Africa’s Elephant Dilemma – Part 1

This is a story about a conflict of interests that exists between best practice wildlife management experts in Africa and the interfering demands of self-serving international animal rights NGOs - which fact, the author asserts, threatens to cause the total extinction of wildlife in Africa this century. The story is written by Ron Thomson, a man who is steeped in the lore and the management of the African elephant; and who, in 2017, marked his 58th active year of continuous involvement in African conservation. He is a university trained field ecologist. Most of his adult life he worked, hands-on, inside Africa’s national park administrations. He rose to the rank of Provincial Game Warden-in-charge of Rhodesia’s (Zimbabwe’s) Hwange National Park - one of Africa’s premier big game sanctuaries. Later he became Director of the Bophuthatswana National Parks Board in South Africa. He is well qualified, therefore, to make this report.


This narration is written for the honest and intelligent layman - to enable him to better understand just where the animal rightists’ involvement in rational elephant management programmes, has forced Africa’s one-time progressive wildlife management philosophy onto what might yet prove to be an unstoppable slide into the abyss of extinction. The animal rightists have continually had their wildlife vocabulary in a tizzy. And they have no idea what management means. So let’s start at the very beginning and at least get ourselves on the right track to proper comprehension. That will put whoever reads this dissertation one step ahead of our seemingly implacable enemy - the animal rights brigade. Let’s start off by defining species and populations. These are two of the most important parameters governing the science of wildlife management.

NB: 1. A SPECIES of animal comprises multiple individuals that share the same physical and behavioural characteristics (they look alike and they act alike) and which, when they breed, produce fertile young with the same physical and behavioural characteristics.

NB: 2. A POPULATION can be defined as a group of animals of the same species, the individuals of which interact with each other, in continuum, on a daily basis; and which breed only with other animals in the same group.

Let me put this into an understandable perspective: There is only one species of Savannah Elephant, Loxodonta africana; but it has 150 different populations. They live in 37 countries (known as the elephant range-states) in Africa. These states stretch from Ethiopia in the north, to the Cape of Good Hope in the south; and from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic. The elephants of Kruger National Park in South Africa, for example, are the same species as those that occur in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. But they are entirely different populations. Why? Because Hwange’s and Kruger’s elephants don’t mix - they don’t interact with each other on a daily basis and they, consequently, never interbreed. Biologically they can breed with one another but they don’t because the two populations are separated by many hundreds of miles (kilometers). There are three population classifications. If you want to understand wildlife management you have to first understand what these different classes are - because they determine the very specific management strategies that need to be applied to each one of them. And they relate to the elephant habitat carrying capacities in the sanctuaries where elephants occur. The same criteria also apply to the habitat carrying capacities of every other animal species, too.

NB: A habitat’s elephant carrying capacity is the maximum number of elephants that the habitat can carry without causing permanent damage to the vegetation. This parameter, of course, applies to all other herbivorous animal species, too.

  • UNSAFE populations are those which exist in very low numbers (compared to their habitats’ carrying capacity); which are breeding badly (so their numbers are constantly declining); and the reasons for the declines cannot be reversed. Such populations face the eventual prospect of becoming locally extinct.
  • SAFE populations are those that are numerically strong; that are breeding well (their numbers are expanding); and that exist within the carrying capacity limitations of their habitats (which means they are not causing permanent damage to their habitats). Such populations do not impact negatively with their sanctuaries’ species diversity.
  • EXCESSIVE populations are those which are very large in number; which have exceeded the carrying capacities of their habitats; which are breeding well - and so are still expanding; and which are causing permanent and progressive damage to their habitats. These populations cause major losses to their sanctuaries’ species diversity; and they are all the time busy degrading the status of their habitats - which will eventually become deserts.
Some elephant populations live in montane forests; others in mixed savannah woodlands; or wooded grasslands; and yet others live in swamps, open grasslands or deserts.   Some occur in national parks. Others live amicably close to small rural settlements. Others are harassed by poachers. Their environmental circumstances, therefore, are all different - unique in fact - and their management needs have to fit their specific environmental pressures. There is no one-size-fits-all management plan that can be applied to all these very different environmental and elephant population circumstances. ALL animal populations must have a management plan that addresses each one’s specific circumstances. They are ALL different. This being the case, therefore, makes the endangered species concept a fallacy. It is a myth that has no place in the science of wildlife management. Next, we need to define the word conservation. Conservation is a term that describes activities associated with the sustainable-use of wildlife. In 1956, the IUPN (the International Union for the Preservation of Nature) changed its name to IUCN (the International Union for the Conservation of Nature) because many sovereign states of that time, refused to join the IUPN thinking, if they did so, they would be forced to stop sustainably utilising their wild natural resources.  The IUCN-name changed their perceptions. So, there is absolutely no doubt what the word conservation signifies. Yet the major international animal rights groups have formed a loose bond and they call themselves the Conservation Community. It is clear, however, that this is a total misnomer. But they adopted this name for a purpose - to fraudulently hoodwink a public that was already conditioned to the idea that conservation is a good and valid activity that benefits wildlife. They would be nearer the truth if they called themselves the Preservation Community - but that name doesn’t fit their duplicitous agenda. Conservation is one of the two arms (or functions) of wildlife management. The other is called preservation. But we will not extend this conversation further, at this time, because there are other matters that need to be explained first - like: What is Wildlife Management? Wildlife management is the action that man takes - or purposefully does not take - to achieve a man-desired objective. There is nothing natural about wildlife management. It is:
  • Man conceived;
  • Man designed;
  • Man implemented;
  • Man manipulated; and
  • Man is the principal beneficiary.
This begs the question: Why is wildlife not the principal beneficiary? Simply because it is man’s desired plan of action that gets achieved.

