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The conflict between protecting crops and preserving wildlife also affects elephants

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It's one of the biggest controversies around preserving the world's wildlife, the conflict between local farmers and the animals that destroy their crops. Botswana in southern Africa is home to one of the last thriving herds of wild elephants. But they can be a menace to rural villagers who live on dollars a day. And the encounters are often violent, sometimes deadly. But in the village of Habu...

MOREETSI TSILE: (Speaking Tswana).

(SOUNDBITE OF RHYTHMIC CLAPPING)

CHANG: ...A nonprofit is trying to change that dynamic by organizing safari drives for local school kids. NPR's Nurith Aizenman joined their trip.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Speaking Tswana).

NURITH AIZENMAN, BYLINE: The kids, all sixth graders from Habu Primary, are gathered around open-top safari trucks. One of the guides, speaking in Botswana's Tswana language, asks, which animal are you most hoping to see?

TSILE: (Speaking Tswana).

AIZENMAN: Tau, they say in Tswana.

TSILE: The lion.

AIZENMAN: But the focus of this field trip is actually an animal these kids are a lot more familiar with elephants. Anybody else, raise of hands, whose - I ask, who's had a personal encounter with an elephant? The hands go up. And their stories point up why this field trip feels necessary. Every kid's experience has been awful. A tall boy named Fortune Kalaf comes forward. Even though he's so shy, he squeezes his eyes shut as he speaks.

FORTUNE KALAF: (Speaking Tswana).

AIZENMAN: Fortune says his family grows maize and pumpkins on their land, and the elephants are always coming in to eat it, ruining the crop before they can harvest it.

FORTUNE: (Speaking Tswana).

AIZENMAN: Last year, his uncle went after the elephants with a gun. Then a girl with a grave expression steps up.

LORATO ANDRECK: My name is Lorato.

AIZENMAN: Lorato Andreck says she was visiting her grandmother in a nearby town a few months ago when she heard screams.

LORATO: People say elephant, elephant.

AIZENMAN: A large male had wandered directly past the house. Lorato watched as her uncle, who had an intellectual disability, approached it - and the elephant attacked.

LORATO: Took him, threw him, hit the house. People were screaming, hey (speaking Tswana).

AIZENMAN: The elephant is killing somebody. The elephant is killing somebody. He was dead in minutes. Botswana is home to the world's largest population of elephants, but their habitat is shrinking and clashes like that are rising.

OTHUSITSE MOTAKELA: Who wants to sit at the front? Who wants to sit at the front, guys?

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE ENGINE STARTING)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Imitating vehicle engine starting) Vroom. Go to elephants.

AIZENMAN: Soon the kids are speeding through the flat scrubland. Today's safari drive is about trying to see elephants in a different light. They dodge an acacia tree's thorny branches.

(LAUGHTER)

AIZENMAN: The girl, Lorato, shakes the leaves out of her hair.

(LAUGHTER)

AIZENMAN: Habu is at the gateway to Botswana's glamorous safari lodges, but the village couldn't feel more removed from that. There are no paved roads here, no shops, no electricity and almost no jobs. Most people survive on crops that they grow in their gardens and a few cattle that they raise at these posts in the wilderness surrounding the village.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Trust.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Trust.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Trust.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: Trust.

AIZENMAN: We turn onto a vast tract of land held by a community trust.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: This is trust of Habu.

AIZENMAN: The same nonprofit that's arranged this drive is also helping Habu to eventually develop its very own safari business on the land.

TSILE: It's most likely we see the animals here.

AIZENMAN: In fact, the nonprofit - it's called Wild Entrust - is working with the Habu community to pilot all sorts of efforts to make it easier for people here to coexist with wildlife and even make a living off of it. A woman named Lesley McNutt approaches the truck with some water bottles.

LESLEY MCNUTT: Hey, guys.

AIZENMAN: She's a Canadian anthropologist who co-founded Wild Entrust.

MCNUTT: How are we doing?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: We are doing just fine.

AIZENMAN: McNutt says that after decades of working in Botswana, she's concluded that even when people have economic incentives for safeguarding wildlife, that's often not enough. What really makes a difference is when people also have empathy for the animals, the kind of appreciation that comes from really studying them. That's why Wild Entrust has created an extensive curriculum that's now taught in every primary school across Botswana. But the drive is the cherry on the sundae. McNutt says seeing animals this way...

