Living on the border of an African national park can be a dangerous and frustrating experience. Predators like lions, leopards, and hyenas often leave the protection of the park and can kill cattle, livestock, and even people. Elephants, baboons, and bush pigs search the surrounding farms for easily available crops and can wipe out a family’s annual food supply in one night. The fact that many parks are essentially islands in a sea of farms, mitigating human-wildlife conflict is an important issue in African conservation. During my recent safari to Uganda we spent a few hours learning how local farmers living on the border of Queen Elizabeth National Park cope with these dangerous animals.
Deo's Elephant Trench
Deo is a local farmer living on the southern border of Queen Elizabeth National Park. Deo and his neighboring farmers face a constant threat from predators and other animals that wander out of the park. One solution was the construction of a deep trench between the park and neighboring farm lands. In conjunction with the Ugandan Conservation Foundation, the Uganda Wildlife
Authority and local village councils, a trench that is 12 miles long, 6 feet wide and 6 feet deep was dug (manually!!) along traditional elephant migration routes. The trench is designed to keep hungry elephants from raiding crops. As Deo explained to us, if an elephant can’t touch the ground with its trunk it won’t cross the trench. The elephant trench can work both ways: it keeps elephants out of crop land and it can prevent illegal cattle grazing in the park.
Building and maintaining the trench requires lots of hard work. Using hoes and shovels each farmer has to maintain the trench passing through his property. Deo invited us down into the trench for a taste of the work involved. We descended into the trench on a rickety, homemade ladder and took turns loosening the red soil with a makeshift hoe. All the excavated dirt is piled high on one side of the trench. After only a few minutes throwing dirt nearly 10 feet above me, I was breaking a sweat! The trench not 100% effective as lions, leopards, and baboons can still cross. Elephants have learned they can kick dirt down the sides so they can cross or they cross at poorly maintained sections. The frequent heavy rain quickly erodes sides so constant maintenance is required.
Deo also showed us other strategies he uses to protect his crops. He and his family will sleep in guard huts located in his fields to keep a look out for invading elephants and bush pigs. If an animal is spotted, he would bang on empty jerry cans to scare the animals and alert others that an elephant or bush pig is in the area. Deo will also burn a mixture of elephant dung and chili peppers to deter elephants. The elephants strongly dislike the acrid smoke and will return to the park.
Deo’s Homestead Tour
Deo not only maintains the elephant trench he’s also a craftsman, an herbalist, a subsistence organic farmer, and chairman of the local community group. During our visit with him he showed us some of the farming techniques he uses to maximize his yield of maize, bananas, and other crops. He is also trained in Medicinal Plant Use and showed us various plants and shrubs and how they are used in traditional medicine.
Ishasha Community Uplift Project
A visit to Deo’s Homestead is part of the Ishasha Community Uplift Group, a project designed to help the local agricultural communities located around the southern border of Queen Elizabeth National Park. Part of the tour cost goes directly to Deo’s family, part to support other local projects, and part to a Savings and Loan program that provides loans to local farmers.
This community tour is a perfect complement to the more tradition activities, such as game drives and bird watching, that bring tourists to this region of Uganda. A visit with Deo directly supports his family and provides some insight into the lives and struggles of rural Ugandan farmers. Deo’s homestead is just off the Bwindi-Ishasha Road so can easily be fitted into most Ugandan itineraries.