Dr Kristine Meise Interview

April 10, 2020

Botswana’s success in wildlife conservation has led to a resurgence in elephant numbers. More and more of the big animals are moving into regions where local people haven’t seen them for several decades - and conflict is escalating. Conservationist Dr. Kristine Meise works at Elephants for Africa, an organisation that is implementing real-life solutions for local people.


Dr. Kristine Meise (right) of Elephants For Africa, at a community workshop in Motopi Village, near the Boteti River in Botswana. Community outreach officer Walona Sehularo is on the left of the photo.

Dr. Kristine Meise (right) of Elephants For Africa, at a community workshop in Motopi Village, near the Boteti River in Botswana. Community outreach officer Walona Sehularo is on the left of the photo.

Botswana’s elephant population has risen from 11 000 in 1973 to over 130 000 currently.  This is around 40% of Africa’s savanna elephants. Zimbabwe has the second most, around 25%. Angola (twice the size of Botswana) has fewer than 4 000. Mozambique (30% larger) has fewer than 10 000.

Most African countries have comparatively small elephant populations (or none at all) because of rampant ivory poaching and corruption. Botswana – with its ban on hunting (until recently),  solid law enforcement and thriving ecotourism model – has become a refuge for Southern Africa’s elephants.

But as more elephants have found sanctuary in this peaceful country, they are moving south from Chobe and the Okavango, into regions where previously they’ve rarely been seen, like the areas of Boteti River, central Kalahari and Makgadikgadi Pans.

Conflict between humans and elephants is escalating. Besides the potential danger they pose to the physical safety of people, the big animals are a common, daily threat to crop farmers: one bull can eat a family’s annual crop production in a night.

Conservationist Dr. Kristine Meise manages a small team of researchers and community officers at Elephants for Africa, an organisation that is implementing real-life solutions for people living with elephants along the Boteti River, in the west of Makgadikgadi Pans National Park.  She and her team are based near the Kumaga gate of the national park.

I chatted recently to Kristine at Meno a Kwena, on the banks of the Boteti River, north of Kumaga.

 

Scott Ramsay: You’re from a small town three hours south of Hamburg in Germany, but you’ve worked as a researcher in the Galapagos (researching a PhD on male sea lions), in Namibia (with baboons) and in Kenya (studying communication between herbivore species). How did you start working as a conservationist with local people in Botswana?

Kristine Meise: During my research work with wild animal species in Africa, it became clear to me that communities – to a large degree – are not benefiting from living alongside wild animals. Instead, their lives are often negatively impacted by the presence of wild animals like elephants and lions.

I saw that in Kenya and Namibia, and now in Botswana too.

"Conservation is more than just species protection. For wildlife conservation to work, it also has to include Africa’s communities."

Conservation is more than just species protection. For wildlife conservation to work, it also has to include Africa’s communities.

So I wanted to make a difference in the bigger picture and in June 2019, I began working for Elephants for Africa in the Makgadikgadi Pans region of Botswana.

Our work here builds on the work which researcher Dr. Kate Evans had begun in 2002 in the Okavango, where she conducted her PhD on the movement and behaviour of male elephants. She established Elephants for Africa in 2007.

In 2012, Elephants for Africa moved to the Boteti Region where we initially worked on elephant demographics and social behaviour of male elephants in the park. But Dr. Kate Evans soon realized that local people really needed some immediate help, because of increasing conflict between that elephants and local famers.

 

Can you give some more context on how elephants are impacting the lives of local people here in the Boteti region of Makgadikgadi Pans?

More and more elephants are moving south every year from northern Botswana. If you speak to elderly people who grew up near the Boteti River, they will say they never saw elephants until the early 2000s.

Then in 2008 the Okavango had one of its biggest floods, and due to ecological changes, the overflow fed into the Boteti River which had been dry for 18 years up to that point. From then on the elephants started moving here in larger numbers.

Initially it was only elephant bulls which moved south. The breeding herds tended to stay in the north, probably because the matriarchs are more cautious about leading the youngsters into areas where there are people, roads and towns. Only recently have a few breeding herds moved into the area.

The bulls, however, aren’t easily scared off. They’ve got no young to protect which makes them more likely to raid a farmer’s crops because they’re bolder.

