Conservation and Tourism Society (CATS) Tackling human-animal conflict

It’s 3 a.m. on a cold winter night in Livingstone sometime in August 2020. The night is quiet enough to hear the water thundering over the Victoria Falls like a distant earthquake. Everyone is asleep. Suddenly the silence is disturbed. The sharp, loud explosions of firecrackers and shouting rupture the silence.” It sounds like a warzone, and it is.

“Understanding elephants is the key to cohabitation. The communities that are most affected by the elephants have never been exposed to any kind of wildlife education. Elephants are viewed the same way that lions are. Misinformation, social media, myth and mystery have created a false sense of fear.”

It’s elephants. It’s our amazing, wonderful and iconic gentle giants back from their southerly forays. They are returning from the rich grazing of the Okavango Delta, Hwange National Park, Chobe National Park and Kafue National Park. 

We hear the crescendo before the call comes in. The team is already mobilising and rushing to the car. 

Elephants are drawn yearly to Livingstone for the winter thorn pods and the palm ivory nuts, the mungongo, the marula, and of course, the mangoes. They are following the ancient routes carved out by their ancestors returning to the forests. The very same forests the elephants’ forefathers planted and nurtured over thousands of years. 

It sounds romantic and exciting for Livingstone to say “Our elephants are back!” – not many places in the world can say that.

But the forest is fenced. The routes are now blocked. Every year, more houses, more buildings, more hotels, more lodges, more farms spring up. Every one of them, with a fence.  They spring up like a mobile prison, a complicated maze confining the elephants, restricting movement, denying access to feeding grounds.

Where they used to feed from winter thorn pods, someone planted maize, tomatoes and vegetables. Someone cut down the ancient forest, someone fenced it off. Where they once wandered, propagating the land, they are no longer welcome.

They are chased and misunderstood. They are villainised and hated and they are persecuted at every step. Even the tourist lodges fence them out and chase them away.  By day Livingstone sells itself as the tourism capital of Zambia. It paints a picture of harmony and fun.  By night it is a hotbed of human-animal conflict. People have gardens and grow tasty food. Poor waste management creates piles of rubbish and food. Elephants love food!  

Understanding elephants is the key to cohabitation. The communities that are most affected by the elephants have never been exposed to any kind of wildlife education. Elephants are viewed the same way that lions are. Misinformation, social media, myth and mystery have created a false sense of fear. The same communities never see any kind of incentive for sharing their land with elephants. Homes and villages that have their gardens raided find themselves in dire straits, unable to feed the kids or generate any income. Despair and lack of compensation breeds negativity and hatred. They are told to coexist and that having wildlife is a good thing, but they see no benefit at all.

The Conservation and Tourism Society (CATS) actively works to change the mindsets of those affected and teach how cohabitation with elephants can bring upliftment, pride, prosperity and revenue to the community.

The CATS Elephant Response Team (CERT) offers a 24 hour team ready to respond to calls from the community. By using an elephant experienced driver, and using a vehicle as the primary mitigation tool, the team is able to intercede, discourage and intercept elephants as they find their way into gardens and smallholdings.  After only a year of following, observing and mitigating these great beasts, we have come to know many of them, and they have come to know us. Sometimes the sound of our familiar engine is enough to change the elephant’s course. Imagine, he recognises the sound of our engine and he knows what’s coming next, and he just can’t be bothered to stick around.  The simple act of confidently interceding with a vehicle and the gentle persuasion has seen incredible response from the elephants.

A year down the line the effected people have been sensitised and included in workshops and training programmes. Since the inception of CERT, the CATS team has established a great rapport with the community.  In the 2020-21 season where elephants come into town, no people and no elephants where killed in the operational area for the first time in memory. Firecrackers are a thing of the past and no longer do the Dambwa residents form mobs to chase and terrify elephant in the middle of the night. People are working with us, they are appreciating elephants and also grasping the possible benefits of tourism by working with the elephants. Instead of a conflict zone, we now have a cohabitation zone.

In June 2021 the newly formed Dambwa Community Business Unit (CBU), which combines respected and senior elders from the community and skilled CATS volunteers, is spearheading this great change of attitude by bringing tourism to the community.  They have designed some fun and exciting tours that will bring foreigners and residents alike into the cohabitation zone!  They have a sunset tour, a cultural tour, a bicycle tour, a birding tour, a walking tour and an elephant night viewing tour.

The (sewer) ponds have long been a main attraction for birders and now a young member of the community is being trained as a community guide to escort and help you find the rare and exotic bird species that frequent the pond system. Viewing platforms will be going up in key places to watch wildlife as it moves between the ponds and the Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park.

Revenue from the above tours and activities is directed at community sensitisation and upliftment programmes, litter management, and most importantly, youth groups and kids clubs are providing sports and educational activities for street youths and orphans. Community members are directly involved in the tours and benefits are shared fairly, equally and transparently.

It’s a shining example of how a little combined effort can effect great change. The people are happier, the elephants are happier and the Dambwa community is showing all of us that Zambians can love and benefit from their wildlife as much as the foreign tourists do.

It’s heartening to see how human cooperation and compassion can change so many lives and circumstances.  It’s why we rose to be the dominant species on the planet. It’s also why we are still perfectly placed to learn how to coexist and have cohabitation zones instead of conflict zones.

 If you would like to learn more about CATS or are able to support our work please get in touch on +260 9777 460 602. You can also check out CATS–Conservation and Tourism Society on Facebook.

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