DECEPTIVE PICTURE: Elephants enjoy some rest in the veld. They increasingly resent human encroachment into their environment.

Ten days ago, 200 Maasai “warriors” in an act of vengeance randomly speared a dozen elephants, 10 buffaloes and a lion from Kenya’s Amboseli National Park – East Africa’s second most popular reserve.

They complained they receive too little spinoff from the park yet have to put up with elephants damaging their crops and taking lives.

A month before, six lions from Nairobi National Park were speared to death by disgruntled locals.

The raids echoed the recent assault on one of SA’s most attractive reserves – Ndumo in KZN – when angry farmers destroyed the fence and moved in with their livestock and ploughs.

African communities are becoming fed up with wildlife – elephants in particular. And elephants are showing increasing signs of being fed up with humans.

Specialists in animal behaviour believe that after years of being abused and of being more and more constricted, translocated and poached, elephants are hitting back.

African and Asian elephants are killing around 500 people a year, according to Brian Handwerk of National Geographic. He says it’s because they are being pushed into smaller and smaller pockets “and increasingly they are pushing back”.

From SA to the Sudan there have been so many fatal conflicts between elephants and people as well as crop damage that scientists have set up a “Human Elephant Conflict” (HEC) programme as part of a worldwide “Human Wildlife Conflict” (HWC) initiative backed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

A paper – Human-wildlife Conflict in Africa, published by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in Rome – reported that the antipathy among rural Africans towards elephants “goes beyond that expressed for any other wildlife”.

It said people living in central Africa “fear and detest” elephants; that farmers in Zimbabwe display “ingrained hostility” towards them. “(They) are the focus of all local animosity toward wildlife”.

There’s evidence that today’s elephant populations are suffering from chronic stress brought about by prolonged habitat reduction, ceaseless poaching, culling and mass translocations. People who have had experience with these intelligent creatures know that elephants, like whales and dolphins, are sociable animals with strong family bonds and have an ultra long range communication system outside of human hearing. As a result dealing with the elephant overpopulation in parts of Southern Africa is proving to be extremely complex.

Dr Gay Bradshaw, a psychologist and ecologist at Oregon State University who is involved in the university’s environmental sciences programme concerned with Human Elephant Conflict (HEC), says: “Everybody pretty much agrees that the relationship between elephants and people has dramatically changed.

“What we are seeing today is extraordinary. Where for centuries humans and elephants lived in relatively peaceful coexistence, there is now hostility and violence.” Bradshaw and her colleagues, in a 2005 article in the science journal Nature titled Elephant Breakdown, say elephants are displaying increased animosity.

HEC threatens the future of Africa’s game reserves. Unless rural people who live among wild and potentially dangerous animals derive tangible benefits from their situation – and soon – they will continue to support poaching.

Most non-government wildlife organisations are blissfully unaware of the seriousness of human-wildlife conflict.

Eighty percent of Africa’s wildlife lives outside protected areas, yet those who live among them have no say in their management and receive little or no benefit from the tourism that Africa’s wildlife brings in.

Elephants are behaving in a way never before encountered because, says Gay Bradshaw, “stress has so disrupted the intricate web of familial and societal relations by which young elephants have traditionally been raised in the wild, and by which established elephant herds are governed, that what we are now witnessing is nothing less than a precipitous collapse of elephant culture”.

She says they are showing signs of a societal breakdown.

It appears we are driving elephants mad.

In many regions of Africa there is an increasing human toll caused by elephants as well as increasing crop damage. There is also an increasing toll of elephants themselves – mostly by Far Eastern ivory smugglers who fund African poachers and bribe government officials and ministers.

The IUCN says an average of 104 elephants are killed daily in Africa – close to 38 000 a year. Recognising the increased tensions between elephants and humans, it has launched a worldwide project to hopefully alleviate some of the suffering – on both sides.

HEC poses serious challenges to wildlife managers, local communities, conservationists worldwide and to the IUCN’s African Elephant Specialist Group and its Asian counterpart.

Between 1900 and 1984 Africa’s elephant population was reduced by 93 percent and is now found in only five percent of the continent. Its numbers have fallen from 1.3 million in the early 1970s to about 450 000 today. This recent sharp decline in numbers has mainly been due to poaching.

Wildlife because of “eco-tourism” – viewing wildlife, wilderness trails, wildlife photography and hunting – is in parts of rural Africa the only “cash crop”. Properly managed it is a self-sustaining high-employment industry – and the African elephant is its star attraction.