A herd of elephants with an adult female and its calf at the front walks through a grassland.

The recent decline in poaching of African elephants has led to an increase in the reports of human-elephant conflict ©MPH Photos/Shutterstock

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Human-elephant conflict: How to live alongside the largest living land animal

Even though elephants are the largest living land animal, humans have increasingly determined their future over recent centuries.

Human-elephant conflict came to a head in 1919 when the last surviving herd of African elephants living on the southernmost fringe of the African continent were slaughtered. 

These confrontations are only expected to increase over time as humans and elephants grow to rely on the same resources. Find out how we can learn to live alongside these giants. 

Since the first human clambered down from the trees and stepped out into the savanna, we have been living alongside elephants.

Their extraordinary size and appetite means that elephants are substantial ecosystem engineers. As they move through the landscape, be it a rainforest or dry woodland, they alter the vegetation. From knocking down trees to pulling up plants, they make and maintain clearings and pathways.

This in turn can benefit other animals, such as people, who live in these environments, as they create areas that favour new growth that attracts grazing animals. This might sound destructive, but the elephants also help to maintain the very forests they are altering, by depositing fruit seeds in their own personal mound of poop compost as they move about. 

But as human society developed and civilizations grew, the balance of power has shifted from the largest land animal alive to the small bipedal ape with tools. 

Dr Victoria Herridge is a researcher at the Museum and expert on the evolution of elephants, who believes that lives of humans and elephants are inextricably linked.  

'We've always lived together,' says Victoria. 'Our entire stories are parallel. Elephants have been part of humanity's life from the beginning, and I would go so far as to say they created the world into which we evolved.'

'Basically, our story is the elephant's story. And I think it's only recently that the pivot has shifted. They were the engineers of our land, and now we are the engineers of theirs.'

In 1919 these parallel stories culminated in a tragic event that took place on the very southern tip of the African elephant's range.

The whale hall gallery at the Museum, showing a taxidermied adult and juvenile elphant in the foreground.

This elephant calf was tragically one of the individuals shot by Major Pretorius in 1919. 

The slaughter of the Addo elephant herd

The lands of the Xhosa Kingdom in the Eastern Cape of South Africa were violently colonised and settled by European farmers. But as the settlers tried to make a living in the frequently extreme environment of the Addo bush, which can swing from snow one season to drought the next, they had to manage alongside the largest surviving population of elephants in South Africa.    

Conflict over dwindling water supplies quickly developed between the farmers and the herd of 130 elephants. This resulted in the South African government employing one man, Major Philip Jacobus Pretorius, to cull the Addo herd by roughly 114 animals.

There was an outcry at the time over such drastic action, but this only resulted in saving 16 elephants from slaughter.

The rest were butchered, with some specimens being sold to museums, such as the young individual going on display in Titanosaur: Life of the Biggest Dinosaur. Others simply had their tusks removed and skin turned into whips. 

The lamentable fate of the Addo elephants was inseparably linked to the development of agriculture in the region.

While in more recent times poaching has often been seen as the biggest threat to elephants across much of Africa, human-elephant conflict is actually now once more playing a significant role in the conservation of the animals. 

A black and white photograph of Major Preotius standing in the South African bush, wearing a leather jack and leather trousers while holding a gun.

Philip Pretorius was hired by the South African government to cull the Addo elephant herd between 1919 and 1920.  ©Dr Homer LeRoy Shantz/Wikimedia Commons

The rise and fall of elephant threats

The history of African elephant populations and the threats they have faced throughout the past 100 years is not a linear one, but one of waxing and waning pressures influenced by events and economies around the world.

Towards the end of the 1800s and the start of the 1900s the ivory trade was still in full swing, fulfilling the demand in Europe for piano keys and billiard balls. This calmed down a little, until the 1970s ushered in another rush for ivory as average disposable incomes in Japan started to rise. By the early 1990s this demand had once again waned, before the 2000s saw the third ivory boom as the Chinese economy took off. 

But while a lot of attention over the past few decades has been focused upon the slaughter of elephants for their tusks, the issue of human-elephant conflict has been bubbling away, often only coming to the fore when there is a lull in ivory poaching such as during the 1990s.  

A view across the fynbos of South Africa.

The Addo elephant herd were the largest surviving herd in South Africa, and lived in a unique environment where no other elephants were found ©Dirk M. de Boer/Shutterstock

Chris Thouless is the Director of Research and the Elephant Crisis Fund at the Kenya-based charity Save the Elephants that researches, develops and implements ways to mitigate and prevent human-elephant conflict. 

'I think a lot of this is about narrative rather than reality,' explains Chris. 'While poaching was seen as a major issue, human-elephant conflict got pushed to the background. It is quite difficult for people and the press to talk about conflict when there is a major poaching problem going on.'