"Elephants are mostly dangerous because of how we react to them."

Elephants aren’t dangerous because they’re inherently dangerous. They’re mostly dangerous because of how we react to them, and how they respond to our reaction. So if people know how to interpret an elephant’s behaviour they in turn can react safely and appropriately, defusing a potentially dangerous situation.

 

How big is your team, and what sort of solutions are you helping implement for locals?

Our local team in Botswana is fairly small with just four people. Myself, Walona Sehularo (the community outreach officer), Mankind Molosiwa (a local farmer who works with other farmers) and Thatayaone Motsentwa (our research assistant).

Walona does a lot of community education, going from village to village to talk about how to deal with wild animals like elephants. As mentioned, if you know how to read an elephant’s behaviour, and react accordingly, it can potentially defuse a dangerous situation.

So the education work that Walona does is critical, not just for adults, but for children too. He meets with several of the schools and give monthly lectures to pupils.

We also do a lot of general environmental education, around fresh water use, climate change and species extinction. We also introduce the kids to careers in wildlife research and tourism, by taking them into the national park and exposing them to the local role models.

"Mankind is our farmer outreach officer. He’s a farmer himself, and so he knows exactly what the challenges are."

Mankind is our farmer outreach officer. He’s a farmer himself, and so he knows exactly what the challenges are.

There are over forty farmers that he works with in the Kumaga area. He arranges workshops with them to discuss and implement solutions that will keep elephants out of crop fields – mostly maize, sorghum, watermelons and beans.

He also gives talks on how to implement conservation-friendly farming methods like composting, which can improve yield on crops, as well as how to market crops to buyers more efficiently.

Then Thatayaone Motsentwa is our research assistant who currently focuses on tracking elephant bulls on community land, to understand their movements and habits.

That way we can get a better understanding of where elephants are likely to move, and that helps us inform and warn local people. He’s also a brilliant researcher who is good at spotting elephants when we do our work in the national park.

 

What sort of solutions are most effective in keeping elephants out of crops?

We advocate the use of a mixture of dried chilli and dried elephant dung, which is burned in small containers that are placed around the crop field.

The smoke burns the elephants’ eyes, keeping them away from the field. It’s quite effective, but it’s not always easy to get supplies of enough dried chillis. Chilli is water intensive and difficult to grow in Botswana!

"A more sustainable, effective solution – but also more expensive – is the use of solar-powered electric fences."

A more sustainable, effective solution – but also more expensive – is the use of solar-powered electric fences. These are very effective at keeping elephants out of fields.

But because elephants are so intelligent, they learn how to short the electric fences by using their tusks or pushing a younger bull through the fence first! So we always recommend multiple mitigation methods…not just one.

Mankind and a few other farms have installed electric fences with help from EFA, and this method has worked really well.

Mankind used to have to spend each night in his field, to chase the elephants away with nothing more than a torch and some shouting at the elephants! So he’s definitely happier – and safer – now that he’s got his electric fence.

The use of bee hives along fences have been trialed, but they aren’t effective here in the Boteti region, because bees need water and pollen from flowers. Because this region only gets rain for a few weeks every year, bees don’t do so well.

In other areas, people considered digging trenches around the fields, but that’s a hugely time-consuming and difficult solution that is hard to roll out across lots of crop fields.

Also, in the Boteti region, where the soil is very sandy, trenches don’t really work. The trenches also pose danger to other wildlife that can get stuck in the trenches.

 

How many local people are you attempting to impact with your work?

We work intensively with three communities based adjacent to the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. We’re based in Kumaga, near the western edge National Park, where there are about 1 000 people living.

Then we also work with Moreomaoto Village (with about 800 people), and Phuduhudu Village (with about 500 people).

"70% of our work is with people, 30% is focused on elephant research."

About 70% of our work is with communities and people, while 30% is focused on elephant research.

Although we are a small team, we can make a significant impact, as long as we have enough funding.

 

Where does your funding come from, and how much do you need, ideally?

Natural Selection is the main funder of our community work in Moreomaoto Village, near to Meno a Kwena camp.

Other aspects of our work are funded by local tourism operators, corporate sponsors or zoological societies from all countries around the world.

