Why a Tanzanian Village Chased Six Elephants Off a Cliff

Not all animal killings are linked to the illegal wildlife trade

Photo: Nigel Pavitt/JAI/Corbis

Illegal wildlife trade frequently makes headlines these days, but it's not the only potential danger to large animals. Animals like elephants or tigers can also be killed by locals who have no interest in poaching those species' body parts. Instead, such killings often spawn out of retaliation for a crop raid or a cattle attack. 

In 2009, a particularly egregious retaliatory killing took place near Mount Kilimanjaro, in Tanzania. A group of villagers attacked a herd of elephants, killing half a dozen animals. Researchers recently recounted the incident: "A large crowd of villagers surrounded a herd of elephants and chased them, with the aid of torches, motorcycles, fire, and noise, towards a cliff, killing six of them." While this event stands out for the high number of animals killed, the team adds that "we also learned about several other incidents in which elephants had been speared or found dead without indications of ivory poaching."

So why were the villagers doing this? The researchers, a team from Norway, set out to find out by interviewing around 60 locals and asking them about their interpretation of the situation.

Most reported resentment toward elephants due to frequent crop raids; government documents confirmed a significant number of crops had indeed been damaged or destroyed by elephants in the recent past. Elephants also sometimes destroyed water pipes.

At the time the villagers retaliated, the region was also experiencing a drought, making both the elephants and the people all the more desperate for viable crops and dependent sources of water. The government, however, provided little if any help, according to the interviewees. Eventually, the villagers reached their breaking point. As one told the researchers: "We became very furious and said let the government choose either people or elephants. Our village is not a wildlife corridor." 

The villagers, the team concluded, felt "marginalized and disempowered by conservation practices" and saw violence as their only option for taking control of the situation. This case study, although extreme, is not isolated, the team points out. Implementing conservation without taking local communities into account fails both the animals it tries to protect and potentially harms the people who have to live with them, the researchers conclude. 

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