What do we do about the elephants?

African bush elephant in Balule, Greater Kruger, South Africa

Elephants are endangered, according to the IUCN. Is there any hope for this massive species on a continent with a human population as dense as in Europe and still massively growing?

Text and photos by Jens Ulrik Høgh – Nordic Safari Club Communication officer

African elephants (Loxodonta) are, in reality, two species. The most common – and the biggest – is the bush elephant (Loxodonta africana) which used to roam all over sub-Saharan Africa except for the densest forests. Historically, the smaller and highly jungle-adapted forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) lived all over the rain forests of Central- and West Africa. Until recently, the forest elephant was regarded as a subspecies of the bush elephant; however, recent genetic research has revealed that the two are individual unique species.

How threatened are the elephants?

Before firearms changed the rules of the game, as many as 26 million elephants might have existed in an Africa, almost void of humans. Nobody knows the exact number – it is first and foremost based on an evaluation of biological carrying capacity.

As civilization spread and the human population grew almost explosively, the elephants – as practically all other wildlife – became the big losers. Their numbers plummeted as their habitat shrunk. Scientists guess that the total population around 1800 was still about 20 million animals.

The dramatic declines of the elephant population accelerated when the growing human population of the rest of the world developed a massive demand for the ivory in the elephant tusks as raw material for luxury products like piano keys, billiard balls, brush handles, and figurines during the second half of the 19th century.

The death blow to the elephant population came when the nations of Europe shared Africa between them and systematically started to clear the new colonies from anything wild to make room for various kinds of agriculture. Commercial elephant hunting was open to any adventurer with the ability to organize a hunting expedition.

The elephant population declined rapidly. The precise historical numbers are uncertain, and various experts disagree; however, the trend is clear. The elephant population was in free fall. Around 1900 the numbers of pachyderms were probably down to about 10 million – about half of what it was a century earlier. Some sources estimate that the population fell to 5 million around 1930 and that there were a little more than a million left in the 1940s. In most places, the population would never rebound from the declines as the habitats were utilized for agriculture and lost for good.

Reasonably reliable estimates of the total elephant population are not available before 1995, and even recent numbers are somewhat uncertain. During the 1970s and 1980s, a major poaching crisis to meet Asian demands for ivory affected most of Africa. In Kenya – which in 1977 was home to about 75,000 elephants – there were only about 16,000 left when the smoke finally cleared in 1989. That year the total African population (of both species combined) was about 600,000 animals.

In the timespan between 1989 and 2006-2007, the elephant population was thriving in most places. But then, a new poaching crisis erupted and peaked in 2011. The widespread poaching wreaked havoc in East and Central Africa. Poaching is still a genuine problem, but at a much lower level now.

According to the most recent – and hitherto most reliable – count of African elephants in 2016, 395,000-435,000 animals are left in the physically counted subpopulations. On top of that, there are probably around 120,000 more in areas not surveyed. All in all, a probable total population of  500,000-550,000 animals. That is less than after the poaching crisis in 1989, but not by much.

In IUCNs latest assessment of the conservation status of African elephants that was released earlier this year, the forest elephant is classed as “Critically Endangered” because the global population during the latest three generations (93 years) has declined by more than 70%. The bush elephant is now classed as “Endangered” after declining more than 50% in 75 years. Until this new assessment, the two species were evaluated as one and classed as “Vulnerable.” The new conservation status seems to result from improved data and modeling more than being a reaction to the actual development over the last three decades.

The situation is better in Southern Africa

There are more than 130.000 elephants in Botswana – a nation roughly the size of France.

In Southern Africa – the part of the continent initially colonized and developed by European nations – the elephant population was shot down to a few thousand individuals by 1880. Unregulated commercial ivory hunting was undoubtedly the culprit.

Since then, the southern subpopulation has grown steadily with a rate of 5-7% per annum. Nowadays, the elephant population of southern Africa is a bit over 300,000 animals – the vast majority of Africa bush elephants in the world – and the southern subpopulation has come out of all the recent poaching crises relatively intact.

An interesting thought experiment: If all the African elephants except those in southern Africa had been killed by 1940, the remaining southern African bush elephants would probably be classified as “least concern” if the population in those countries had increased as it did in real life. The southern African population is by no means threatened. The elephants in the rest of Africa are.

