. When we found the herds, we would remain stationary at a good distance. By doing this they remained undisturbed and generally they would come closer to us of their own accord, providing some truly memorable encounters, such as the young bull Kambonde’s thorough investigation of one our cameras.

Spending time among the elephants allowed us to discover their individual personalities – from the calm and experienced matriarch, ‘Mama Africa’ to the buzzing ecstasy of her offspring, who were a jovial contrast to their more sedentary elders.

But the experience I will always remember from the patrol was a small incident that said much. Mama Africa’s relaxed herd, browsing contently in the morning sun, suddenly erupted into a panic and every single elephant bolted away without a second thought. And what had terrified an entire group of elephants? A lone, lanky goat farmer, no older than 16, waving a stick and shouting.

For every village elephant-proofed, there will always be another conflict arising elsewhere. It is implicit wherever wildlife and humans use the same space. Facilitating such co-existence generally falls to small organisations such as EHRA. Most governments are either unconcerned or lack resources to address co-existence.

There are many more young lone and lanky goat farmers, who have little or no regard for elephants in areas where they still roam freely, and one wonders whether there would still be any elephants at all if it wasn’t for EHRA and similar outfits. There’s a lot of education that still needs to be done.

Nevertheless, the overall experience was very positive. Elephants and people can co-exist. I have seen that it works. The volunteer group generated a strong sense of family and shared objectives, whilst living in the wilderness, and by going ‘back to basics’ it gave all of us a renewed perspective on life. Ultimately, it has renewed my own hopes for the future of both nature and humanity.

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  • Rachel Harris

    This is Rachel from EHRA, big thanks to Pete for this fabulous account of his time with us!

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