Alumni CLASnotes Spring 2006
In This Issue:

Armed and Endangered

Geographers Explore the Paradox of
African Elephants


Camping out on the African plains and traversing rickety narrow underwater bridges by pickup truck might seem like an adventure straight out of a safari novel, but it was a way of life for a group of University of Florida researchers who opened a new training site on the continent this summer.

For 11 weeks, a team of UF students and faculty worked side-by-side with eight African students conducting research in southern Africa. They camped in tents for the duration of their stay—with giraffes, hyenas and elephants as their neighbors.

The purpose of their journey to this remote savannah was to study the complex interactions between humans and the environment by working closely and respectfully with locals.

Graduate students from UF’s Department of Geography and School of Natural Resources and Environment situated their research where Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Angola and Botswana come together, in the heart of the newly designated Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA). The five countries encompassing the politically and ecologically sensitive region are experiencing increasing levels of distress from a rapidly exploding elephant population, which is simultaneously an important economic resource.

About 150,000 elephants live in the region, 40 percent of the continent’s population, and are doubling in number every 13 years. Although elephants are the main draw in a booming tourism industry, they are life threatening to area villagers and, as early research results indicate, are in such high numbers they are wiping out important species of plants. The UF team is focusing its efforts specifically on the effects of the elephant population in the Caprivi region of Namibia and the Chobe area of Botswana.

“When we see beautiful African animals in the savannah sharing their habitat with some of the poorest people on earth, we sometimes fail to see the opportunities and conflicts created by such close contact,” said Associate Professor of Geography and African Studies Brian Child, the faculty member leading the UF field research team. “Hopefully, the research and collaboration will lead to a unique and enriched form of adaptive management of this and possibly other areas within southern Africa.”

Child grew up in this area of Africa as the son of a biologist and is shocked by the loss of trees and other vegetation due to foraging elephants. The paradox UF is researching is how locals can combine such a valuable but dangerous animal to their livelihood as subsistence farmers and boost the economy of the region—in the face of global climate change that is expected to make agriculture less reliable.

“If a nearby villager has a field of maize and an elephant decides to walk through, in a matter of minutes the crops are destroyed,” said Geography Professor Jane Southworth. “Elephants don’t respect park boundaries because they just don’t know the difference.”

“Our efforts were vindicated at the closing meeting with the over-researched Chobe community, when an elder stood up and said that if this was how research was done, he welcomed more of it.” —UF Geographer Brian Child
“Our efforts were vindicated at the closing meeting
with the over-researched Chobe community, when
an elder stood up and said that if this was how
research was done, he welcomed more of it.”
—UF Geographer Brian Child
UF is studying how well these communities govern wildlife and the revenues arising from it, how profiting from wildlife impacts attitudes toward it, and if allowing villages to profit from wildlife is an effective strategy for both protecting endangered species and reducing rural poverty.

The project will focus on two distinct areas. Working within the local culture, one area of study will involve surveying local communities to better understand their management of natural resources. These villages are experimenting with a form of governance Americans would recognize as “town hall democracy,” and the researchers are developing methods to measure governance and how it impacts livelihoods and environmental conservation.

“Although the people are poor and elephants regularly raid their fields, we were surprised to discover how much they value wildlife,” Child said. “This contrasts with much recent literature, and vindicates emerging southern African policies to use and democratize wildlife.”

The second area of field research combines satellite remote sensing imagery techniques with extensive measurements of vegetation to study changes in the local ecosystem. This program focuses specifically on the effects of fire, elephants, growing human populations and the building of new roads—the main drivers of change within the region. The researchers believe understanding the linkages between these triggers of change and the livelihoods of locals is increasingly relevant, given the predicted effects of climate change on this ecologically vulnerable area.

A priority of the overall research endeavor is collaborating with African students and professionals, whose insight is proving to be essential to the project’s success. Southworth said the inaugural group of UF students who participated in the field school this summer could not have undertaken their research without their African counterparts, so a true collaboration developed. By combining the methodologies and technology skills of UF students with the cultural and practical knowledge of their southern African colleagues, researchers hope local villagers will be empowered to improve their economic condition while sustaining important ecosystems.

“We are carving for ourselves a long-term role where we provide the research and analysis that supports important experimentation in environmental policy,” said Child. “We are working respectfully with local people and organizations to define and answer important questions scientifically, and to return results immediately. Our efforts were vindicated at the closing meeting with the over-researched Chobe community, when an elder stood up and said that if this was how research was done, he welcomed more of it.”

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