Elephants in Southern Africa – Management Issues and Options

Elephants in Southern Africa – Management Issues and Options



Elephant conservation in southern Africa has been remarkably successful over the last century. The region’s elephant populations collapsed in the late 1880s through over-hunting, but their numbers have since increased more than 20-fold; from less than a few thousand to 250,000 – 300,000 today.

The overall biomass of elephants in southern Africa is now higher than that of any other large mammal in the region. Human populations have also increased 20-fold over the last century resulting in a rapid expansion of human settlement and agriculture.

Human and elephant population growth has led to compressed and fragmented elephant ranges, increasing human-elephant conflict and an escalating elephant overpopulation problem.

Elephants are large generalist herbivores and the currently high elephant densities in protected areas may well be unprecedented in evolutionary and historical terms because the major predator of elephants, Homo sapiens, has been removed from these ecosystems.

This study, commissioned by the WWF Africa and Madagascar Programme, examined and reviewed management issues and options relating to the elephant overpopulation problem in southern Africa. The study covered six countries – Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

These countries were visited to obtain information on current numbers, distribution and trends in elephant populations, legal and policy frameworks governing the conservation and management of elephant, elephant management issues and problems, and the views of a wide range of stakeholders on elephant management issues and options.

Elephant numbers and trends

Botswana, with approximately 150,000 elephants, carries the largest elephant population in the world, followed by Zimbabwe with ~ 100,000 elephants. Half of the Zimbabwe elephant population lives in 22,000 km2 in the north western region of the country, which is contiguous with Botswana. The combined population of about 250,000 elephant spills over into the Caprivi Strip in Namibia, into southwestern Zambia and southeastern Angola. This population is growing at about 5% per annum.
The remaining four countries in the region each carry populations of between 15,000 and 20,000 elephants. These populations are also growing at rates of between 3% and 7% per annum. There is no clear evidence that population growth rates are declining. If current population growth rates are maintained, together with a hands-off approach to management, the population could increase to >500,000 elephant in southern Africa by 2020.

Both Zimbabwe and South Africa attempted to contain the eruption of elephant populations in protected areas from the mid-1960s through to the mid 1980s and South Africa continued culling until 1994. The Kruger National Park population was held below 8,000 elephant until 1995 when culling ceased – the population has since nearly doubled. In the mid-1980s Zimbabwe attempted to hold its elephant population at about 45,000 but culling effectively stopped in the late 1980s and the
population has doubled since then.

Although the Botswana 1991 elephant management plan stipulated that its elephant population would be held at 55,000 no action was taken and the number is now approaching 150,000. The Mozambican and Zambian populations both experienced heavy poaching during the 1970s and 1980s but are now beginning to recover.

The main Namibian population in Etosha National Park and the northwest grew slowly, largely as a result of ongoing mortality from anthrax. A recent influx of elephants from Botswana has, however, resulted in a rapid increase in elephants in the north east of the country and in the Caprivi Strip.

All of the countries in the region reported an increasing number of incidents of human-elephant conflict.

Management tools and options

Elephant management options can be divided into passive and active methods. Passive methods include (a) taking no action, (b) enlarging the range available to elephants, (c) fencing to contain or exclude elephants, (d) the use of repellents, and (e) manipulating water supplies. These methods are non-lethal and therefore favoured by many on ethical grounds. Active methods include (a) contraception, (b) translocation, (c) driving/disturbance, and (d) culling and cropping. The advantages and disadvantages of the various methods were examined. While attitudes and beliefs
regarding the use of these alternative methods are polarized, most of the stakeholders consulted believed that active methods, including culling, would be required sooner or later to contain elephant population growth in their countries.

Taking no action is likely to result in the present southern African population exceeding 500,000 elephants by 20201. An optimistic estimate of the area available for range expansion in the region indicates that this option might encompass a potential 392,000 km2 and be able to accommodate up to about 75,000 elephant or 1/3rd of the expected increase over the next 12-15 years. Significant range expansion, if it is to occur, will have to include large areas of the communal lands of the region that are already settled by people. Elephant densities in excess of 0.2 elephant per
km2 are unlikely to be welcomed, let alone tolerated, in these Communal Lands. Such densities would in any event have to go hand in hand with realistic incentives to communal farmers to harbour elephants on their land. These benefits could be generated if farmers and rural communities were able to derive the full range of benefits from elephants, including, for example, trophy hunting and the sale
of elephant products from animals harvested. Range expansion will thus require shifts in national, regional and international policy regarding the conservation and management of elephants outside of protected areas, as well policy changes relating to the sale of ivory and other elephant products. Such a strategy may also serve to assist in containing the ongoing elephant population eruption in the region (see below, under culling operations).

Fencing is used effectively to contain elephants within protected areas in South Africa and in some parts of Zimbabwe. Its use to exclude elephants from fields of crops or from particular areas in communal lands has been less successful, mainly because of the high maintenance costs involved.

Repellents, such as chilli peppers planted around fields and chilli-oil smeared on fencing have met with some success in reducing crop-raiding by elephants in some areas but do not provide a longterm solution to the problem of increasing elephant numbers.

