How to survive on 'leftovers of nighttime spinach': Local narratives of human-wildlife inter

‘We grow crops for elephants and eat what they leave after their feasts’, Juma, resident of Tapika village in Rufiji district

Recently, I was part of the NEPSUS survey team visiting households in villages adjacent to the Selous Game Reserve in Kilwa and Rufiji Districts, Tanzania. One of the sampled heads of households at Tapika village was Juma (not his real name). A hamlet leader took me to where Juma was, guarding his farm. Near his log seat, he had gathered a bunch of small stones. These are important weapons for scaring away monkeys, who pay iterative yet unwelcome visits to the farm. Given his determination to guard his crops and the enthusiasm for narrating his nighttime challenges of protecting his crops against animal attacks, it took us some time to realize that Juma was visually impaired. Nevertheless, he needed to ensure that his household would not be deprived of the staple food needed for survival.

Visits to farm camps by NEPSUS researchers in Ngarambe village, August 2017

Visits to farm camps by NEPSUS researchers in Ngarambe village

In the nearby village of Ngarambe, the main threat would come from elephants, the country’s highest valued species and the core of wildlife protection partnerships in Tanzania. Elephants, especially in the dry season, expand their home range from their natural habitats into cultivated fields. Being the giants that they are, and that they move in groups of tens or even hundreds, the threat has moved beyond crop damage. When crops become ‘nighttime spinach’ for elephants, farmers harvest less than a quarter of projected yields (see Jambiya, G., Milledge, S.A.H. and Mtango, N., 2007. ‘Night Time Spinach’: Conservation and livelihood implications of wild meat use in refugee situations in north-western Tanzania. TRAFFIC East/Southern Africa, Dar es Salaam).


In one of our encounters at Ngarambi, a village leader accompanying the survey team made a joke with our next respondent, Hamis (not his real name) by asking: ‘Have you collected your leftovers from the elephant feasts in your farm?’. In response, Hamis replied: ‘What can I do? I either take what is left or I accept dying of hunger. Elephants are important for those who do not really live with them.’

Typical dry season maize field in Ngarambe village

Life for local communities in the proximity of the Selous Game Reserve is a mixture of hope and despair. Ngarambi and Kandawale (in Kilwa district) as well as Ngarambe and Tapika (in Rufiji district) are among the villages that our team surveyed. In these villages, people have myriad of stories that awake mixed feelings on the social and ecological impacts of human-wildlife interactions. As one ponders these stories, a question arises on whether striking a balance between local livelihoods and conservation, especially through the creation of Wildlife Management Areas (WMAs), is really possible. The reality that we observed in the everyday lives of villagers does not match the expectations raised by participatory conservation practices. Loss of land, and subsequent increase in food insecurity due to crop damage, are particularly problematic issues.

Communities in these villages are, by all standards, poor except when they are called to be ‘key partners’ in conservation and ‘custodians of wildlife’. At different times, these communities get involved in drafting texts that tie them to conditions for protecting wildlife while also affecting their own livelihood options. The WMA arrangement is a process where communities agree to give up their croplands, traditional hunting rights, comfort and safety for themselves and their future generations. Nevertheless, WMAs have become a popular approach promoted as a feasible livelihood option for local communities, mainly through income generated from investment in tourist hunting. Agreements between investors and local communities aim at setting up development projects, and the income raised is considered vital for local development – as it is used for the improvement of public services such as education, water and health services as well as for improved conservation efforts.

Food security

Game meat used to be an important source of protein and a cultural connection to nature for these communities. There are opportunities for local employment during the high tourist season, including casual labour for the construction of tourist campsites, cooking and petty businesses for food and souvenirs. Such income is, however, far from being adequate to bolster households’ ability to purchase food from the market instead of consuming game meat.

Above: Part of maize from a food storage destructed by fire. Below: is a village guard showing where the fire came from (the fire was lit as part of farm preparation

Household food security is ultimately the most important livelihood aspect of wildlife conservation in the villages adjacent to the Selous Game Reserve. Access to food through the market is constrained by low purchasing power, and is limited to basic items such as sugar, salt, and cooking oil. Thus, small-scale farming remains the lifeline for the majority of people. Farmers typically cultivate pigeon peas, beans and vegetables around their homestead, and use these mostly for self-consumption. Maize is grown in plots located a few kilometers from homes, in fertile valleys that retain soil moisture throughout the year. These valleys are important dry season grazing areas for elephants and buffaloes. Families set up camps for protecting crops and spend much of their time there.

Sesame is the most important cash crop in this area, but its cultivation is always a constant challenge given the high price of agricultural inputs and fluctuating market prices. Of recent, cashew nuts have shown some promise in the market and many households are reviving abandoned cashew trees or planting new ones.

Villagers have been complaining about crop damage by elephants for a long time, but what is new now is an increasing trend of elephants moving very close to homesteads. The main damage they cause is still through trumping and grazing in farms, but many recent instances have involved elephants tapping into homestead storages. During the evening hours, elephants walk in gardens on their way to other fields, and sometimes destruct water wells. Overall, family labor is heavily invested in guarding fields against elephants, mainly using traditional weapons. These efforts are far from being effective, and crop loss becomes a frequent story for many people, who end up asking themselves: ‘Is there really any partnership or just elephant protection here?’

Households are not only affected in terms of loss of immediate food supply, but also of their ability to sustain a productive livelihood. For example, children attendance to schools is directly a function of food productivity and stability. Food insecurity influences how villagers view hunting block investors, who provide additional income through casual labour that boosts family cash needs at times of food shortages. Even though this income is small and informal, a majority of people consider it the most important aspect in assessing investors’ contributions to the community.

Hot hot spinach?

Crop damage continues to influence how villages view wildlife protection partnerships around the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania. As traditional efforts have proved to be futile in keeping elephants from farms, WWF has come to provide pilipili (hot chili pepper) for the meal. WWF experts trained villagers in Tapika, Ngarambe and Ngarambi on how to use chilli pepper to protect crops from elephant invasion. A piece of cloth is soaked in a mixture of pepper and used-oil and then smeared around in the fields. As elephants approach, the pepper and the smell of oil are supposed to scare them away. However, local accounts suggest that this method works for a few days, until elephants get used to the smell. Also, villagers report that the availability of oil is problematic because in these remote places there are no activities that involve generation of used-oil to meet the demand of farmers.

NEPSUS researchers in Ngarambe village assessing the process of drying chili pepper that is pounded and mixed with oil to scare elephants

The sustainability of wildlife in the Selous Game Reserve depends on participatory conservation approaches, including processes that recognize the interests of local communities. With household food security being the top priority for local communities, safeguarding crop fields from elephant damage should be a priority in the co-management of conservation. Since controlling elephant movements may prove very difficult, agriculture and rangeland evaluations are important in tapping from local knowledge to identify areas suitable for crop farming and less vulnerable to elephant visits. Partnership conservation of wildlife through WMAs will only make sense to local communities if it promotes crop farming, support access to extension services, storage, and markets, as well as enhance alternative sources of income.

Household food insecurity affects the local perception of #wildlife #conservation in #Tanzania. Conservation partnerships could safeguard crop farming. Blog by @nepsus_research

#wildlife #conservation #SelousWildlifeReserve #Tanzania #sustainabilitypartnerships #livelihoods

Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square