Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Photography

The Elephant in Her Backyard, Part Two

Subsistence farmers depend on hard work and luck. About 70% of rural households in Botswana derive their livelihoods from subsistence farming crops dependent upon seasonal rains. As a consequence of low and erratic rainfall and relatively poor soils, such farms have low productivity.

Keikagile (Kee-ka-HEE-lay) owns such a farm, in the panhandle of the Okavango Delta. But she has one large problem most subsistence farmers do not have: elephants. Her field is close to one of the most frequently used pathways used by generations of elephants as they move south in April and June from the drying pans near Namibia to the waters of the Okavango River. A night’s raid by a single herd of elephants could destroy her entire crop.


Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza
Keikagile, Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza


In her book Coming of Age with Elephants: A Memoir, elephant researcher Joyce Poole writes: “Imagine having your entire livelihood destroyed by a beast that comes in the dead of the night. Imagine defending your homestead from a monster weighing close to a hundred times your weight, one that knows exactly where you are through its extraordinary sense of hearing and smell, while your only useful sense is reduced to what you can see in a dim circle of light from a flashlight with failing batteries. Imagine being too poor to buy new batteries.”

And once each year, coming and going on ancient pathways, elephants pass close to Keikagile’s farm. However, starting in 2014, she’s had help from Ecoexist, one of the programs featured in Howard G. Buffet’s book, 40 Chances: Finding Hope in a Hungry World. A five-year effort aimed at fostering coexistence between the 15,000 elephants and the 15,000 people of the Okavango panhandle, Ecoexist seeks to apply multiple strategies to alleviate human/elephant conflicts and improve human/elephant coexistence.


Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza
Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza


In partnership with Texas A&M University, and with support from the Amarula Trust, and USAID”S Southern Africa Regional Environment Program, The Ecoexist Project has five main goals, designed to work in tandem with each other:

  1. tracking the elephant herds; 2. building plans for co-existence; 3. learning together with farmers & villages how to protect fields; 4. making fields more resilient to crop-raiding events; and 5. building an elephant economy.

Using techniques such as radio collars and GPS tracking, the Ecoexist researchers are learning more about the movements and habits of the elephants in the Panhandle, in order to help predict possible points of land use conflict. The government of Botswana pays farmers to expand their fields in order to increase productions, yet the land boards responsible for allocating the land lack information about where and when elephants move through villages and fields. Ecoexist is mapping elephant movements in order to help local land boards allocate fields away from the elephants’ pathways. By amplifying the voices, experiences and ideas of farmers such as Keikagile, policy makers learn from those most affected by crop-raiding, while the farmers are able to share responsibility with policy makers to manage the knowledge, tools and resources for field protection. Improving yields with short-cycle crops, early harvests and planting techniques ensure that farmers are less vulnerable to elephants raiding their fields. Since tourists rarely visit their part of the Okavango watershed, efforts to collaborate with private companies to market the Panhandle as an elephant-based destination with community-based tourism experiences are being developed.


Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza
Village Meeting in Xakao, Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza

Ecoexist has a large team of advisors and participants. Its directors include a conservation biologist, an ecologist and an anthropologist, as well as post-graduate students and interns from Botswana’s department of Wildlife and National Parks and other relevant government departments. With input and guidance from Botswana’s Department of Agricultural Research, the College of Agriculture, the Department of Wildlife, land boards, international trusts, private corporations, Oxford University, Texas A&M University, the University of Botswana, and most importantly local farmers and residents, the goal of Ecoexist is to make the Panhandle “a place where elephants benefit people more than imperil them…a place where people benefit elephants more than imperil them.” It’s also an endeavor to create solutions that can be used throughout Botswana and beyond.

Keikagile has already used new planting techniques and a solar-powered electric fence to protect her field. Her millet yield this year is 10 times the national average! And next April, when the elephants begin their seasonal migration, she’ll be able to sleep better at night.


To see more of Dr. Stronza’s incredible photographs, click Here.

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Posted in Africa, Elephants, Nature, Photography, Travel

The Elephant in Her Backyard, Part One

For several months of each year Keikagile (Kee-ka-HEE-lay) has elephants in her backyard. Entire herds of elephants. Lions, zebras, crocodiles, hippos, hyenas, and other wild denizens of Africa surround her home. But it’s the elephants she most fears, for they can destroy her entire farm in just one night.


Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza
Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza

Keikagile lives in the Okavango Delta of northern Botswana, in an area of roughly 3,500 square miles (9,000 km2) where 15,000 elephants roam freely and 15,000 people plant fields, herd livestock, and walk to and from school. Between April and June, elephants move southward from drying pans near Namibia to the permanent waters found in the Delta. And as they follow their ancient migration routes, the herds often stop to forage in the fields planted closest to those paths. When seasonal rains return in November, the elephants return north along the same routes.

Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza
Photograph by Dr. Amanda Stronza

Keikagile’s fields are less than a mile (1.2 km) from one of the largest and most frequently used elephant pathways. Her farm is twice as likely to be raided as those further away, a risk that could happen twice a year, as the elephants migrate to and from the waters of the Delta. (Note the man in the background of this photograph and the power lines.)

Keikagile’s crops are mostly pearl millet, maize (corn) and Bambara ground nuts. Pearl millet has been grown in Africa since prehistoric times. It has a slightly nutty taste, can be cooked like brown rice and ground into flour for flatbreads. It’s high in antioxidants and magnesium. Dried ground maize can be cooked into porridge or a dish called bogobe, made by putting sorghum, maize or millet flour into boiling water, stirring the mixture into a soft paste, and then cooking it slowly. Sometimes the sorghum or maize is fermented, and milk and sugar added. Bambara ground nuts ripen, like peanuts, below ground. They are high in protein (an important food source for people who cannot afford animal protein) and can be eaten roasted, salted or boiled, similar to beans. Most importantly, the plant improves the soil with nitrogen fixation.

Pearl millet grows well in soils with high salinity and is a highly drought-tolerant crop. The Bambara ground nut grows best in sandy soils and is resistant to high temperatures. Maize, the most difficult to grow in a semi-arid climate, is preferred by farmers. The three plants can be grown together, mixed into the same space, in a practice called intercropping, which maximizes space and creates biodiversity.


Pearl Millet
Pearl Millet

As a subsistence farmer and a single mother, Keikagile feeds and provides for her three children. In the past, the yields from her fields were barely enough to support her family. And the threat of catastrophic damage to her livelihood by elephants is an annual worry for her.

EcoExist (Ecoexist) hopes to change that. Partnering with local farmers, EcoExist (EcoExist Facebook)is a five-year program aimed at reducing human/elephant conflicts in the Okavango Delta. Read about the dual efforts of Keikagile and EcoExist in Part Two, The Elephant in Her Backyard.