However, with every new research idea and every new community we are partnering with, we need more funding.

"We are currently looking for funding to collar some bull elephants to track their movements, to see where they are moving, why they are moving there and how their movements impact local communities."

For example, we are currently looking for funding to collar some bull elephants to track their movements, to see where they are moving, why they are moving there and how their movements impact local communities.

This costs US$12 500 per elephant, so not cheap, but the data from collars could help us understand why elephants are moving south from the Okanvango Delta rather than north into neighbouring countries such as Angola and Zambia.

Ideally, we would aim for 8-10 elephants, but it all depends on funding opportunities, so please support us if you can.

 

How many elephants now occur in this region of Makgadikgadi Pans?

Data from aerial surveys estimate that there are around 1 500 elephants in the western part of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park where we focus our work.

It is a transient population, so you do not always see that many elephants around.

"We still don’t know where they are coming from or going to and why they migrate to the Boteti river."

We still don’t know where they are coming from or going to and why they migrate to the Boteti river. We hope to answer as many of these questions as possible in the coming years.

 

What do you appreciate most about your work here in this relatively remote part of Botswana?

The Makgadikgadi Pans region is always changing, because it’s a semi-arid area that receives sporadic rainfall. So there’s always something new to discover.

Summer is so different to winter, and of course it’s a huge landscape, and very dynamic.

I was born in Germany, but I’ve always been drawn to field work in Africa, because it follows the natural rhythms of nature.

 

To support Elephants for Africa with funding for their work in Botswana, go to www.elephantsforafrica.org.

The Boteti River dries up in winter and during droughts, and separates the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park (on the right in this image) from Moreomaoto Village (on the left of this image). Although there is a "fence", it has fallen into disprepair, and besides, elephants regularly knock it down. So wildlife of all kinds (including elephants) regularly wander into close proximity of the village and its people, cattle and goats.

The Boteti River dries up in winter and during droughts, and separates the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park (on the right in this image) from Moreomaoto Village (on the left of this image). Although there is a "fence", it has fallen into disprepair, and besides, elephants regularly knock it down. So wildlife of all kinds (including elephants) regularly wander into close proximity of the village and its people, cattle and goats.

These "elephant" road signs are commonly seen along the tar road that runs north-south along the Boteti River...elephants often cross the roads, as they make their way to and from the Boteti River and Makgadikgadi Pans National Park.

These "elephant" road signs are commonly seen along the tar road that runs north-south along the Boteti River...elephants often cross the roads, as they make their way to and from the Boteti River and Makgadikgadi Pans National Park.

Local guide Mpaphi Dikaelo works at Meno a Kwena, lives in Moreomaoto Village, and was kind enough to show me the area. This elephant was moving out of the national park, across the dried-up Boteti River and into community lands, where cattle and goats are grazing, and farmers are growing crops. People here live daily with wild animals, and most are tolerant of the animals' presence.

Local guide Mpaphi Dikaelo works at Meno a Kwena, lives in Moreomaoto Village, and was kind enough to show me the area. This elephant was moving out of the national park, across the dried-up Boteti River and into community lands, where cattle and goats are grazing, and farmers are growing crops. People here live daily with wild animals, and most are tolerant of the animals' presence.

Kristine Meise handing out educational materials at a community "kgotla", a meeting of local people at which Elephants for Africa were conducting an educational workshop on understanding elephants and other wildlife that they often encounter.

Kristine Meise handing out educational materials at a community "kgotla", a meeting of local people at which Elephants for Africa were conducting an educational workshop on understanding elephants and other wildlife that they often encounter.

Learning about elephants, and their behaviour, to help defuse potentially dangerous encounters with the big animals.

Learning about elephants, and their behaviour, to help defuse potentially dangerous encounters with the big animals.

Elephants for Africa do their work with the engagement and support of local people, in their villages at the local "kgotla" (meeting place).

Elephants for Africa do their work with the engagement and support of local people, in their villages at the local "kgotla" (meeting place).

Mankind Molosiwa, a local farmer that works with Elephants for Africa to help other farmers in the area with protecting their crops from elephants.

