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Wednesday, September 8, 1999 Published at 19:47 GMT 20:47 UK

World: Africa

A jumbo-sized dilemma in Zambia

Opinion is divided on how to prevent elephants eating crops

By Ishbel Matheson in Lusaka

Village headman Redson Zimba walks through what used to be a banana plantation.

A few nights, ago a herd of elephants paid a visit to his settlement. They snapped the banana trees, ate the maize crops, and trampled through the village looking for mangoes. In his view, elephants are nothing but giant vermin:

"We can't get anything from our fields," he says: "The elephants are always damaging our crops, and eating our food."

Changing population

A few years ago, such an observation would have been unimaginable. Poaching was rampant in Zambia.

[ image:  ]
In the South Luangwa National Park, close to where Mr Zimba lives, the elephant population had shrunk to a mere 7,000. Yet, at the beginning of the 1980s, herds totalled over 100,000 and the park was once known as the Kingdom of the Elephant.

But the South Luangwa elephant was saved by the international ban on the ivory trade, coupled with innovative community-based conservation programmes.

The elephant population is now estimated to be up to about 30,000 - and growing.

"It's a beautiful sight," says South Luangwa's technical officer, Brian Child. From his garden, he can see two adult elephants, and an elephant calf.

"But I think if we lived a few miles down the road, in that village, where the elephants ate the food that local people grow to survive, we might view it differently."

Giant headache

The growth in the population is proving a headache for Mr Child and other conservation managers in South Luangwa. They want the Zambian ban on killing elephants eased so that limited trophy-hunting is permitted.

[ image: Japan has imported ivory this year after the temporary lifting of a ban]
Japan has imported ivory this year after the temporary lifting of a ban
Trophy-hunting of other game species is big business in Zambia. Wealthy Westerners pay tens of thousands of dollars to shoot lion, leopard and buffalo for their private collections back home.

The conservation team in South Luangwa see the sport as a pragmatic way of utilising game resources, to make the park less dependent on foreign aid.

Part of the proceeds is pumped back into the community, giving villagers a stake in conserving game animals.

Priority over people

But trophy hunting of elephants would be an unpopular move with Western donors, who fund the park.

Professional safari hunter Alec Walker says: "Even though the scientists themselves have recommended a small quota to be shot, it has been turned down politically because of the effect that it would have - that Zambia was re-opening elephant hunting, or trying to lift the ban on ivory."

Some conservationists insist that elephants should have priority over people.

Marianthe Noble, the country representative of the British conservation charity, the David Shepherd Foundation, believes that the growing human population should be shifted out of the Luangwa Valley.

"They were never there in the first place," says Mrs Noble, "They should move them back to where they belong. Why should everyone live in a game park?"

She is implacably opposed to any hunting of elephants. As her organisation contributes some $200,000 to Zambia's cash-strapped wildlife department, her views - and those of other wealthy, Western conservation organisations - hold sway.

However, the fear is that if nothing is done to manage the growing conflict between the human and elephant populations, local people may be tempted to take the law into their own hands.

"The problem is people in the West think Africans cannot manage wildlife," says Zacheus Nyirongo, research officer at the Nyamalumu Community-based Institute.

" So they think that if we start hunting elephants, we will just wipe out the whole lot.

"But if there was some benefit from conserving elephants, so that revenue from safari-hunting could go back into community, then that would change attitudes. No-one wants to see a return to the 1980s."

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