NB: ‘Wildlife management’ is here used as a collective term to include everything to do with nature: i.e. the soil; the water; the plants AND the animals.

In the world today - including governments; scientists; and practically everybody else in the public domain - the term conservation is used, very loosely, as a synonym for wildlife management. Let me explain why we should resist allowing this interpretation to creep into our lexicon. Wildlife management has its origins in ecology. Ecology is a study. It is the study of living organisms (plants and animals) in their environment; and their interaction with other organisms which share that environment.   Studies produce results. And those results assist the wildlife manager to determine his course of management action. One might say, therefore, that wildlife management is nothing more than applied ecology. There are two arms, or functions, of wildlife management. Preservation management and conservation management. They are very different but linked to a common purpose. That purpose is to produce and to maintain a healthy ecosystem with healthy animals living in healthy habitats.

NB: 1. Consider this conundrum: If society continues to use the word conservation as though it   means wildlife management, what terminology can we possibly use to replace the wildlife management function that we correctly call conservation?  

NB: 2. And when the animal rightists call themselves conservationists; and when the media calls them conservationists, what must society call the real conservationists: those people who practice the wise and sustainable use of our wildlife resources for the benefit of mankind?

Preservation management is applied to UNSAFE populations of wild animals. This kind of management involves protecting all individuals from harm; or from potential harm. Note: I talk about a population in this context not a species. Ideally, UNSAFE populations should not be used by man at all. The purpose of managing an UNSAFE population is to make it SAFE. Conservation management is applied to SAFE populations of animals. Such populations need to be culled annually to keep their numbers stable and consistently at a level that is below the sustainable carrying capacity of their habitat. The animals from SAFE populations can be used wisely and sustainably for the benefit of mankind. That means they can harvested for their products; and/or they can be hunted. The word conservation, therefore - here again - effectively implies sustainable use. This means that when an animal rightist calls himself a conservationist he has completely got hold of the wrong end of the stick. SAFE populations sustainably utilise the resources of their habitat. They do not permanently damage them. Year in and year out, therefore, the habitats remain dynamically stable and the ecosystem’s biological diversity is not adversely affected. The linkage between these two functions of wildlife management is this: when preservation management succeeds, and an UNSAFE animal population becomes once again SAFE, its management programme should be transferred to the conservation arm of management. Once securely in that position, it can then be guided into a programme that will enable it to be used wisely and sustainably for the benefit of mankind; and, at the least, it should be culled annually. There is still the management of one other type of population that we need to consider - the EXCESSIVE population. The management strategy that such populations require is something else. The ultimate management objective in this case, is to reduce the EXCESSIVE population to whatever level the habitat can sustainably carry. This is a lot easier said than done. Let’s work out the solution together; and let’s uncover the problems the solution is likely to encounter. In this case, we have to use a lot of tough-love, hard-talk and icy-thought in the matter regarding what we need to do to solve this problem. And we must always be cognizant of the fact that even ONE elephant too many will still reduce the game reserve to the level of a desert. So, it is always better to take off too many elephants than too few. Nobody needs to worry about taking off too many! When nutrition is high, elephants will double their numbers every ten years; and when the population is maintained consistently at a number that is below the carrying capacity of the habitat, good food will always be abundant.

NB: I use square miles to explain this equation because that was the measurement we used in 1960 - and it is indelibly imprinted on my mind; and because this dissertation will be going to America where square miles is still in common usage. For those who want the exact  conversion please consider that one square mile equals 2.6 square kilometres.

