Elephants are super genius animals, indigenous to Africa and Asia. They are believed to be as smart as primates or even more. They have a brain that weighs around 5 kg, being the animal with the largest brain on earth. Elephants are endangered species that may be getting closer to extinction every other passing day. This is mainly due to habitat loss and wildlife trade sweeping Asian and African landscapes. An adult elephant body size ranges between 2700kg and 6000kg depending on the species. There are two major species of elephants; the African elephant and the Asian elephant. Averagely, the African elephant is larger than the Asian elephant. Given the massive size of their body, elephants need a large and healthy land range that can sustainably provide for its diet requirement. A single elephant eats up to 169 Kilograms of vegetation and 190 liters of water every day. They further supplement these two, with special mineral that they dig from the ground. Without a big habitat to graze from, elephants cannot be able to fulfill these major requirements of their diet. This is why in every elephant habitat, there is evidence of human wildlife conflicts as they compete for the natural resources. Being blessed by both the muscle and the brain, Elephants are known to have very few or no natural predators other than the people.
In Uganda, all elephants live inside protected areas called national parks or wildlife reserves. Due to certain reasons however, at certain times elephants do cross to community land looking for food, water and other minerals to supplement their diet available within a given national park. During these journeys they occasionally cause massive destruction on the household gardens destroying the only community source of food and income, resulting into community wildlife conflict. Agriculture is the key source of income in Uganda. Every rural family grows their own food and sale some for the much-needed income, including the families living next to the national parks. No wonder it is evident that, poverty is highest in areas near the national parks where indigenous communities continue to rely on subsistence agriculture, the least competitive livelihood in these areas. Until now, most communities perceive elephants and the national parks as a problem to community livelihoods. In many such communities, people have been heard asking that the park should be disbanded and the land availed to people for settlement and cultivation.
Did you know that these communities living near the national parks, with elephants, are just neighboring a gold mine? Most communities living near the national parks, conservationists and policy makers in Uganda, have never imagined how elephants can be used to boost the community livelihoods beyond the levels of agriculture. Agriculture is less competitive in areas near wildlife. In these specific areas near the national parks, tourism can be the leading source of income.
Elephants are a great tourism resource to the people of Uganda in many ways. The parks and elephants have a potential to attract many tourists and other visitors for leisure, research and other purposes. These visitors need services to facilitate their stay such as markets to buy goods, places to sleep, people to tell them the background of the area, transport and others. Communities living near the parks should therefore learn to provide the demanded items than battling with the elephants and the park. This has been learnt and is now being practiced in Asian countries where the communities are involved in elephant related ecotourism. Many communities around the world have demonstrated setting livelihoods that are complemented by the existence of elephants. For the case of Uganda, the following tourism activities can be arranged to enhance communities’ benefit from the existence of elephants and parks in their neighborhoods.
Community lodges and homestays: Travelers who visit the national park need places to sleep at or mix with the local people to share the story of the wildlife and culture. The communities living adjacent to the park have a high competitive advantage on providing this accommodation since they own the land, have the best experience of living in these areas and are the only cultural custodians of these lands.
Crafts sales: The communities can develop elephant related and other general crafts to sale to the tourist. Guests need souvenirs to give them a memory of the time they have spent visiting the elephants. These such crafts can include; elephant paintings, carvings, textiles, jewelry and other general crafts. The crafts locally produced using local natural or recycled materials that are sustainably provided stand a higher chance in this market.
Community tours: If the people living near the parks are given the traditional and scientific education about the elephants and their habitat, the communities can pass this information to the guests by organized tours. Guests will need to pay some money for this service and the people can supplement their livelihoods sustainably.
Making elephant dung paper: Elephant dung left on community land is a goldmine. This dung can be used to make paper that is used to make paper gifts that can be sold to the tourists. A community that impresses this, will always look forward to the next elephant visit in their garden reversing the trend of chasing them from their gardens whenever they visit.
Ecosystem services and social attachment: Besides the income and leisure benefits here is the biggest contribution of elephant existence and yet least known benefit to the people. Communities can continue to benefit from the ecosystem benefits of the elephant habitat. Existence of elephants in the habitat supports the growth and survival of other smaller animals, plants and ecosystem processes that probably have closer connection to the people. Elephants are a key note species, engineer of the jungle, whose absence from the habitat would result into many negative or abnormal consequences that will negatively affect the community livelihoods surrounding their habitat. The elephant dung is a form of seed dispersal over miles. This helps specie diversification over the landscape. Elephants dig water ponds that bring the water closer to the surface to feed other vulnerable plants and animals. Small organisms such as ants and birds feed on the nutritive contents of the elephant dung in the landscape. These birds, bugs and flies play a big part in the food chain and are great tourist attractions too.
The elephant has a cultural attachment to the people of Uganda in the different ethnic groups, such as Baganda. Baganda are the largest tribe of the 56 tribe in Uganda, representing about 16.5% of ugandas’ entire population. In Buganda kingdom, the Njovu (elephant) clan is one of the 52 clans. Every tribe has a role it plays in the king’s palace. The elephant clan is the one in charge of looking after the kabakas(kings) cows. Extinction of the elephants therefore, will deprive this clan of the natural belonging and pride.
Due to the increasing human population and effects of climate change, the size and value of land in Uganda is decreasing rapidly. This trend affects both agriculture output and habitat diversification for wildlife, highly affecting elephants.
Tourism is the fastest growing industry and is less affected by drought in this time of climate change, making it more potential to bring in sustainable income and other benefit to these vulnerable communities than agriculture. Community tourism has been identified as a key tool of reducing the amount of poverty while protecting wildlife in Uganda. It is evident that, these tourism activities related to elephants would more than triple the residents’ level of income. It is a high time the rural communities who provide the entry point to the tourists visiting Uganda’s national parks should benchmark from the few people already practicing elephant related tourism, to be able to replace agriculture livelihoods with tourism. The national parks should also put down the gun and entice the local people using sustainable elephant tourism in attempt to empower the communities and secure the elephant habitat.