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THE ELEPHANT
NEXT DOOR


ONCE UPON A TIME THEY’D SHOOT THE WILD ANIMALS THAT THREATENED THE CROPS AND PEOPLE OF THIS
ARID FARMING REGION; NOW THEY ARREST THE
PEOPLE AND PROTECT THE ANIMALS. BUT IT’S ALL IN THE NAME OF SAFARI TOURISM.


By Janine Stephen
Photos by Marc Shoul


Sixteen–year–old Tina Mukare is driving an oxcart along a rutted dirt road in southern Mozambique. She’s on her way to harvest the maize crop a couple of miles from her village, a trip that will take two days.
     “I am afraid of meeting elephants along here,” she says, glancing at the surrounding bush. “I don’t think the oxen would be afraid of them; sometimes they eat together. But if I meet any, I will run.”
     About 35 elephants have made this part of Mozambique
home. Bordered by South Africa’s Kruger National Park to the west, Zimbabwe to the north, and the Elefantes River this swath of land has been declared Limpopo National Park. Mozambican officials hope that by restocking the area with game—lion, elephant, giraffe, buffalo—the park will eventually draw numbers to rival the two million visitors who visit Kruger every year. Tourism could bring desperately needed development and employment to an area that is one of the poorest in the world.
     Limpopo Park is also part of a larger project, the 13,500-square-mile Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, an international park created jointly with South Africa and Zimbabwe. The park is a conservationist’s dream: animals will again be able to migrate freely once fences between the countries come down, and more than 2,800 plant and animal species will be officially protected.
Kruger National Park, South Africa
One of the many elephants slated for relocation to Limpopo National Park.
Chimange,
Mozambique

Rosia Vukaia’s crops are being eaten by renegade elephants that have already crossed into Mozambique.
     There is only one problem: as many as 6,000 of the people living within the borders of Limpopo Park are in areas slated for wildlife repopulation. Should they stay in the homes of their ancestors and be gradually surrounded by wild animals (as their ancestors were), or should they move south, beyond the park’s borders? Resettlement, the government says, will be voluntary. But staying will not be easy.
     The 35–odd elephants that now roam the area are renegade pioneers; they bulldozed their way in ahead of schedule, defying fences and other trifling boundaries. Already they stroll through maize fields, eating and trampling the crop. Other animals—almost 2,000 of them—have been moved to a fenced-off sanctuary within Limpopo Park's borders. In a few years, all of the fences will come down.
     This is one place on the planet where nature is not being beaten back; it is encroaching, step by step.
“IT WOULD NOT BE A GOOD IDEA TO REPLACE PEOPLE WITH ANIMALS IN THIS AREA, BUT IN THE END, I HAVE NOTHING TO SAY BECAUSE IT HAS BEEN DECIDED... I AM NOTHING.”      In Machamba village, home to 659 people, residents say that they would like to stay. “ All of us were born and grew up here,” explains community leader Sandrosse Mongoe. “We work for ourselves. If we leave, we will never find a place like this again. The land is fertile, and we are close to water.”
     The people of Machamba are subsistence farmers, growing crops and tending cattle and goats. They make their homes from logs, filling the gaps with mud; their roofs are thatched. The soil between the houses is swept clean (the easier to spot scorpions or other creatures), and a few plastic chairs are the only inorganic objects in sight. There is no electricity or running water, no shop, school, or clinic. When the rivers flood, Machamba is cut off from the world.
     Besides the elephants, there are monkeys and porcupines chewing t hrough Machamba’s crops. Residents would like a good, strong fence to surround the village and fields and keep
the animals out. “That is our first choice,” says Mongoe. “It won’t feel like a prison. We are already in prison. The park has been proclaimed; there are few choices.”
     He’s right. Even if there were money available to fence off the villages or their myriad, often far–flung fields, residents would still have to travel to them on foot or by bicycle or oxcart—through areas where lions will roam freely.
     The villages of Mavodze (population 3,000) and Chimange (600) have also asked for fences, although according to Alberto Baloi, of Mavodze, if meetings were held “where people talk together in a good way, people may agree to be resettled.”      This is not the first time the people of Mavodze have been asked to move. In the 1970s and ’80s, Mozambique was embroiled in civil war, and rural people came together into villages for protection. (An influx of automatic assault rifles also made quick
Outside Mavodze, Mozambique
Sixteen-year-old Tina Mukare travels by oxcart
to harvest maize fields a two-day journey away.
Mozambique
Locked gate separating South Africa’s Kruger National Park from Mozambique’s Limpopo
National Park.
work of large game.) And in the mid–’70s, explains Baloi, the Massingir dam was built. “The area we lived in is underwater now. The move at that time was forced. I remember I was pleased because before, I had to walk more than 10 kilometers to get to school, and here, the school is very close.”
     Older residents find the idea of moving more traumatic. João Valoi of Mavodze is 102 years old. “It would not be a good idea to replace people with animals in this area, but in the end, I have nothing to say because it has been decided,” he says. “I am nothing.”
     Rosia Vukaia of Chimange does not want to move either, but she is angry because elephants have begun eating her pumpkins, maize, and sweet potatoes. Nor are elephants the only threat to the harvest. Rainfall is erratic, and World Food Program sacks can be found in all the villages.
“It can be very dry, and some years we have to beg the government to help us,“ says Vukaia. “One year, there was not even any wild fruit to eat. We starved that year.”
     The chief of Chimange, Fernando Mbombi, has other concerns. “It’s important for us to be close to the graves of our grandparents and ancestors,” he explains. “My ancestors would not be happy to hear that we have left the area. At the time for ceremonies, we visit the ancestors’ graves; we eat and drink and enjoy spending time with them. We receive good rains because of this.“
     Some villages have decided that moving is the better option. “ We won’t live comfortably with the animals,” says William Baloi, of Massingir Velho. A shop owner says pragmatically that a shop must move with the people, wherever they go. And for some, there is hope that moving might make life easier, especially if it means being
Limpopo National Park, Mozambique
Samuel Chauque (far left) and other park rangers now protect animals from people.
Chimange, Mozambique
Villagers store corn in structures like this.
closer to facilities like schools and clinics.
     After all, staying in the park brings other problems: Residents will not be able to keep cattle or cut down trees for firewood—and hunting is already illegal. “I’ve caught more than 40 poachers,” says Samuel Chauque, a park ranger stationed in an army tent on the banks of the Shingwedzi. Poachers are fined—1 million meticais (US$45) for a mongoose; 100 million meticais (US$4,500) for an elephant—or, if they can’t pay, jailed. Rangers are armed with AK-47s. “It can be difficult because you know the people,” Chauque says. “Last month we caught 11 poachers, and some of them were my friends and elders, but they must be arrested. We’re protecting the future here.”
     Back in Machamba, Mongoe says solutions other than moving must be found. “A long time ago, when animals disturbed people and destroyed crops, it was
possible to report this to the government, and they would come and kill these problem animals,” he says. “Now, if we kill an animal, we get caught and go to jail. Maybe this could happen to the animals. If you have an animal that causes destruction, then send it to jail.” He laughs.
     “What’s going to happen in the next five years? ” continues Mongoe. “I feel that maybe there will be great suffering around here. If we are forced to move, well, we won’t fight. But we are coming to general elections soon. If we feel suffering, we can refuse to vote, to show that we think the government does not care. If these elephants are so important, perhaps they can go to the polls and vote instead.”   

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Kruger National Park, South Africa
A zebra poses for the camera.