A tale of communities battling to keep elephants out of their crop fields amidst an already insufficient harvest, coupled with an impending drought, has left farmers resorting to vigilante tactics for survival.
“For as long as they [elephants] continue destroying our crop fields and the government continues insulting us with the N$250 compensation, we will continue shooting these elephants,” said 65-year-old Kapuku Rutjindo, a disgruntled crop farmer in the Kunene region.
His comments come in the aftermath of the killing of two elephants over the past seven days at Ondjete, a village some 25 kilometres south of Opuwo, Kunene’s regional capital.
Rutjindo admitted being the shooter of one of the elephants. “The conflict with elephants is not new. But as a community, we have changed our approach to dealing with the situation because we have given up. We have now decided to shoot to kill the elephants,” he fumed.
Rutjindo said records of their fields have been collected by officials from the environment and tourism ministry, and local conservancies. Existing laws dictate that a farmer can only be compensated if the destroyed crop fields damaged by wildlife measures a hectare or more.
Surprisingly, there are no such crop fields in Kunene, where the largest elephant population outside the Etosha National Park is found.
“It is crazy to expect a poor villager like myself to have a garden stretching over a hectare. That is massive tracts of land that our cattle and small stock can graze in,” he noted.
What added fuel to the already existing fire was the recent compensation they received from the ministry.
“Those who lost livestock [goats and cattle] were paid N$500 per head, while those whose fields were destroyed received a paltry N$250. Now, compare a goat to a crop field, even in our traditional setting. A goat is just something we can kill for pleasure at home, while a crop field is a means of survival,” he amplified.
He survives strictly from his garden, and anything that destroys it threatens his livelihood and that of his family.
It is a cry they have registered with the authorities.
“That is an insult. How do you pay N$500 for a goat and N$250 for a whole field? So, we decided to retaliate. We have been pushed to the edge, and have no choice but to fight back. Is this really a caring government that gives such compensation? Not even our labour, seeds and produce can be replaced with that N$250,” he continued.
His rifle has since been confiscated by the police.
But this too will not deter him from using anything in his arsenal to fend off the elephants.
“As we speak, last night [Wednesday], the elephants again entered my crop fields. Because I slept there to guard my crops, I saw them. My gun is with the police, so I took my bow and arrow and shot at them until they fled. I expect them to come again, and this is how we will continue meeting each other until we are taken seriously,” he said.
Meanwhile, conservationist Iho-lumue Tjikundi reacted to the incidents, saying it is time for conservancies and traditional leaders to take the lead in finding solutions and interventions with regards to managing and reducing elephant damage to properties and human livelihoods, as opposed to waiting for solutions from Windhoek.
“Human-wildlife conflict (HWC) should not be seen only as a conservation problem, but as a challenge needing everybody’s attention. The Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism (MEFT) should strongly, as a matter of urgency, establish a HWC rapid response unit. Some of these incidents are seasonal, and every year about the same time (crop-harvesting time), similar incidents happen, over and over again. This could be easily predicted and proactively avoided”, he stated.
Namibia, particularly the northern communal areas, face an impending drought, so much so that some farmers and unions have called for a state of emergency to be declared.
Zambezi governor Lawrence Sampofu recently requested President Hage Geingob to declare a state of emergency over the impending drought situation that has gripped the northern parts of the country.
“We have a food security crisis. So, can we look at maybe declaring drought in the country,” Sampofu propossed to Geingob.
So far, Cabinet has direted the Office of the Prime Minister to extend the drought relief programme by the tune of N$121 million to Kunene, and parts of Erongo and Omusati. The programme runs from April to May 2024, according to existing criteria.
The MEFT is aware of the incident, spokesperson Romeo Muyunda informed New Era yesterday.
An investigation is underway.
“We understand the animals were shot in the crop fields by the farmers there. We will open cases against the people, and submit to the office of the prosecutor general for advice whether or not to prosecute those involved. Investigations are ongoing in the matter by the MEFT and the police,” he stated.
Muyunda then cautioned farmers against taking matters into their own hands.
“We wish also to take this opportunity to urge farmers and communities not to take the law into their own hands, but rather to report incidents to the ministry for an amicable solution,” he pleaded.
While Rutjindo was battling to keep marauding elephants at bay, Vice President Nangolo Mbumba was addressing a high-level human-wildlife conflict indaba in the capital, Windhoek.
Driving home his message, he said HWC should not be the responsibility of the government and the line ministry alone. It is thus a collective responsibility for all.
Mbumba said this on Wednesday at the commencement of a three-day National Conference on Human-Wildlife Conflict Management.
“The impact of this conflict on people and their property is a difficult challenge that conservation agencies and institutions such as the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism are facing,” he stated.
Mbumba said conservancies are now benefiting 245 000 people in various regions.
He thus called upon the national conference to review and discuss progress, challenges and opportunities in the implementation of this policy so that they may have specific resolutions and actions to implement specific preventative, protective and mitigative strategies for HWC management.
On his part, Minister of Environment, Forestry and Tourism Pohamba Shifeta said policies have been and are developed to address specific environmental and wildlife management issues, rural development, tourism development and poverty reduction.
One such policy is the National Policy on Human-Wildlife Conflict Management which was approved by Cabinet, put in place in 2009 and revised in 2018.
He stressed that the scale and urgency of the problem requires the government to develop an integrated, flexible and comprehensive policy towards dealing with HWC.
Shifeta said more needs to be done in the implementation of this policy, and in putting mitigation and preventative measures to manage human-wildlife conflict. -additional reporting by Nampa