Can UWA’s electric fence at Queen Elizabeth Park stop them?
Kampala, Uganda | RONALD MUSOKE | Elephants are one of the most iconic and popular animals that attract visitors by their thousands to Queen Elizabeth National Park in western Uganda. Even the locals of Kafuru, a small village near the eastern fringes of the park know this.
MacLean Nagasha, a 17-year old student of Bakyenga S.S in Rubirizi, for example, says elephants are important because the government earns foreign exchange from the tourists. For her community, she says, the park provides firewood, thatching grass and timber.
But for other residents, like David Kwatampora, elephants represent anguish, pain and sorrow.
Sixty-year-old Kwatampora has been living here since 1972 and has witnessed the conflict between elephants and people almost daily. Just like hundreds of others in this village perched on the western side of the Kyambura Gorge in Kirugu sub-county, Rubirizi District, he is a peasant farmer.
He, like almost everybody here, depends on their small plots of arable land that are only separated from the park’s boundaries by a narrow dirt road. They grow cotton, maize, cassava and tomato.
Looking at the plants in full bloom, a first time visitor would think Kwatampora and his folk will in a few months harvest food and spare some to sell and earn millions of shillings. But that view vanishes when the villagers start telling mournful tales of their routine confrontation with their dangerous wild neighbours.
“The animals attack us every day,” says Jacob Baabo.
“We try to grow our crops in order to survive but all our labour goes to waste almost all the time,” says Moses Koyekyenga, 42, “We sometimes go without food and we have been reduced to labourers in neighbouring villages in order to find food for our families.”
Medias Kamarembo, a dimunitive but vocal woman who says she grows mainly cotton says she and her colleagues are failing to educate their children because of the non-stop elephant and buffalo raids on their crops.
Along the road between the park and the fields of crop are grass thatched huts where, we are told, villagers stay overnight as they keep watch over their crop. It is said that in just one night of “crop raiding,” elephants can destroy whole gardens, leaving the subsistence farmers desperate for food and money. So those who cannot endure the cold nights, battle the beasts in the morning and throughout the day.
“We need urgent help to ward off the elephants,” says Kamarembo.
Fortunately, it appears, help has finally arrived. The Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) is constructing an electric fence between Kafuru village and the park.
A gang of workers has, since October last year, been working on the fence. All grass and shrubbery has been cleared from a strip along the length of the dirt road that looks about 5 metres wide and stretches as far as the eye can see. Along it, an unending line of holes have been dug and round posts, each 3ft high, have been fixed and three lines of 2.55mm high tensile wires strung across the posts.
It is difficult to believe that this short and weak-looking fence can stop a buffalo, let alone an elephant which is big and powerful. The fence is about as tall as the waist of a tall person, yet an elephant can be three times taller. But Ibrahim Njenga, a Kenyan fence technician who is overseeing the work and has fixed the fences in Botswana, Gabon, and Kenya, says it works.
He says fences are only needed in short stretches where human-elephant conflict is worst.
“Our research shows that building electrified fences is the most effective way to succeed. We have worked out that a short-post fence with long electrified outriggers works best,” Njenga says, “We have already tried it in many places and it has worked very effectively.”
Njenga has done this kind of work for the last eight years and his gang of 10 workers is made of up of Ugandans with the majority coming from the Kyambura area. Njenga’s understudy, Modest Enzama, is attached to UWA and works directly with the fence builders.
Njenga explains that the fence’s effectiveness in blocking elephants is built around “outriggers;” wires that slant from the vertical posts at an angle of 45 degrees towards the direction the animal will approach from the national park side.
He says when the system is switched on, electricity pulses of up to 9000 volts drawn from solar-powered energizers feed into the wires. Then, when the wires touch an elephant on the soft flesh of its chest or its trunk, the animal is shocked and forced to turn away before it can reach the posts to destroy the fence and run into the fields.
The fence voltage is high, but the current is low meaning that it cannot electrocute a person to death. Anyone who touches it will receive a strong shock but not one that will kill them.