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Tanzania is the only country in the world that commemorates two Elephant Days, namely, World Elephant Day and the National Elephant Day. World Elephant Day is an international annual event on August 12, dedicated to the preservation and protection of the world's elephants. Since its launch in 2012, World Elephant Day is now recognized and celebrated by over 100 wildlife organizations and many individuals in countries across the globe. Conversely, National Elephant Day is a national event celebrated on September 22, dedicated to raising awareness around elephant conservation in Tanzania. Tanzania, once a stronghold of over 300,000 elephants has suffered a catastrophic decline to just around 60,000 currently due to poaching and illegal wildlife trade. This could have huge implication for tourism revenue generation which contributes 17% of the GDP (or over US$2,500 million in 2022), and over 6% of the total country’s employment, both direct and indirect. As a result, through the first National Elephant Action Plan (2010 – 2015), the government established a National Elephant Day to remember this unique flagship and iconic species that could easily be wiped out due to three major threats namely, poaching and illegal trade, human-elephant conflicts and habitat loss and fragmentation.
The month of September provides a Triple-win opportunity of addressing elephant conservation threats
This year, we celebrate the 13th National Elephant Day. This commemoration comes at the right time following two significant forums in September, where African leaders, policymakers, businesses, youth, farmers and civil society met at both the Africa Climate Summit and Africa Food Systems Forum, which ran concurrently in Nairobi, Kenya and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. There were two diverse events but one clear message — sustainable food systems and a stable climate are co-dependent. The resolutions from the two fora have both direct and indirect implications on elephant conservation and management. In order to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, we need to transform food production, consumption, loss and waste, and Tanzanian food systems will only be sustainable if we innovate to adapt to the changing climate landscape and also mitigate human-wildlife conflicts effectively. This also comes at the time when we are gearing up for the Fourth International Day of Awareness of Food Loss and Waste on September 29, 2023, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has announced that the theme for this year is “Reducing Food Loss and Waste: Taking Action to Transform Agrifood Systems.” This month, with conservation partners, we will be creating awareness among communities in the Southern Kenya northern Tanzania (SOKNOT) transboundary landscape that are impacted by elephants, featuring examples of conflict mitigation approaches from the field and actionable interventions including repair of water systems damaged by elephants for the benefit of the community and provision of equipment to deter elephants. With the 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28) and other high-level climate and food systems events on the horizon, now is the time to highlight the triple-win opportunity of addressing elephant-driven food loss to improve climate and food security, and local economic development in elephant ranges.
Over one-third of the world’s food is lost or wasted, undermining efforts to end hunger and malnutrition, but the contribution of wildlife towards food loss in the form of livestock predation and crop damage has not been properly quantified to ascertain its national and global contribution to food insecurity. According to FAO, 30% of global food loss occurs during agricultural production and harvest, while the remaining 70% occurs during postharvest, processing and packaging, retail and distribution, and consumption stages. In this value chain, elephant damage occurs at production stage while in the farm and sometimes forcing premature harvesting making it not only costly for farmers to dry the harvested crop but also leads to some loss resulting from rotting and disease attacks. Elephants are also known to damage grain stores and houses to access food after post-harvest. At the consumption stage, habituated elephants are known to raid houses at night when they smell the maize meal under preparation and people are forced to cook their meals before darkness to avoid elephant raiding. Many farmers who guard crops at night have succumbed to elephant attacks while elephants have not been spared either through retaliatory attacks.
Addressing food loss in elephant ranges is critical not only to local food security, nutrition, sustainable food systems and climate change mitigation but also to enhance positive attitude towards elephant conservation and management by local people. According to Tanzania food insecurity 2021-2022 statistics, eliminating food loss would contribute towards providing enough food to feed 5.3 million experiencing insufficient food in Tanzania . Moreover, initiatives to reduce food loss are critical to combat climate change and improve environmental health. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that food loss and waste is the source of nearly 50 million tons (Mt) of methane emission per year and its reduction, in alignment with Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12.3, would lead to an abatement of methane emissions.
We cannot achieve the triple wins of addressing food loss by acting in isolation. During the last Convention on Biological Diversity conference, the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework (GBF) was adopted which includes consideration of Human Wildlife Conflict in its framework after intense lobbying by conservation organizations. FAO, on its part, also assists Member Countries to prevent and reduce human-wildlife conflicts by approaching it as an interrelated social and technical issue, in order to improve food security, livelihoods and health of rural populations. It has produced a guide on how to address human-wildlife conflict. Others in the global development community are working together to synergize efforts to improve food security and increase farmers’ incomes. Nationally, in Tanzania, apart from recognizing elephant conservation and management in its action plan, a number of steps have been considered to reduce human-wildlife conflicts including: the development of a National Human-Wildlife conflict management strategy 2020 – 2024; enactment of corridor guidelines (2018) with a view to secure wildlife corridors; and development of the Wildlife Corridor Action Plan and putting in place an inter-Ministerial committee to oversee its implementation. Other measures include review of revenue sharing mechanism between the government and the Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs) and promoting the ‘Royal Tour’ as a tourism marketing strategy being championed by the President of the Republic of Tanzania. Similarly, the Tanzania government works collaboratively with external entities to leverage the private and the non-governmental sectors to influence national change to reduce human-wildlife conflict.
To this end, while the government of Tanzania has demonstrated the energy and political will to tackle human-elephant conflict, however, it still remains elusive. A consortium of private actors (e.g., for-profits, non-governmental organizations and academia) have come together to commit to solving the problem in collaboration with the Wildlife Corridor committee through a national wildlife forum that is planned to be held soon. This will openly engage stakeholders on how to secure the over 70% of the wildlife corridors that are threatened by encroachment due to heightened human activities including settlements, farming, infrastructural development, mining, etc, and put concrete dollar amounts, solutions and partnerships together. The process may not be that easy because of the politics and sensitivity around land use and ownership while upholding human rights. However, despite the growing and energetic global community working on solving food loss by wildlife and elephants in particular, there are currently limited innovation towards its mitigation. A lot of focus has been on treating the symptoms and not the root causes making it extremely complex to mitigate conflict. Conflict mitigation innovation sprints are the perfect venue to bring the energy of this community toward action to solve crop damage challenges. We have to speak louder like never before for the future survival of elephants and to allow these majestic beasts and people to live alongside one another. Lets make elephants conservation everyone’s business.