I am now going to use an example that I know well. In 1960 I was part of the national parks team that counted 3500 elephants in Zimbabwe’s 5000 square mile (13 000 Hwange National Park. A National Parks Board meeting was convened at Hwange’s Main Camp that year, immediately following the count. I attended that meeting. Even in those days, and at that low number, the elephants were eliminating several major tree species in the park (rendering them locally extinct). Simply put, the advancing tree destruction told the board that Hwange was carrying too many elephants. So it was arbitrarily decided to reduce the population to 2500. And so I became deeply embroiled in the process of reducing Hwange’s elephant numbers. Two thousand five hundred elephants equates to an average density of one elephant per two square miles (one elephant per 5 sq kilometres). The important fact to remember, however, is that, in 1960, the National Parks Board determined that 3500 elephant was deemed far too high a number of elephants for Hwange to sustainably support. The whys and the wherefores, and the how, that happened between then and now, are not a necessary part of this tale. Nevertheless, it must be recorded that the last elephant cull took place in Hwange in 1988. Today, Hwange carries between 35 000 and 80 000 elephants. It never has been a static population because elephants come and go between, Hwange and Botswana, all the time. The Great Elephant Census (2016) recorded 45 000. So, let’s round off Hwange’s elephant population at 50 000. This amounts to 10 elephants per square mile; 20 times as many as the National Parks Board recommended in 1960 (when the habitats were still relatively healthy). And if we accept that the Parks Board figures are anywhere near correct - and I think they are - Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe is now 2000 percent overstocked with elephants. And the Hwange habitats have been trashed beyond recognition. Now - if we are to apply a rational and honest elephant management strategy at Hwange - what are we going to do? And it is not just Hwange we have to worry about. The whole elephant sanctuary system in Botswana (size not recorded) - with a probable 200 000 (plus) grossly EXCESSIVE elephant population - presents us with exactly the same quandary. So does the 2000 square mile (5200 sq km) Gonarezhou National Park in Zimbabwe, with its 14 000 elephants. So does South Africa’s 8 000 square mile (20 000 sq km) Kruger National Park with its 20 000 (plus) elephants.


NB: Africa’s elephant management programme started to crumble when the animal rightist NGOs began interfering at CITES in 1989 - when the elephant was proclaimed to be a so-called endangered species and when the ivory trade ban was first imposed. I pulled out my hair, and threw all my toys out of my cot, in 1979 - but it did no good. Nobody listened. That year the international animal rights brigade was cruising on the crest of a very big success wave. For  the first time in  the world’s history they ruled triumphant over everybody else. And THAT was when the rot, in Africa’s - up to that time - excellent record of good wildlife management practice, began.

Today many people still scream about the so-called fact that the elephant is an endangered species - that it is facing extinction - and that every single elephant in creation needs to be protected from all harm. Nobody ever mentions the words management, population or habitat carrying capacity - just numbers. Few people anywhere yet acknowledge that a species can only be managed at the population level - population by population. And the world’s international (so-called) conservation community continues to lead the charge in this distorted thinking. They have consumed and swallowed up Africa’s one time very proud wildlife management record. AND they continue, ad nauseam, to belittle best practice wildlife management proposals that promote integrating the needs of Africa’s people with the needs of Africa’s wildlife. They just don’t WANT to get it! Furthermore, they project their ingrained perception - in good, racist, neo-colonial style - that Africans in Africa don’t have the intellect to know what is best for Africa. The First World-based animal rightist NGOs certainly have expressed not one iota of understanding about - or consideration for - what is best for Africa, for Africa’s wildlife and for Africa’s people. Their only concern is to create (to fabricate) ever bigger and more numerous African wildlife controversies which they can use to fraudulently and annually milk hundreds of millions of US dollars out of naive, uniformed and gullible people in the big cities of the Western World. And THAT is a measure of who these pernicious people really are.