Manipulating water supplies has only recently been used to manage elephant impacts on habitats in Kruger National Park where a large number of artificial water points have recently been closed. Clearly the technique can only be used where elephant distribution depends on artificial water supplies and where these can controlled.

Contraception as a means of slowing elephant population growth is being
developed in South Africa and two experimental immuno-contraception trials on small, enclosed, populations have been conducted. Some experiments are underway to investigate the possibility of sterilizing males. The results to date of immuno-contraception trials indicate that it is feasible, at least for small populations, and few side effects on elephant welfare and behaviour have been detected. Its main application is likely to be in containing population growth in the many small, largely unviable populations in South Africa. Its potential use in Kruger National Park and Addo Elephant National Park is still being debated. The method is expensive and is not seen as a useful approach by stakeholders elsewhere in the region; many of those consulted considered it “unnatural”, if not morally wrong, to spend vast sums containing the productive growth of elephants that could be harvested to alleviate poverty.

Translocation of elephants into newly created protected areas has been successful in South Africa and Zimbabwe. Its use in alleviating overpopulation problems in large elephant populations would, however, be financially and logistically prohibitive, and areas that can accept large numbers of elephant no longer exist in the region. Driving and disturbance have been used in the region but their applicability is very limited.

Carefully targeted and professionally conducted culling operations are seen by a majority of those consulted as being the only viable option for effectively reducing elephant populations in the region. Many of those who opposed large scale government culling operations felt that cropping elephant to meet the needs of the rural poor was acceptable. The potential for containing a continuing elephant population eruption through peripheral harvesting and the creation of “source-sink” conditions in the region has not been seriously explored. Part of the strategy for managing elephant in Hwange National Park during the 1980s was to reduce the population to a level where a peripheral off-take of about 600 elephants per year in surrounding forest and communal lands could stabilize the population,
and thus forestall further large-scale culling operations in the park.

Management capacity

The capacity to implement a wide range of elephant management options is high in South Africa but low elsewhere in the region. Operational budgets per unit area provide a reliable indicator of resource management capacity. In South Africa these are higher than US$1,400 per km2, in Namibia they are approximately US $80 per km2, while in Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe they are US$10 or less
per km2 . The discrepancies in trained manpower are equally great. In South Africa there are about 33 researchers per 10,000 km2 of protected area but in the rest of the region it is about 3 per 10,000 km2. Similar considerations apply to trained field staff engaged in protection of the resource.

National and regional policies

National policies and legal frameworks within the region all make provision for the conservation and sustainable use of elephant and for controlling the numbers of elephants where they may have adverse impacts on habitats and other components of biodiversity. The harvesting of elephants and sale of their products is also supported by local laws in all of countries visited. That elephants can be hunted and harvested to provide benefits to local communities is also fully supported by national and regional
wildlife conservation and management policies. However, after the African elephant was listed on CITES Appendix I in 1989, decisions regarding elephant management in southern Africa were strongly influenced by the international community; the resulting dearth of markets for ivory and hides greatly reduced funds available for elephant management particularly in Zimbabwe. This situation has not changed. A central issue is, “Whose value systems should prevail in decisions regarding the management of elephants in southern Africa?”

Human-Elephant conflict and the economic value of elephant

Conflict between humans and elephants were reported to be a major and escalating problem in all countries in southern Africa except South Africa where there are nevertheless problems on the boundary of Kruger National Park. Elephant and human populations have increased twenty-fold in southern African countries over the last century. In Zimbabwe, for example, the human population increased from c. 500,000 in 1900 to 12 million in 2000 while the elephant population increased from c. 4,000 to >90,000 during the same period. Most protected areas in the region are surrounded by traditional communal farming lands. The farmers are mostly subsistence farmers for whom cropping forms a vital component of household food security.

Elephants damage crops, water installations for livestock, and not infrequently kill people in rural areas. The problems are particularly acute on the boundaries of unfenced protected areas, which situation is common in southern Africa. Human-elephant conflicts also occur further afield where elephant live in traditional farming areas. In Botswana 60% of its large elephant population lives outside protected areas during the rainy season, the period of greatest threat to the fields of subsistence farmers. Some 80% of the potential elephant range in southern Africa is outside protected areas. In Zimbabwe nearly 10,000 elephants reside in Communal Lands. The root cause of the increasing conflict is exponential growth of both human and elephant populations. Moving people to make way for elephants is not an option. Attempts to mitigate crop and other damage caused by elephants have had a limited impact. Creating appropriate incentives and ways for rural subsistence farmers to live with elephants is an option that deserves to be more fully and realistically explored.
More specifically there is, firstly, the need to devolve decision making about the conservation and management of elephants to those communities that live with elephants, and secondly, the there is need to increase the benefits derived from elephants (both live and dead) to local communities.

