Elephants as Political Actors

By Lauren A. Evans, Space for GiantsNanyuki, Kenya, and Williams M. Adams, University of Cambridge, UK

This video clip was caught by a camera trap positioned along an electric fence built to keep wild elephants away from smallholder farms in Kenya.  It shows a group of male African elephants, banded together to break the fence to raid farmers’ fields. It shows a distinct leader who breaks the fence while the others follow. In such raids, this elephant is often bigger, older and takes more risks.  In our Transactions of the British Institute of Geographers paper we show that these elephants are powerful and influential actors in human-elephant conflict (especially crop-raiding) and in shaping the politics that surrounds their conservation.

Our study site was a human-elephant conflict hotspot – Laikipia in northern Kenya – and a hotbed of diverse human actors (smallholder farmers, large-scale landowners, pastoralists, conservationists, national wildlife department the Kenya Wildlife Service) with different and often conflicting politics relating to land and elephants. We worked closely with the NGO Space for Giants.

The major challenge of bringing elephants to life as actors is that they can’t speak. We needed a creative methodology to understand the elephant experience as much as the human. We used infrared camera traps and GPS collars to directly observe elephant movement across landscapes and behaviour at fences. An elephant tracker observed crop-raiding elephants on a motorbike equipped with a camera and GPS. A network of local scouts collected information on the timing location and nature of fence-breaks and crop-raids.  We used interviews, questionnaires, and focus groups to understand human ideas about and responses to elephants, crop-raiding and fences.

Laikipia’s colonial and post-colonial land polices created a mosaic of land use. The British colonial government evicted Maasai pastoralists and settled Europeans on large-scale ranches. After independence some settlers sold their ranches and they were divided into small plots and bought by smallholder farmers.  Agriculture was hard here: land was dry and rocky so many plots were abandoned, leaving scattered subsistence farms.

Elephants were post-colonial arrivals to Laikipia in the 1970s, driven by insecurity and ivory poaching to the north. Ranches provided ideal ‘elephant spaces’ – contiguous habitat where elephants thrived. They arrived as powerful actors, protected by legislation to reduce poaching and ivory trade.  Yet elephants created a major problem for smallholder farmers. Subsistence farms with ripe crops, lay right next to ranches. When elephants raid crops, they impose their own interests on a landscape intensively used by people, and transform farmland into a “beastly place”.  Despite simple defenses have little capacity to defend their ripening crops against raids by elephants at night. Elephants hold the balance of power.

Data from GPS collars worn by crop-raiding elephants indicate an awareness and avoidance of risk. Elephants leave spaces where they feel safe and enter farmland only when the risk of injury to them from people is low (at night, when few people are around), and they raid crops where farms are scattered rather than concentrated and lie near to elephant habitat. They move faster when they leave the safety of ranches and move into farms, reflecting their awareness of heightened risk.  An electric fence was built along the boundaries of ranches to separate Laikipia into space for elephants and for farming. But elephants frequently break this fence and resisted the human ordering of the landscape, again at night, where it had a low voltage and gave a low shock, and where it was situated close to crops. Elephants impose cost and risk on farmers, and do so in a way that minimises risk and maximises opportunity for themselves.

We found distinct individual behaviour among the elephants we studied. Groups of male elephants break fences (average six, maximum 12). But three bulls – aptly known as Ismael, Nelson, Ananais to Space for Giants – carried out over 70% of fence-breaks in one year. All three were between 35 and 40 years old.  By watching breaks directly and through camera traps we found that these bulls were “breakers” – they physically broke the fence, while a group of younger smaller “follower” bulls waited to cross once the fence had been broken by the breaker. Groups of elephants always had one “breaker” in it, often with the same followers, and young adolescent bulls that would come and go.

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Fence-breaking behaviour, therefore, seems to be “learned” and “taught” among bull elephant society. Young bulls associate with more experienced bulls and learn risky behaviour. “Breaker” bulls represented a frontline of risk-taking bulls – elephants willing to face the risk of injury/mortality posed by humans to raid crops.  In Laikipia, it was the behaviour of these “breakers” in space and time that ultimately shaped the human–elephant relationship with smallholders.

To reduce crop raiding, the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) de-tusked some “breaker” elephants – removing part of the tusk to make it harder to break electric fences. Yet elephants invented new ways to break the fence with their stumped tusks and with their feet, body and trunks. KWS then anesthetized 12 of the most prolific breakers and translocated them some 200km away to Meru National Park. After a year, the fence was broken as frequently as before, now by three former – “follower” elephants. Meanwhile, the translocated animals had introduced fence-breaking to Meru National Park, where the fence had never been broken before.

As a species and as individuals, elephants are powerful, political actors, determined to maintain landscapes as a shared space whatever the wishes of their human neighbours.  To accommodate the individuality, vibrancy, and adaptability of elephants in human occupied landscapes, the management of human-elephant conflict needs to become more dynamic. Protected areas are too small and rigidly conceived to accommodate the needs of elephants to move, and their capacity to enforce this movement by crossing barriers erected to stop them.  Human-elephant conflict needs to be understood as emerging from interactions of individual elephants and people in specific landscapes, rather than as a standard problem likely to be tackled effectively by a standard solution. It needs to pay close attention to the individual behaviours, social dynamics and associations of elephants as actors, their predilection for crops and their tolerance of risk.

Evans L. A., Adams W. M. Elephants as actors in the political ecology of human–elephant conflict. Trans Inst Br Geogr. 2018;00:1–16. https://doi.org/10.1111/tran.12242






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