Mankind Molosiwa, a local farmer that works with Elephants for Africa to help other farmers in the area with protecting their crops from elephants.

Walona Sehularo is the community outreach officer for Elephants for Africa, and does most of the community education around wildlife and environmental issues. Here he is talking to the environmental club at Motopi Village Secondary School.

Walona Sehularo is the community outreach officer for Elephants for Africa, and does most of the community education around wildlife and environmental issues. Here he is talking to the environmental club at Motopi Village Secondary School.

Kristine, Mankind and Walona from Elephants for Africa with the environmental club at Motopi Village Secondary School.

Kristine, Mankind and Walona from Elephants for Africa with the environmental club at Motopi Village Secondary School.

Mankind showing me his solar-powered electric fence around his maize field. This is probably the most effective prevention to stop elephants from raiding his crops, but elephants have been known to break electric fences too!

Mankind showing me his solar-powered electric fence around his maize field. This is probably the most effective prevention to stop elephants from raiding his crops, but elephants have been known to break electric fences too!

Mankind with dried elephant dung (left) and dried chillis (right), which he will mix...

Mankind with dried elephant dung (left) and dried chillis (right), which he will mix...

Mankind will then set the mixture of dried elephant dung and dried chillies alight, and place in a burner...

Mankind will then set the mixture of dried elephant dung and dried chillies alight, and place in a burner...

Mankind will then place several of these burners in among his maize crop...the smoke with the chilli can deter elephants from coming into the field...although this method is not as effective as the electric-fences.

Mankind will then place several of these burners in among his maize crop...the smoke with the chilli can deter elephants from coming into the field...although this method is not as effective as the electric-fences.

Mankind and his wife Nsteisang in their maize field. Before Mankind received funding to erect the electric fence around his crops, he would sleep in that little reed hut at night, and when elephants came into his crops, he'd run out with nothing but a torch, and shout and scream at the elephants to try get them to leave...not exactly a safe or stress-free way to live as a subsistence farmer!

Mankind and his wife Nsteisang in their maize field. Before Mankind received funding to erect the electric fence around his crops, he would sleep in that little reed hut at night, and when elephants came into his crops, he'd run out with nothing but a torch, and shout and scream at the elephants to try get them to leave...not exactly a safe or stress-free way to live as a subsistence farmer!

Mankind's maize field in the foreground (now surrounded by a solar-powered electric fence), with the Boteti River in the background. Beyond the river is the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. There are several other crop fields around Mankind's.

Mankind's maize field in the foreground (now surrounded by a solar-powered electric fence), with the Boteti River in the background. Beyond the river is the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. There are several other crop fields around Mankind's.

Cattle are a big part of Botswana's economy, and these cattle were in a holding pen in Motopi Village, waiting to be sold to a local butchery. Wild animals, livestock and people all live side by side in this part of Botswana.

Cattle are a big part of Botswana's economy, and these cattle were in a holding pen in Motopi Village, waiting to be sold to a local butchery. Wild animals, livestock and people all live side by side in this part of Botswana.

Grandmom and grandson, in Motopi Village. On any given day, local people and elephants (or lions) could encounter each other.

Grandmom and grandson, in Motopi Village. On any given day, local people and elephants (or lions) could encounter each other.

Local kids in Moreomaoto Village. These children are living daily in proximity of elephants and other wild animals.

Local kids in Moreomaoto Village. These children are living daily in proximity of elephants and other wild animals.

Mpaphi Dikaelo, my wonderful guide from Meno a Kwena, and his family at his home in Moreomaoto Village.

Mpaphi Dikaelo, my wonderful guide from Meno a Kwena, and his family at his home in Moreomaoto Village.

Tourists love watching elephants from the relative safety of a safari vehicle, and the big animals make wonderful photographic subjects, but many rural Batswanans actually have to live with them (and would rather they didn't have to). It you've ever come face to face with this six-ton animal, then you'll understand why these animals can be very dangerous.

Tourists love watching elephants from the relative safety of a safari vehicle, and the big animals make wonderful photographic subjects, but many rural Batswanans actually have to live with them (and would rather they didn't have to). It you've ever come face to face with this six-ton animal, then you'll understand why these animals can be very dangerous.

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