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The lure and peril of southern Africa's elephants

Elephants are a lethal menace to villagers, threatening their lives and crops. But they bring in tourists, and therefore money, so they are rigorously protected -- more so than humans, critics say.

November 07, 2009|Robyn Dixon

KATUBYA, ZAMBIA — Here's how to pitch this (true) story to Hollywood: Ordinary guy named John, ordinary Sunday, cycling home into a setting sun. Monster roars out of the bushes!

John abandons his bike, flees in terror. The creature smashes the bicycle, catches him in a few short strides, grabs him by the shirt. But he slides out of his shirt and falls to the ground.

It picks him up again and he slips out of his trousers. Naked, too afraid to even scream, he scrambles away. But he doesn't get far. The shrieking monster smashes him against a tree.

Camera pans to an elderly woman approaching, unaware of the danger.

Within minutes she'll be lying on the path, crushed.

The Hollywood twist? These people live in a bizarre universe where the rampaging monsters (and there are thousands of them) are protected and the people are not.

Cut to the killer creatures grazing peacefully (cue close-up of gentle, intelligent eyes with 3-inch lashes) along with their unbearably cute offspring.

Of course, to sell it, you'd need to change a few details: Lose the African villagers; make them suburban Americans. And the monster couldn't be that beloved giant, the elephant. Who would believe it?


The man killed was John Muyengo, a 25-year-old from a village called Katubya in southern Zambia. The woman was Mukiti Ndopu, highly respected in the village, the wife of the chief.

A neighbor, Muyenga Katiba, 44, saw the elephant charge the young man on that April day. He gathered his wife and children, and they cowered inside his hut.

"The boy didn't even scream," Katiba said of Muygeno. "He just died quietly."

Deaths like these are increasing in southern Zambia and northern Botswana, where people are crammed in with a growing elephant population. There are no reliable statistics on fatalities in southern Africa, but in one region of southern Zambia alone, five people have died this year, compared with one last year, according to Zambian news reports.

Elephants, endangered in Central Africa, are common in the south, mainly because an international ban on ivory trading drastically has reduced poaching.

Today, Botswana has 151,000 elephants, and Namibia about 10,000. In southern Zambia, the elephant population has more than doubled, from 3,000 to 7,000, many of them "immigrants" from Zimbabwe, where poaching and hunting are rife.

The animals capture the imagination because they're intelligent, emotional creatures. They mourn their dead and try to help tribe members who get sick.

But as next-door neighbors?

You pit yourself daily against highly intelligent, dangerous thieves. You go hungry as they eat your crops. You're afraid to send your children to school, or your wife to the clinic. But at some point you have to go to town for food, and you walk the dusty red paths with fear in your heart.

If you get fed up and shoot an elephant, you'll be jailed, because the animals are protected. They're seen as valuable to Zambia, because they attract tourists, bringing millions in revenue.

But people aren't protected. Nor are their crops, or houses. There's no compensation when someone is killed. So people living in elephant country complain that governments and tourists like elephants more than people.

Albert Mumbeko of Katubya, a former railway worker, lives in a flimsy house of grass and sticks: That was the only barrier between him and a massive bull elephant that woke the 76-year-old and his wife at midnight a few months back.

It was gobbling down his small corn crop.

Mumbeko crept out, heart beating wildly. "I could see its eyes in the moonlight, big and fierce. It looked very angry and aggressive. Its ears were open."

That's an elephant warning. He and his wife fled, but the elephant stomped their house down. Then went on eating.

"We felt very angry, we felt very sad when we came back and saw our house destroyed."

When he sees an elephant, he feels impotent fury. "We hate elephants. They're all bad."

It's a warm October evening, a good time for elephant-spotting in Mosi O Tunya National Park in southern Zambia. As the sky turns to slate, a group of elephants swims across a river. Suddenly, the exhilarating sound of an elephant trumpeting, right by the car.

Dozens of elephants meander peacefully or wallow in the water. One old bull elephant splashes water over himself. Small elephants frolic.

One baby, with mini-tusks, trots amid the matriarchal group. On short legs, it falls behind. It curls its little trunk into its mouth and prances, breaking into a gallop to catch up with the big group.

Several open-topped safari vehicles chug alongside, as rangers exchange radio intel on the best elephant viewing. All is quiet, except for the call of birds, the engines and the ceaseless tweeting and clicking from the nest of excited digital cameras.

Seasoned elephant watcher Ferrel Osborn is awed by the creatures. That doesn't mean he's sentimental about them.

"I'm fascinated by elephants," he says. "But I don't love them."

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