Zambian villagers at war with elephants fleeing Zimbabwean poachers

They came at night. Half a dozen huge, angry beasts trampled through the village, devouring anything edible and destroying everything in their path.

In a matter of minutes, the small villages harvest was gone and the Zambian inhabitants had lost another round in the battle against the elephants fleeing across the border from Zimbabwe.

This year the problem has got worse. There is nothing we can do. The elephants have become so dangerous, sometimes they even destroy our homes. They eat all the mangoes everything, said Edna Mwamubi, an elder who organised the lighting of bonfires to try to frighten off the beasts. They know the smoke will not last and just go off a little distance and then come back. Even firecrackers no longer scare them.

The village, on the Zambian side of the mighty Zambezi River, just a few miles from the spectacular Victoria Falls, lies on the traditional migratory route for elephants from game parks in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia. The resident elephant population has doubled from 3,000 a few years ago to more than 7,000 today but it is the influx of animals from Zimbabwe, where they are being poached in increasing numbers by unpaid soldiers in Robert Mugabes army, that is of particular concern.

These elephants are ill tempered and very dangerous, often scarred and cut from the poachers snares, and sometimes limping along with gunshot wounds that do not heal unless the bullets are removed.

Elephants live in matriarchal societies and quickly become delinquent if the hierarchical family units are destroyed. Young bulls forced out of a herd too soon are particularly dangerous.

Since February many have plunged into the Zambezi and crossed over to Zambia, even though the river is in spate.

It is a sign of the danger they are facing that they are prepared to cross even at places which are not traditional crossing points, said a Zambian wildlife official, who asked not to be named. It is not normal for these sorts of numbers at this time of year.

People on that side are starving and they can make money out of both elephant meat and ivory.

The Zambian Wildlife Authority confiscated a consignment of tusks recently from Zimbabwe worth tens of thousands of pounds. Reports say Chinese middlemen, who arrived at the same time that lucrative mining deals were being struck with Beijing, are helping poachers to find buyers for the ivory in the Far East.

Since February five people in the Mukuni area have been killed in elephant attacks, compared with one death during the whole of last year. Some schools in the area report a 20 per cent drop in attendance rates because children, some of whom walk as far as five miles a day through the bush to get to school, are too frightened to venture out.

Japhet Simoombe, a teacher whose school garden was destroyed by elephants a few weeks ago, said: You cannot go anywhere near them. They know you are coming and charge at you straight away.

Zambian villagers are ill equipped to deal with the threat and are forbidden by law from killing elephants but they receive no compensation when their crops are destroyed fuelling their anger against the beasts.

People from Europe dont understand how frightening elephants can be for local people, said Malvern Karidozo, a Zimbabwean environmentalist who is studying ways of helping people and wildlife to co-exist. The villagers hate them. It is becoming a war.

The Times (UK)

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