I have a farm in Africa.
Well, I don’t but Piet does, although to be quite correct, he doesn’t have a farm, he leases it – as does every farmer in this part of the world.
It is a 560Ha farm, split into two sections; one large one and one small. The larger section, which we have named Sitikela Farm (sitikela means roller – a beautiful, colourful bird which occurs in this area – in Lozi), sits proudly on top of ancient sand dunes, blown in from the Kalahari Desert over millennia and boasts panoramic views of the mighty Zambezi River. In some places you can even see on the horizon the mist rising high and billowing cloud-like from the Mosi oa Tunya (or Smoke That Thunders), more commonly known as the Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
The second, smaller section is about 7km away, situated on the banks of the Zambezi River.
During the winter months we grow wheat and seed-maize (corn). The seed from the maize we grow is sold to other farmers and ultimately their produce is ground into ‘mealie-meal’, the staple food for the indigenous people around here. We truck the wheat off to millers about 400km away where they turn it into flour.
It so happens that also in the winter months it does not rain, the bush dries, the grass dies and the locals start burning what’s left. This leaves very little food for the many large herds of elephants (and other game in the area) to eat – and so they all come to our farm!
We employ a number of Security/Elephant Guards who work in pairs and who are armed with a stash of fire-crackers. In theory, their job is to patrol along the edges of the fields at night, listening for elephants. As soon as they hear elephants approaching they are supposed to throw a few crackers to scare them off and then radio ‘control’ who alerts Piet, either via radio or telephone, so that he can go and back them up with more fire-crackers and the added pressure of a vehicle.
In practice what they often do, unfortunately, is sleep, while the elephants take their fill.
It was very frustrating (and expensive!) for Piet to wake up after a full night’s ‘elephant-free’ sleep, only to discover half the crop eaten, and the other half trampled flat by elephants. So he devised a system for keeping everyone awake and alert – this works very well. Every 15 minutes control calls each station on the radio, asking for their sit rep (or situation report). If all is quiet they reply by saying November Tango Romeo (Nothing To Report). This standardisation of reply avoids the confusion of multiple answers, such as “Ah, it is just cool” or “It is just OK” or even “ What is the football score?”. If there are elephants near the response is supposed to be ‘Echo India Lima’ – Elephants In Lands – but all protocol is usually forgotten in the excitement and one evening we were amused to hear frantic shouting over the radio:
“November tang romeo! November tango romeo! But tell the bwana to come fast! The elephants, they are many!”.
In addition to the guards we also have 20 Km of electric fencing around the borders of the lands.
But we found that this did not really deter them. Elephants are very intelligent creatures and sometimes they push a foot against one of the poles, the fence falls flat, they step daintily between the wires and voilà! Pudding time! Other times they are not as delicate or thoughtful; Piet has witnessed teenage bulls pushing their younger and smaller siblings or cousins through the fence – those unfortunate babies squealing in anticipation of the pain, even before they reach the fence!
So another plan had to be devised. We have now connected the wires on the fence to an alarm which is activated if the circuit is broken. We at least then know there has been a breach and can scramble into action.
Last year we were visited by a man who had heard of our plight. He said he has devised a method of keeping elephants out of villagers’ crops in Kenya using flashing strobe lights attached to poles. By all accounts this system works but only when there is a light every 10m – that would mean at least 2000 lights for us and the cash layout would just be too great for an operation our size.
Sometimes we are lucky. If the wind is blowing in the right direction all it takes is the sound of the vehicle starting up in our yard for the elephants to hurriedly leave. But other times not so lucky; many nights Piet gets his first call-out before the sun has set and only returns home after sunrise the next day. He then has to carry on his business of farming, maybe catching a few minutes sleep in the late afternoon before the next incursion. On some occasions we have had over 100 elephants on the farm. It’s almost as if it’s a planned military exercise – they split up into groups, dashing out of one field as the vehicle approaches, into the bush and then into the next field. You can imagine them laughing and thumbing their trunks at these futile attempts to keep them away from the food. At times like these he will often call in one of the drivers to assist with a tractor. Or he will enlist the help of friends who have popped in for dinner – however we have found visitors are scarce during the Elephant Season!
Chasing elephants is an exhausting and dangerous job. But it has to be done if the bills are to be paid. And unless the villagers can be persuaded to not set fire to everything in winter, it is something that we are going to be doing forever.