Conversations In Conservation (3)

Despite being home to one of the last great wilderness areas and elephant populations on the planet, Southern Tanzania a little off the map when it comes to funding for community and conservation. 

Fortunately, we have some dedicated folks who are looking out for the elephants and the people that live with them! Jo Smit grew up in Tanzania and now works as an Associate Researcher at STEP (Southern Tanzania Elephant Program).

A big thank you to Jo Smit (although your taste in beer is poor) your hard work and conservation efforts are nothing short of incredible! Read on to find out what STEP do, what a ‘beehive fence’ is, and what it’s like to work in community and conservation. Be sure to follow STEP and throw them a donation if you’re feeling generous.

Can you tell us briefly what STEP does?

STEP's mission is to secure a peaceful future for elephants in Southern Tanzania. STEP collaborates with rangers and wildlife authorities to increase protection for elephants through aerial surveillance and by building the capacity and resources that rangers need to carry out their important jobs effectively. Our team also works with farmers and communities living alongside elephants to try to reduce the impacts of elephants on people and vice versa, and to create greater awareness about elephants and the threats they face. Finally, we carry out monitoring and research to understand how elephant populations are faring and to understand their conservation needs, as well as to find effective ways to enhance coexistence between elephants and people.

Elephant beehive fences, what’s it all about?

Beehive fences are all about using elephants' fear of bees to deter them from entering farms and feeding on people's crops. The other benefit of beehive fences is that farmers can sell elephant-friendly honey to tourists and thereby earn additional income. STEP currently works with seven farmers groups to implement beehive fences and at our long-term study site in Udzungwa, we found that elephant visits to farmland were reduced by 50% following the installation of a beehive fence. Here's a cool animation about beehive fences:

What are the challenges right now for elephants in southern Tanzania?

The main challenges include protecting elephants from poaching for the ivory trade, finding ways to ensure people and elephants can coexist into the future, and preventing the loss of historical elephant range and corridors.

What’s your favourite thing that elephants do?

I have too many favourite things that elephants do! I love watching elephants swim in the Great Ruaha River during the wet season, it gives me joy to watch young elephants play and act silly, I find it exhilarating when their curiosity takes them right up close, and it is deeply moving to see their family ties and friendships. I always feel lucky to be in the presence of elephants.

A lot of people have a very romantic notion about a job like yours, what’s it really like working in conservation?

Tanzania has been my home for more than 20 years and, growing up, I was lucky enough to enjoy many of Tanzania's protected areas. I knew from a young age that I wanted to contribute to wildlife research and conservation, so I feel grateful and privileged to be conducting research to help conserve the country's spectacular wildlife and habitats. I believe conservation involves a whole variety of things: understanding problems, trialing solutions, and learning lessons, building partnerships to further conservation, exchanging knowledge with colleagues and communities, as well as conducting fieldwork and research.

Where do you think tourism fits into the conservation puzzle?

Tourism is vital to conservation, as it provides the funds to manage and protect Tanzania's protected areas. Travel and tourism constituted 9% of Tanzania's GDP in 2017 and continue to contribute significantly to employment. I also hope that people's experiences of protected areas result in a greater appreciation of our natural world. I am also very happy to see an increase in efforts to boost in-country tourism to encourage and enable more Tanzanians to experience the country's spectacular wildlife and habitats.

Kilimanjaro or Safari lager?

Serengeti!

How can people get involved with what you’re doing?

Follow STEP on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram and help spread the word about what we do. STEP also invites university students, researchers and skilled volunteers to contribute to its programs. If you are inspired by STEP's mission, we would be very grateful for a donation. And visit the stunning wildlife areas of southern Tanzania, Ruaha, Udzungwa, and Selous!