The biggest sub-population – more than 220,000 jumbos – is found in “The Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area” (KAZA) that spans parts of the five nations Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. As the elephants move around and don’t seem to care much about borders between nations, it isn’t easy to put exact numbers on the populations of the different KAZA nations. There is, however, no doubt that Botswana is always home to more elephants than any other nation, with an average population of at least 130,000.

It is worth noticing that four out of the five KAZA nations have been using hunting tourism as a tool in their elephant management for decades. Two of those nations – Botswana and Namibia – were named as the world-leading nations for megafauna conservation in 2017.

Is elephant hunting a good idea?

Does it make sense at all to hunt an endangered species like the bush elephant? Because all nations that allow elephant hunting have larger elephant populations today than in 1940, it is more relevant to ask a slightly different question: Does it make sense NOT to hunt elephants now that we know how strong an incentive for conservation that regulated hunting tourism is?

The elephant management in KAZA has been a tremendous success from a nature conservation perspective. One could argue that they have succeeded too well because the population has grown so dense that they are experiencing local overpopulation issues, negatively affecting the habitats. The problem is that the large pachyderms are very rough to trees and bush when they get very plentiful, which transforms lush bushveld into a more desert-like habitat with a much smaller biological carrying capacity. This has proven to be a real problem to species like the Chobe bushbuck that thrives in dense riverine vegetation and the old baobab trees that are easily picked apart by the elephants.

No pretty alternatives to culling

Mopane bush in Botswana eradicated by dense elephant population. The carrying capacity is reduced to almost nothing.

Hunting tourism does not hold the potential to reduce elephant numbers significantly. The only tried and tested method is swift culling of entire family herds. That is not an inspiring hunting experience but rather a task better left to professionals with access to military equipment. Survival of single elephants from breeding herds targeted for culling is to be avoided at all costs. Such animals will almost certainly become dangerous rogue animals when their herd structure is violently destroyed by culling.  And there is plenty of problem elephants in the world as it is. In Zimbabwe, a population of roughly 15 million people endures upwards of 60 fatalities in human/wildlife conflicts every year, and the elephants stand for a large portion of the losses of human life.

Elephants were culled regularly in southern Africa until the 1980s (In South Africa until 1994). When they stopped culling, the population exploded, and the elephant density is now a real problem in many places. Because the elephants are not easy to move, there are no obvious large-scale alternatives to culling. Translocation becomes meaningless if the receiving areas are not safe for the elephants. Nobody wants to spend millions of dollars in translocation costs to feed the criminal poaching gangs in areas where the original population has been eradicated.

Tree nesting birds like ground hornbills, raptors, and vultures suffer when elephant populations exceed carrying capacity.

The KAZA countries affected by very dense elephant populations are all poor and highly dependent on income from international tourism. Western animal rights movements and politicians strongly oppose any lethal management of elephants, and this political pressure is probably the main reason the KAZA nations are being extremely reluctant to initiate culling operations to reduce elephant numbers. The sad part of the story is that elephants in these areas might be the biggest threat to their own future existence. Simply because a population that exceeds natural carrying capacity eventually will be regulated by nature. All the elephants will eventually starve before they start to die off. The result may be a dramatic loss of elephants – much more than targeted culling will cause. The desertification will furthermore affect all the species in these ecosystems. Possibly with irreparable damages to many other wildlife populations than the elephants. Can we afford this?

The practical solution

Buffaloes depend on thick bush and access to water. Too many elephants destroy buffalo habitats.

The experiences obtained from decades of different approaches to elephant management across their range are quite clear. Countries that have managed to protect their elephant population effectively have used hunting tourism to add tangible value to the elephants, thus creating a strong incentive to protect the animals and their habitat. The countries with hunting bans have typically seen their elephant herds decimated by professional poaching syndicates. A few countries with hunting tourism have also failed – Tanzania is a sad example. However, NO countries without hunting tourism have succeeded in stabilizing the situation over the last 50 years.

Therefore, the obvious practical (but unpopular) solution is to develop hunting tourism in Africa, where elephants and all wildlife are under pressure simply because this has been proven to work. For that to happen, the western world must become much more educated in nature conservation questions and stop the ill-informed shitstorms, the name and shame campaigns, and the cancellation culture aimed at hunters. Will we do this for the elephants? Sadly, I very much doubt that.

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