Desperate situations call for desperate measures they say, but my recent observation suggests that measures should not only be frantic but strategic. If born out of collective wisdom, they help those in dire need to navigate near-impossible situations. Out of social and economic hardships, they gracefully pulled themselves out, and they now stand out as heroines among their equals.
Located in Mnkhanya Chiefdom, 20 women came together and formed Tilimbike Elephant Women’s Club, to grow and process Turmeric. They chose the name ‘Tilimbike’ which means ‘let’s be strong’ so they will remain strong and work hard despite elephants damaging their crops and they are determined to find a new market to sell their final processed products.
Outline of Luangwa Valley
The South Luangwa Valley is home to over 60 species of mammals and 450 species of birds. The Valley is known for its high densities of lions, leopards, and wild dogs, and remains a stronghold for elephants in Zambia. Elephants and people share the same habitat.
Elephants eat up to 450 kg of food per day. They are messy eaters, uprooting and scattering as much as they eat.
Mfuwe is the main settlement of South Luangwa National Park in the Eastern Province of Zambia, serving the tourism industry and wildlife conservation in the Luangwa Valley. The total population of Lupande Game Management Area (GMA) in Mfuwe is estimated to be 99,981 people (Mambwe IPD 2020). Lupande GMA has six chiefdoms namely Kakumbi, Mkhanya, Nsefu, Jumbe, Malama and Msoro.
The majority of the people in Lupande are subsistence farmers who grow crops such as maize, cotton, millet, sorghum, beans, pumpkins and sweet potatoes. Increasing human population growth in the areas adjacent to South Luangwa National Park has resulted in an increase of human–wildlife conflict. When wildlife damages crops, human properties, or even lives, this negatively influences the attitude toward wildlife and conservation issues.
Small-scale farmers – often poor and already economically and nutritionally vulnerable, forced by circumstances to encroach into elephant habitat – can lose their entire livelihood overnight from an elephant raid. Reports, World Wide Fund.
Statistics obtained from Conservation South Luangwa (CSL) indicate that in this year alone (2023) in Mnkhanya chiefdom, 254 cases of crop damage were reported, nine property damages were recorded, two livestock deaths were observed, and one human life was lost. While in Malama Chiefdom, 79 cases of crop damage were reported, seven attacks on livestock, five properties damaged, and one human life was lost and three people injured. In Kakumbi Chiefdom, 241 cases of crop damage were recorded, 64 properties damaged, 63 conflicts involving the death of livestock and sadly three human lives were lost and six people injured.
Different factors have caused people to kill animals other than just counteracting as most find it difficult to combat this problem, but fortunately, through initiatives by CSL people are gradually learning how to protect their crops, livestock, and themselves so they can coexist with wildlife.
Program Manager for CSL, Emma Robinson said they had to find ways of linking their work to livelihoods so that communities could benefit at household levels. They provide lemongrass, turmeric and chilli seeds to communities and teach them how to grow, process and pre-package ensuring quality guarantee. With this re-launch, they will be offering basic financial training and conservation awareness talks during game drives for local people.
“The biggest challenge is education, as the area is a Game Management Area where both people and animals have the right of way. Conservation organisation’s are often perceived to only focus on animals, but we are here to say we care about people too and we are trying to help find markets and grow from there”. Ms Robinson said.
My trip to South Luangwa was more about experiencing life as the locals do, observing their needs and hearing about their lived experiences.
So, I had a conversation with Festina Nyendwa, who started planting chilli in 2019. During the first year, she said she managed to buy a bag of mealie meal by herself from the profits and she’s now able to fully sponsor her child who is in boarding school. In addition, she has gained a lot of experience in growing chilli and is now able to train others in this business.
She added that before starting her chilli business, she was previously growing tomatoes and vegetables which elephants would eat but with chilli, she hasn’t had this problem.
Elephants dislike the smell of chilli and the taste of lemongrass, meaning farmers can safely grow these crops in fields where elephants roam. Buying these products supports conservation in South Luangwa, by helping people and elephants coexist.
Another cooperative named Ndombondombo, located in Kakumbi Chiefdom grows lemongrass which elephants do not like. They harvest, wash and once dried, cut it into small pieces for tea. The group has 14 members, four Men & 10 women.
I had the privilege of speaking to the Database Manager at CSL, Ruth Chitindi who said the CSL team has been buying seeds and distributing them to the communities for them to grow. After they harvest, they are prepackaged, and they help them sell. With the re-launching of elephant-friendly crops, the organization is hoping to wean these communities by encouraging them to find their own buyers and use some of the product to make their own chilli bombs. These are simple guns used to fire ping pong balls at elephants to chase them away filled with chilli oil as a mitigation measure.
The alternative elephant-friendly crops may seem limiting in terms of crop variety but certainly a blessing in disguise that in future may turn the fortunes around for many people in Luangwa and those beyond its borders faced with similar situations, as this initiative will not only be combating the human-wildlife conflict but providing sustainable income for locals and enabling them to coexist with wildlife. Worth-supporting? Of course, because that Luangwa narrative is a real tale of overcoming “against all odds”. A great initiative coupled with resilience and courage. It is an inspiring story with a compelling message that even in seemingly waste case scenarios there are extraordinary opportunities.