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Tuesday, 9 August 2016
One man's vision for managing wildlife conflict
LIVINGSTONE, Zambia – Sandy Simpson manoeuvres his Land Rover in the African bush like a stock car on a short track.
The businessman born in Kenya spent his career driving fast miles across Europe to rush antiques to eager owners until he retired in 2007.
Then, Simpson's life took a dramatic turn, and the driving skills might be the only ones that translate directly to his new occupation with elephants and lions.
Back in Africa, this man with no biology degree or experience or formal training in the great outdoors is working in human-wildlife conflict management.
Indeed, in retirement Simpson's been in a race to protect some of the continent's most cherished and at-risk species: buffalo, impala, elephants, lions and more.
"I don't think it's up to Zambia or Botswana or Kenya to protect their (wildlife)," Simpson said. "To me, it's our world heritage."
To hear wildlife authorities in Zambia and residents of Livingstone tell it, the maverick newcomer is without a doubt helping to gain ground for wildlife in Africa. In and around Livingstone, the tourism capital of the country and one landing spot to visit Victoria Falls, he's decreasing the battles between people and elephants in particular.
In recent years, people living in villages outside Livingstone proper have gone hungry because elephants trampled their crops and ate their harvests. Since Simpson came to town, many have been growing vegetables again.
"Sandy's project is one we are hoping can bring back the love for the elephant," said Jackson Katampi, acting senior warden for the Zambia Wildlife Authority. The agency is now called the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, but locals continue to refer to it as ZAWA.
The approach Simpson uses is simple and affordable, and he hopes the success in Livingstone – as well as other parts of the country – might lead to the creation of a center of excellence in conservation here, a place that can demonstrate a model and help spread it to other conflict areas.
Sandy Simpson is ubiquitous around this city of some 140,000, cruising in one of his Land Rovers, stopping to greet locals by name and ask about elephant sightings.
Two things spurred his work. Around 2000, he said, when he was still working in antiques, Simpson read a story in National Geographic that said some 90 percent of wildlife in Africa had declined in 30 years. Simpson believed the decrease amounted to more of a decimation when taking the long view.
"What happened in the 170 years before that?" Simpson said.
In all, he said, just 1.5 percent of the elephant population remains compared to the numbers 200 years ago.
After he retired in Paris, the businessman headed back to Kenya, where he was born, to immerse himself in conservation, and there experienced a second catalyst to commit his life to animals.
In Nairobi National Park, a small area outside the capital city, the lion population had multiplied far beyond the capacity of the land. Older males chased out sub-adults because the park didn’t have enough territory for them all, and lions came into town and onto ranch land, Simpson said.
“The wildlife is seen as a pest,” Simpson said. “It’s disrupting for the Africans. If they have livestock and there’s lions around, they don’t sleep at night. They’re looking after their herds.”
Residents saw the animals as problematic. A wildlife professional adopted many of them over the years simply to try to keep them alive, including one that had killed sheep and goats, Simpson said.
Simpson befriended the lion keeper, and in an unexpected turn, ended up caring for the lions himself in 2011.
“I didn’t know anything about lions,” Simpson said. “I was scared out of my skin. What happens if they get sick? What the hell do I do?
“But it was a fantastic experience. Absolutely unbelievable experience. Feeding them every day, just being with them every day, getting to know them, know the characters. I tell you, it makes me shake, really.”
The experience ended badly, though.
Earlier, one of the lions had killed more than 120 sheep and goats, and Simpson's friend knew the slaying had put a target on the animal's back, he said. As a result, he said, his friend adopted it and kept it in an enclosure to try to protect it.
In the end, though, Simpson couldn't protect the lions from being punished for the mass killing.
He repeatedly rebuffed requests to share the details of their demise: "Bottle of whiskey." The day one lion died, though, Simpson said he pledged the rest of his life to resolving human-wildlife conflict.
“Everything happens for a reason. I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today,” he said.
In Kenya, Simpson and his business partner, Michael Mbithi, also stumbled upon an unlikely key that would fix one of the rubs between people and animals.
There, they came across a Masai boy who had rigged flashing lights to keep lions away from livestock. The simple solution worked, and in his research, Simpson found a company in Bozeman – Nite Guard – with a similar system. Nite Guard produces a flashing light system and a flickering holographic tape that animals see as a threat.
Simpson started experimenting. Eventually, he tried the shimmering ribbon to repel elephants. He strung strips of it from wire enclosing a protected area. The system worked.
When wildlife authorities in Zambia learned about Simpson's work, they invited him to look at the elephant problem in Livingstone.
Livingstone is adjacent to Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, an expanse of grassland savanna bordered by the Zambezi River and just a stone's throw from the city center. Elephants live in the park, along with giraffe, baboons, zebras and the guarded rhinos.
Here, the elephants respect park borders as well as grizzly in Montana might honor "no trespassing" signs on a fence.
"Just where the park ends is somebody's yard, somebody's house," said Katampi, acting senior warden for ZAWA.
Some people in the city don't run into problems with elephants at all, he said, but others live in fear of being crushed by elephants at night and don't have food because the animals devour their vegetables.
"When these animals destroy crops, it means the community is starving," Katampi said.
Crime goes up as a result, he said, as does poaching.
ZAWA has advised Simpson to retain the elephants' natural corridors, and together, the agency and Simpson are targeting villages adjacent to the park. So far, they've protected an estimated 40 percent of the population with the simple fences and ribbon, a feat that both feeds the people and saves the elephants.
"If we can stop them from destroying their crops, then they can appreciate them," Katampi said.
Simpson is the founder and head of Green Rural African Development, and he'd made his way to Zambia in 2012 to respond to ZAWA's request to look at the elephant problem and also be near family.
"I've done this because it's a question of now or never," Simpson said. "And unless a solution is found to the human-wildlife conflict, which is considered by some very good experts as the largest reason for the demise of African wildlife, it's finished."
So far, Simpson has paid for most of the equipment and installation himself, he said. The cost amounts to an estimated $1,000 for the first kilometer, and not much more for the first 10 kilometers in all, and he's eager to see more financial support for the project.
He mounts solar units at the homes of villagers, and the power electrifies the fence as a way to startle elephants and prevent vandalism. It also ends up being a power source for a family that – until the unit was installed – didn't have light at night.
"Suddenly, they have lights for the first time ever. So the kids can actually, you know, do their homework at night,"Simpson said.
And, of course, the people are safer than they used to be, and they can grow and sell food.
"If people are protected here, and they don't care about the elephants going around them, and therefore, the poaching will probably reduce because they don't feel the need to kill them," Simpson said.
Last month, Simpson was among a group of experts in Zambia who met with assistant professors from the University of Montana on a visit to Livingstone.
UM professor Wayne Freimund established the relationship with conservationists in Africa nearly 20 years ago. Simpson is one of several professionals there who are eager to strengthen the tie to their counterparts in the U.S. and share resources across the globe.
He knows the holographic tape works, but he'd like a researcher from UM, possibly a graduate student, to examine the reason the animals are repelled by the tactic. He also wants to install more fencing.
"We can do a kilometer a day, easy," Simpson said.
When Simpson rolls to a stop on his drives around town to talk with locals, they often thank him, "Mr. Sandy."
Privately, they worry he'll take off and leave them to manage wildlife on their own once again, a concern that may be as much about his funding of the fences. But Simpson said he is settling in for the long haul. He wants to see the successes with elephants there replicated elsewhere.
"I'll be based here for the rest of my life," he said. "I won't necessarily stay here, but Livingstone is so geographically perfect for the neighboring countries. ... It could serve perfectly as a center of excellence in human-wildlife conflict mitigation."