MCNUTT: It's the aha moment. It's a trigger. It's a switch. It's the first time it's like, wow, because they're impressive. They're amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE ENGINE STARTING)

MOTAKELA: (Speaking Tswana).

AIZENMAN: Awe is certainly there when the kids spot the first wild animal.

FORTUNE: Wow.

AIZENMAN: Fortune, the shy boy, is especially transformed. His reserve melts away as he shouts out the names of the creatures bounding past.

FORTUNE: An impala.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #5: (Speaking Tswana).

AIZENMAN: "An impala or maybe a springbok," says another kid.

FORTUNE: (Speaking Tswana).

AIZENMAN: "Definitely impala," says Fortune. He's always loved animals, especially rabbits. They're so clever, he says. The wildlife is coming at them fast and furious now.

MOTAKELA: Springbok, springbok.

AIZENMAN: But what about the main object of the safari, the elephants? The guides spot some fresh tracks.

TSILE: Yeah. On the right-hand side, at the bottom - evidence of an elephant that was here. So - which means...

AIZENMAN: Lorato purses her lips. Her mother is one of the teachers of the school, so her house is a step up from the other kids. It's brick instead of mud-walled. Still, she dreams of getting away from Habu. So boring, she says. She leans forward and taps the guide on the shoulder.

LORATO: What is the safety when you see an elephant, when you are going by foot, not a car?

TSILE: Yeah, stand still. Don't run.

AIZENMAN: Soon after, the kids get to put that advice into practice when they pull up to a waterhole for a lollipop break.

MOTAKELA: We're going to give you guys snacks.

AIZENMAN: Suddenly, a huge elephant ambles over.

IKE MOGALAKWE: Elephant.

MOGALAKWE: Oh, wow. And starts to drink really close by. The guide motions for silence.

TSILE: I want you to come down one by one, but very quietly.

AIZENMAN: Lorato is the last to climb out.

LORATO: I'm little bit scared.

AIZENMAN: The guide walks closer to the elephant.

TSILE: Hey. Let's go together slowly.

AIZENMAN: The kids creeping behind him.

TSILE: (Inaudible).

AIZENMAN: Then he motions for a halt.

TSILE: So you should never give elephant your scent.

AIZENMAN: The key, he says, is to remain upwind. He picks up some sand from the ground and slowly releases it.

MOGALAKWE: To show you the wind is blowing that way.

AIZENMAN: Then he gets to the heart of the lesson. If you approach the elephant this way, he says, it's a calm animal.

TSILE: We are still here. And how long have we been here watching this elephant?

AIZENMAN: Then as the kids suck on their lollipops, he starts to point out all the cool features of this elephant.

TSILE: (Speaking Tswana) two-finger like projections at the tip of the trunk.

AIZENMAN: How its ears are the shape of Africa.

TSILE: Right at the bottom, this is where Botswana is.

(SOUNDBITE OF VEHICLE ENGINE STARTING)

AIZENMAN: On the ride back to school, the atmosphere is giddy.

(LAUGHTER)

AIZENMAN: It's been a very fun day.

(LAUGHTER)

AIZENMAN: So what was the takeaway for the kids? The next day back at school, I meet up with Fortune, the shy boy whose family is constantly losing crops to elephants.

Hi. How are you - nice to see you.

He says watching that elephant on the safari changed his thinking. He'd never seen an elephant so calm.

FORTUNE: (Speaking Tswana).

AIZENMAN: "I was surprised that, if you don't provoke it, it doesn't want to harm you," he says. Now he feels sorry for elephants. He wonders, maybe we could dig water holes for them away from our fields? Because he still doesn't see elephants and people coexisting in Habu.

FORTUNE: (Speaking Tswana).

AIZENMAN: "Most people, when they see them, they'll want to set the dogs on them." But he is going to talk to his own family, tell them the next time elephants come, let's not do that.

And do you think they will listen to you? I mean, you're a kid.

He nods.

FORTUNE: (Speaking Tswana).

AIZENMAN: "My mother will," he says. Nurith Aizenman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nurith Aizenman