Elephants have the potential to generate major financial returns to communal farmers, to protected areas, and to other land under wildlife use, and by so doing to contribute to maintaining and extending wild areas in the region. Current estimates show that harvesting 5,000 elephant a year could generate US$ 40 million, a sum sufficient to finance the protected areas in the region at more than $200 per
km2. At present, protected areas in Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe are operating on a fraction of this sum and at about $10 per km2. The returns to communal farmers are potentially much higher than those from subsistence cropping and could create incentives to sustainably manage elephants on their land.

The current laissez faire approach to managing elephant overpopulations in the region has enormous opportunity costs that require full and critical scrutiny and analysis.

Elephant impacts on biodiversity

Elephants can and do greatly modify woodlands and habitat structure. However, the nature of the impact of increasing elephant densities on biodiversity remains a matter of controversy both academically and amongst other stakeholders. The central question of trophic cascades following the removal of a top predator (i.e. humans) has not been given adequate attention in current research on elephant-ecosystem dynamics in protected areas. Recent archaeological evidence on the role of
hominids in proboscidean extinctions indicates that in evolutionary and historical terms hominids have been a keystone predator of elephants and so will have shaped elephant habitat interactions.

The decision to conserve biodiversity is, in the first instance, a value judgment on the part of individuals and society. Confusion and controversy arise when the elements of biodiversity that are to be conserved are not precisely defined. This is an area that requires careful attention by conservation agencies in the framing of policy guidelines, management plans and the manner in which science is used to guide their decisions.

Solutions and priorities

The stated objectives of southern African conservation agencies are to conserve biodiversity and to ensure the sustainable use of natural resources for the benefit of present and future generations of their people. The major elephant conservation and management problems and issues identified and discussed in this report are, in essence, the following:

1. Elephant populations in southern Africa are growing exponentially and running out of space. (Too many elephants)

2. Elephants are spilling over into farming areas and eating people’s crops, as well as killing several people each year. (Human-elephant conflict)

3. Because their ability to disperse is constrained, elephants are changing habitats within protected areas, but there is little agreement on whether such changes are “natural” or “unnatural,” or good or bad for conservation or biodiversity in general. (Scientific controversy)

4. The world is divided into those who disapprove of killing elephant or interfering in what they consider to be natural processes and those who do not. (Differing value systems)

The elephant management issue is not a simple single-species conservation issue – it is embedded in a complex social-ecological system with important cross-scale effects and drivers. The ethical and value systems of major players with an interest in elephant conservation emerge as the overriding driver of resource management decisions and these are operating at an inter-continental scale. For this reason the overriding priority is to establish what the peoples of southern Africa think about the
conservation and consumptive use of elephants.

Our first and major recommendation is to commission a professionally conducted opinion survey of values and attitudes of a full range of southern African ethnic groups and socio-economic classes to elephant conservation, sustainable use, and related issues.

Once that information becomes available, southern African and other decision makers will have a firmer basis on which to consider the alternative options for managing the current overpopulation problem. They should then also be well placed to answer the following two central questions:

• Should rural communities and land owners in Africa have the right to use elephants and their products sustainably to better their lives and in so doing maintain wild land in the face of pressures from expanding agriculture or other land uses?

• Should national parks and protected area agencies have the right to maximize economic returns from elephants if such an approach helps to better conserve a full range of biodiversity within the protected areas for which they are responsible?

Our second major recommendation also concerns information that is required for informed policy and resource management decisions, namely, to conduct a thorough financial and economic analysis of:

  • Alternative management options,
  • The opportunity costs to local communities, to protected areas, and to countries in southern Africa of alternative management options, and,
  • The incentives and related policy changes that would be required to encourage communal farmers to carry elephants on their land.

More directly, at national and local levels, the following are further important priorities for action and donor support:

  • The gathering of sound data on numbers, distribution, conflict, impacts, etc., of elephants – lack of such information remains a major problem, even in South Africa.
  • Some critical areas of research (e.g. historical numbers of elephants, impacts on biodiversity and the setting of acceptable limits to change) need to be fast tracked and receive appropriate support.
  • Support for improved controls over ivory stocks and internal trade in ivory.
  • Support for further implementation of elephant-human conflict mitigation strategies.
  • Support for in-service training of mid-level managers (particularly on issues related to elephant management and control of ivory trade).
  • Support for CBNRM particularly on institutional and governance issues so that conservation success can be maintained.
  • Support for TFCA development and the establishment of corridors for elephant movement.
  • Further investigation of methods of elephant birth control and their effects on social behaviour, and their use in managing smaller populations.

Concluding comment

A key finding of this study is that much better information is needed on the values and opinions of those conserving, managing and living with elephants, as well as on the social, economic, landuse and policy related dimensions of the elephant problem, to enable informed, equitable and sustainable decisions to be reached. The scientific debate about elephant impacts on biodiversity, currently a major preoccupation, is likely to continue indefinitely.

This article by David Cumming and Brian Jones was first published by WWF – SARPO Occasional Paper Number 11 in May 2005. Lead Image: Wildlife authorities in Zimbabwe said there had been a rise in complaints from rural communities where crops are raided and lives lost to animals GETTY IMAGES.


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