So let me return to a saner subject! Given what I have just told you about the conditions that pertain in the major game reserves of southern Africa, how many of you still believe that the elephant is endangered, that it is facing extinction, and that every individual should be afforded total protection? Not too many, I hope! But we still haven’t solved the last of the elephant management problems: what to do with Africa’s excessive numbers of elephant? Before you try to answer that question, I want to remind you that the primary purpose of a national park is to preserve every last species (of both plants AND animals) of each sanctuary’s biological diversity. Nothing is more important. So you must not flinch at what I am going to prove to you is the management option that we MUST adopt. Anything less will be a compromise that we must not entertain. Anything less with be shirking our duty to Africa’s wildlife, to Africa’s national parks and to Africa’s people. My recommendations are based on the fact that when a SAFE elephant population is AT the carrying capacity of its habitat, it is NOT (at that time) overtaxing the food resources of its environment. Such a population, therefore, can very safely be reduced in number by half. And after such a reduction, because food will then not be at all limiting, we are assured that, within ten years, the population will have bounced back to its original numbers. And if it is safe to do this to a SAFE population of elephants, it is doubly safe to reduce an EXCESSIVE population by 50 percent, too. And this should be the rule of thumb for the management of any and all EXCESSIVE elephant populations. So, looking at the Hwange situation clinically, this is how the POPULATION REDUCTION plan of action should proceed:
  • First Phase: Starting off with an elephant population numbering 50 000 animals - as quickly as possible (in the first year hopefully) - it should be reduced by 50 percent (that is by 25 000 elephants). That will leave 25 000 elephants in the remaining population - which we know by past experience is still EXCESSIVE.
  • Second Phase: Reduce the remaining elephants by another 50 percent (that is by 12 500). That will leave 12 500 elephants in the population - which we know by experience is still EXCESSIVE.
  • Third Phase: Reduce the remaining elephants by another 50 percent - leaving 6 250.
  • Fourth Phase: Reduce the remaining elephants by another 50 percent - leaving 3 125.
  • Fifth Phase: reduce the population to 2500 and then maintain it at that number (for the next 50 years - until the habitats have recovered) by culling, every year, the population’s annual increment.
So, in five years, it is (theoretically) possible to return the elephant numbers in Hwange to the level recommended by the National Parks Board in 1960. None of this will happen easily, of course, because of two things:
  • Emotional opposition from the general public will likely render it impossible to implement;
  • Elephants from Botswana will move into Hwange to fill the vacuum created by the reduced number of elephants. It would work, therefore, ONLY if an elephant proof fence were to be constructed along the border of both these countries.
In a nutshell, however, what I have portrayed above is the rationale supporting the whole elephant management equation. And if society is going to return to sanity and start insisting that our national parks revert to putting our species diversity considerations first on our wildlife management priority list, this is what we are going to have to do. If we don’t have the intestinal fortitude to do what is best for our species diversity priorities, we will have failed in our duty to Africa’s national parks; to Africa’s wildlife; to Africa’s people; to the continent of Africa itself; and to the whole world. The time for Tough- Love and Hard-Talk is NOW. Society the world over needs to understand that Africa (south of the Sahara Desert) currently hosts some 750 million people. United Nations figures determine, however, that by the year 2100 (at the end of the current century) that figure will have grown to over 4 billion. Africa then will be full of people and the only land available to accommodate the continent’s unique wildlife will be those very precious and limited protected areas that have been specifically set aside for this very purpose. Furthermore, the numbers of wild animal species (elephants, lions and rhinos etc) that can be accommodated in those protected areas will be entirely dependent on how many of these animals the national parks can carry sustainably. It behoves us all, therefore, to grasp this nettle with both hands and that we start to manage our protected areas for long term sustainability; and this is not happening. We must stop lamenting the fact that a hundred years ago there were 100 000 black rhinos living on the African continent; 50 000 lions; 2 million elephants; et cetera. For Africa to revert to the conditions that will allow those kinds of numbers to exist today is no longer a possibility. It is just not going to happen. And we are going to lose even more numbers of these animals as this century advances.   It is time, therefore, for the whole world to stop supporting the animal rightists’ propaganda which demands that this MUST happen - and that they need donations to MAKE it happen. Animal rightsism is long past its sell-by-due-date limitation. It has done enough damage. It needs to be euthanized! We truly have no time to waste to secure and to properly manage the protected areas that we have. Proper management means creating and maintaining a healthy and dynamic balance between those vital ecosystem resources: the soil, the habitats and the animals - in that hierarchy of priority. And that state of affairs can only be achieved by Africa’s own (honest) wildlife management experts. If world society is serious about creating best practice wildlife management in Africa, it must stop allowing the animal rightists to demand that our conservation priorities be determined by way of public referendums - because the general public are not qualified to make such important judgements  Many people in the First World may not like the idea of hunting and/or culling elephants - but for the sake of the elephants, their habitats and the maintenance of Africa’s biological diversity, it must be done; just as the slaughter of domestic animals in our abattoirs must be done - to feed humanity.

NB: South Africa’s commercial wildlife industry offers Africa another alternative. If people are   allowed to earn a living from the sustainable utilisation of wild animals, Africa’s wildlife     reservoirs can be expanded hugely (in the interests of Africa’s people). To properly prosper, however, such commercial enterprises require access to lucrative international markets for their products - such as venison, ivory and rhino horn; and the animal rightists are very busy - with the support of Western governments - closing down all these outlets. What a stupid tragedy!

The unfortunate elephant dilemma with which Africa (and the world) is now faced came about - and developed to its current level of almost impossible proportions - because of the self-serving and emotional propaganda (blatant lies) put out by the international animals rights brigade; because the animal rightists were supported by Western governments for reasons of political expediency; and because African governments were coerced, by the West, to toe the line demanded by the iniquitous consensus vote at CITES. And Africa’s wildlife, Africa’s national parks, and Africa’s people are now paying the price! Parts II & III to follow  

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