Combining multi-scale socio-ecological approaches to understand the susceptibility of subsistence farmers to elephant crop raiding on the edge of a protected area.
Coexistence between subsistence farmers and elephants leads to problems for conservation and food security, especially on the edge of protected areas. Crop-raiding patterns have been investigated for decades, but understanding both social and ecological determinants remains a key challenge to defining realistic management options in a context of increasing human and elephant densities. Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, and its periphery, hosts one of the highest densities of free-ranging elephants. As scale is a critical element of ecological systems, we analysed the determinants of crop raiding at three spatial scales: the study area (217 households in 200 km2), the village (30 fields in 14 km2) and the edge of the refuge area (30 fields in less than 3 km2). We combined foraging ecology with sociological approaches, including a participatory experiment, to understand the processes behind the susceptibility of subsistence farmers to crop raiding. Distance to refuge area was the most influential determinant in decreasing crop-raiding risk, with no damage occurring further than 4.4 km. We obtained consistent models between the three scales with high explanatory power for field damage at village and edge scales (94% and 68% respectively). Household density acted as an obstacle to elephants. Millet patches seemed to provide refuges, and thus promoted damage. The participatory experiment allowed rigorous testing of the efficiency of traditional guarding practices. The presence of people was crucial for guarding efficiency. More innovatively, we demonstrated the role of neighbours and the importance of cohesive guarding as a promising strategy of reducing crop loss at the edge, primarily in areas with a high density of elephant paths. Synthesis and applications. This paper provides evidence that multi-scale multidisciplinary approaches can unravel endogenous processes shaping human-elephant coexistence on the edge of protected areas. We believe that manipulating perceived risks for elephants, through mitigation methods based on the 'ecology of fear', and spatial organization of households, could create a 'soft fence' which, when combined with adequate incentives to farmers, promotes a better integration of the protected area in its territory.