In an area of northern Botswana roughly the size of Yellowstone National Park, 15,000 elephants compete with 15,000 people for access to water, food, and land.
The Ecoexist team predominantly works in the eastern Okavango Panhandle, beyond the borders of any protected area.
In this region, the populations of people and elephants are nearly equal—about 15,000 each. In a shared space of just over 8,000 square kilometers, people and elephants compete directly for access to water, food, and land.
Shaped like the handle of a frying pan, the Panhandle is the place where the Okavango River enters Botswana before dispersing across the alluvial fan of the Okavango Delta. People and elephants share just over 8,000 square kilometers on the eastern side of the Panhandle. The land they share is bounded as a triangle. On one side is the border with Namibia, marked by a double electrified veterinary fence. On another side is Botswana’s Northern Buffalo Fence, meant to keep livestock and wildlife from crossing paths. On a third side is the Okavango River.
At certain times of the year, elephants in the region move southward and east from seasonal waters in the pans near Namibia to the waters of the Okavango Delta. Along the way, they pass through villages and settlements of the Panhandle, using distinct pathways remembered and followed by elephants for generations.
The elephants’ movements coincide with the annual harvest of crops. During this time, for several months each year, people and elephants cross paths often, doing their best to stay out of each other’s way. Yet competition does exist for certain resources and conflicts are inevitable. Elephants will raid and trample crops, and people will clear land for new farms on or near elephant pathways.
Sometimes the encounters result in death, for elephants and people. For example, since 2006, elephants killed seven people in the Panhandle; and people killed an average of 20 elephants per year. When the rains return in November, the elephants disperse from the Delta and return to the pans in the north.
For all these reasons, the eastern Okavango Panhandle is a hotspot for human-elephant conflicts. It’s a place where the mere act of planting a field every year is a gamble for farmers, especially in light of crop-raiding elephants and a place where elephants roam beyond the boundaries of protected areas, yet are squeezed into smaller and smaller habitats every year as agricultural lands expand and human settlements grow.