The lure and peril of southern Africa’s elephants


Here’s how to pitch this (true) story to Hollywood: Ordinary guy named John, ordinary Sunday, cycling home into a setting sun. Monster roars out of the bushes!

John abandons his bike, flees in terror. The creature smashes the bicycle, catches him in a few short strides, grabs him by the shirt. But he slides out of his shirt and falls to the ground.

It picks him up again and he slips out of his trousers. Naked, too afraid to even scream, he scrambles away. But he doesn’t get far. The shrieking monster smashes him against a tree.


Camera pans to an elderly woman approaching, unaware of the danger.

Within minutes she’ll be lying on the path, crushed.

The Hollywood twist? These people live in a bizarre universe where the rampaging monsters (and there are thousands of them) are protected and the people are not.

Cut to the killer creatures grazing peacefully (cue close-up of gentle, intelligent eyes with 3-inch lashes) along with their unbearably cute offspring.

Of course, to sell it, you’d need to change a few details: Lose the African villagers; make them suburban Americans. And the monster couldn’t be that beloved giant, the elephant. Who would believe it?


The man killed was John Muyengo, a 25-year-old from a village called Katubya in southern Zambia. The woman was Mukiti Ndopu, highly respected in the village, the wife of the chief.

A neighbor, Muyenga Katiba, 44, saw the elephant charge the young man on that April day. He gathered his wife and children, and they cowered inside his hut.

“The boy didn’t even scream,” Katiba said of Muygeno. “He just died quietly.”

Deaths like these are increasing in southern Zambia and northern Botswana, where people are crammed in with a growing elephant population. There are no reliable statistics on fatalities in southern Africa, but in one region of southern Zambia alone, five people have died this year, compared with one last year, according to Zambian news reports.


Elephants, endangered in Central Africa, are common in the south, mainly because an international ban on ivory trading drastically has reduced poaching.

Today, Botswana has 151,000 elephants, and Namibia about 10,000. In southern Zambia, the elephant population has more than doubled, from 3,000 to 7,000, many of them “immigrants” from Zimbabwe, where poaching and hunting are rife.

The animals capture the imagination because they’re intelligent, emotional creatures. They mourn their dead and try to help tribe members who get sick.

But as next-door neighbors?

You pit yourself daily against highly intelligent, dangerous thieves. You go hungry as they eat your crops. You’re afraid to send your children to school, or your wife to the clinic. But at some point you have to go to town for food, and you walk the dusty red paths with fear in your heart.

If you get fed up and shoot an elephant, you’ll be jailed, because the animals are protected. They’re seen as valuable to Zambia, because they attract tourists, bringing millions in revenue.

But people aren’t protected. Nor are their crops, or houses. There’s no compensation when someone is killed. So people living in elephant country complain that governments and tourists like elephants more than people.


Albert Mumbeko of Katubya, a former railway worker, lives in a flimsy house of grass and sticks: That was the only barrier between him and a massive bull elephant that woke the 76-year-old and his wife at midnight a few months back.

It was gobbling down his small corn crop.

Mumbeko crept out, heart beating wildly. “I could see its eyes in the moonlight, big and fierce. It looked very angry and aggressive. Its ears were open.”

That’s an elephant warning. He and his wife fled, but the elephant stomped their house down. Then went on eating.

“We felt very angry, we felt very sad when we came back and saw our house destroyed.”

When he sees an elephant, he feels impotent fury. “We hate elephants. They’re all bad.”

It’s a warm October evening, a good time for elephant-spotting in Mosi O Tunya National Park in southern Zambia. As the sky turns to slate, a group of elephants swims across a river. Suddenly, the exhilarating sound of an elephant trumpeting, right by the car.

Dozens of elephants meander peacefully or wallow in the water. One old bull elephant splashes water over himself. Small elephants frolic.

One baby, with mini-tusks, trots amid the matriarchal group. On short legs, it falls behind. It curls its little trunk into its mouth and prances, breaking into a gallop to catch up with the big group.


Several open-topped safari vehicles chug alongside, as rangers exchange radio intel on the best elephant viewing. All is quiet, except for the call of birds, the engines and the ceaseless tweeting and clicking from the nest of excited digital cameras.

Seasoned elephant watcher Ferrel Osborn is awed by the creatures. That doesn’t mean he’s sentimental about them.

“I’m fascinated by elephants,” he says. “But I don’t love them.”

He’s not the kind of conservationist who thinks that the real elephant problem is people -- African overpopulation and habitat destruction.

He thinks that humans can live with elephants, as long as they take a few simple precautions. One key is giving people an incentive to try: At the moment, the revenue generated by tourism doesn’t trickle down to those whose livelihoods are threatened by the animals.

His outfit, the Elephant Pepper Development Trust, hopes to preserve elephants by helping farmers protect their crops, reducing conflict and saving both human and animal lives.

The Zambia-based trust trains African farmers to repel elephants by using chile peppers. Elephants hate chiles.


African farmers often burn chiles as a repellent, but it’s not enough. The trust’s method involves four simple steps, but takes a lot of work and commitment.

The method: 1) Leave 5 yards of cleared space between the forest and the fields. At night, smelling humans around, crossing the gap into a field makes the elephants nervous. 2) Plant a thick barrier of chiles around the field. 3) Put up a fence with rope that has jangling cans (which gives them a fright) and cloth flags coated with thick chile-spiked grease. 4) Burn chiles, making pungent smoke.

The trust guarantees to buy chiles grown from farmers and manufactures its own Elephant Pepper brand of chile spices and sauces, sold in southern Africa and soon to hit the U.S. market. (They are already available to U.S. customers via the group’s website.) The profits go back into the trust.

“We say, ‘We are not here to give you food or money,’ ” Osborn said. “ ‘We’re here to give you an idea. It’s up to you to take it up.’ ”

One Zambian farmer followed the method carefully and has successfully kept elephants off his crops for three years. It worked so well that his neighbors accused him of practicing witchcraft.

But the most important long-term solution, the foundation says, is for people to stop settling and planting crops in established elephant corridors.


“These corridors have been there for decades, so it’s easier to move the farmers rather than the corridors,” Osborn said. But land use is a highly sensitive issue, controlled by tribal chiefs, who decide who can live and farm where. If your chief gives you land -- even in the middle of an elephant corridor -- that’s where you go. But passing elephants will gobble the crop, and your family will be at risk of elephant attack.

The governments in the region don’t do much to help farmers, according to local aid organizations and farmers -- and the Elephant Pepper Development Trust is too small and poorly funded to train every farmer in southern Africa and supply chile repellent start-up kits.

Farmers, seeing few benefits flowing from tourism, resent the government’s inaction.

“The tourists come, but people here don’t have safe drinking water and they have poor schools, and they feel like they’re not getting any benefit,” Osborn said. “If the community could see that you do get a lot of money from the tourists, I honestly think they would not mind the elephants.”

Mumbeko, whose house was demolished, has his own solution: If tourists love elephants so much, the government should fence them in.

“When I see one of those animals, I just know it wants to kill me.”