'But in the last five years or so there has been a reduction in elephant poaching which is now at a relatively low level. When people stop talking about poaching as a major crisis this then creates some narrative space for human-elephant conflict to come to fore again as a political and conservation issue.'

Human-elephant conflict is increasing

While this conflict has always been there to a certain extent, as evidenced by Pretorius's elephant cull in 1919, a recent increase in conflict cases is likely a result of several different factors.

As Chris mentions, part of it is to do with the shift in focus of conservation organisations and the press, allowed for by the reduction in poaching. But it is also likely influenced by elephants moving out of the strongholds into which they were forced, while growing human populations and urban areas bring elephants into increasingly frequent contact with people.

This contact can be a result of elephants seeking out crops as easy food, or sharing water sources with farmers, particularly in the drier regions of the elephants' range.

According to a report on the Addo elephant herd, 'in a single evening, the elephants were capable of destroying a full season's water supply thus effectively forcing the farmers, with their cattle, off the land.'

An African elephant stands underneath a tree, with buildings, houses and people in the background.

As elephants move out of their strongholds and urban environments spread, human-elephant conflict is only expected to rise ©Lucian Coman/Shutterstock

But there is also the growing issue of urbanisation and the spread of infrastructure that comes with it. With increasing human populations, this factor is only expected to become ever more pressing in the conservation of large animals such as elephants.

'Often conflict is a result of poor land-use planning,' explains Chris. 'So it is really important not just to think about farm-level mitigation measures, but also district- and national-level land-use planning where areas for people are clearly identified and areas for wildlife are clearly identified.'

'In some cases, there will be some overlap. One of the projects we are funding in Botswana has people living on routes that elephants take to water, and a lot of effort has been put into encouraging people to settle between those corridors rather than on the corridors.'

What is clear is that populations of elephants and people in different parts of Africa are facing their own localised issues. 

Beehive fences and smelly repellents: How to mitigate human-elephant conflict

There is no single solution that will help protect all farms, people and livelihoods from elephants. It will require local communities to work at multiple levels in order to manage the specific situation where they live.

One way to help limit crop raiding is to use natural deterrents. Elephants have been found to be extreme nervous when in the presence of African honeybees, which naturally occur within their range in eastern and southern Africa.

This led Dr Lucy King to develop beehive fences, which have been shown to successfully deter elephants from farmland.

Half a dozen wooden beehives sit on a metal table in the African bush.

Some researchers have found a way to harness the African elephants natural fear of African honeybees ©BlueSnap/Shutterstock

'Lucy came up with this idea of putting beehives on a wire between posts and then if the elephants come up against them and jiggle the wire, the bees leave their hives and chase the elephants,' explains Chris. 'And that has been a very effective deterrent.'

'It has the advantage that it can provide livelihoods as well as protecting against elephants, but it does mean that you have to do some work.'

'But it doesn't work in all places, because it first of all requires suitable conditions for bees - and bees are water-dependent which is a key thing - but also not everyone has the ability to look after bees and beehives.'

For places where bees might be unsuitable, another form of deterrent currently being explored by Save the Elephants and WildAid is the 'smelly elephant repellent'. This mix of chilli, ginger, garlic, dung and rotten eggs is fermented before being applied to rags and hung along the fences surrounding farms. The pungent smell has been found to be as off-putting to elephants as it is to humans.

Moving from farm-level to more landscape-level solutions includes the use of watch towers, which allow farmers to spot incoming elephants. Farmers can then deter the animals before they reach farms, whilst simultaneously reducing the dangers of coming face-to-face with elephants in the bush when on foot.

Finally, understanding elephant movements in a more detailed manner can allow for better land-management planning, such as the project Save the Elephants has been working with in Botswana.  

An aerial view of a herd of elephants moving through a wetland.

For elephants to survive into the future, we need to find a way to live alongside them so we can both thrive ©Cezary Wojtkowski/Shutterstock

An elephant toolbox

In reality, communities need a suite of ideas that can be applied when and where is necessary. This is the logic behind the comprehensive Human-Elephant Coexistence Toolbox that has been developed by Save the Elephants.

But adding to the complexity is that human-elephant conflict is an ever-moving target. The vast intelligence of elephants will mean that in many situations there is a good chance that the animals will figure out how to get around the mitigation techniques.

'It's like an arms race between protecting the crops, and the elephants overcoming the anti-elephant devices,' explains Victoria. 'We've got these two, clever, social, habitat engineering species living cheek by jowl and they both want to change their land and they're both clever at doing it.'

'It is more complex than just how much space does an elephant need. It is about where that space is, and do they have access to their routes between things like water sources, particularly in times of drought.'

While the tragic end to the Addo elephant herd reflects an attitude of the time, it is one that still persists, particularly where there is the very real threat to human life. Achieving the best for both people and elephants will require ongoing and sustained management. 

As a species we once relied on elephants for our continued survival, now they rely on us.