Botswana’s Elephant Management Conundrum

Don Pinnock, known to the people of the wildlife industry in South Africa as the Pinocchio of ‘Never-Never Land’, has a nose so long that I am surprised he doesn’t have to use a wheel barrow to cart it around.

He has just published another make-believe article in the Daily Maverick (12th May 2022). His subject this time was, again, wildlife management about which he clearly knows absolutely nothing. This does not daunt him, however, because he truly believes he is Africa’s wildlife management guru – and that he is the answer to all young wannabe game rangers’ wildest dreams.

Wikipedia tells me that Pinnock has a PhD in political science, an MA in criminology, a BA in African history and has published a post-doctoral study on gangs, rituals and rites of passage. He has held lectureships in journalism (Rhodes) and criminology (University of Cape Town) and conducted his PhD research at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London University. He was the first Writer-in-Residence at South Africa’s Antarctic SANAE IV base (2005–06).
As a criminologist, he was one of the co-drafters for the ANC government of the Youth Justice White Paper, which became the Child Justice Act. He is a specialist in adolescent deviance, was one of the founders of the Usiko Trust and is a trustee of the Chrysalis Academy, both involved with support and training for high-risk youth. He is an Honorary Research Associate in the Centre of Criminology, University of Cape Town.
He was appointed a commissioner of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 2017.
He has held three photographic exhibitions in Cape Town: The Wonder of Elephants and Postcards from the Road. $treet$ is a traveling exhibition that explores gang life.
He is a columnist for BA High Life and Mahala and researcher/writer for the Conservation Action Trust, The Dodo and Daily Maverick.

He has no wildlife management – or elephant management – training or experience!

Don Pinnock, therefore, is no fool but he should stick to his own special interest. When he talks about wildlife management, protected area management, and any matter relating to elephants, his ignorance is overwhelmingly apparent. And the damage to wildlife that his voluminous fake news causes is too humungous to ignore.

Mr Pinnock is, without any doubt, an animal rightist by inclination, the ideology of which shines through in all his writings. He seems not to be particularly concerned about animal welfare matters, however – that is, issues concerned with cruelty to animals – but he clearly believes that eco-tourism is the magical panacea that can resolve all Botswana’s (and southern Africa’s) wildlife problems. He has no idea, nor any concerns it seems, about the complexities of maintaining biological diversities in, or the critical administration of, protected areas. Yet media outlets, like the Daily Maverick, continue to promote him and his writings as though he was a major expert in all these subjects. This allows him to inject his personal preference opinions and prejudices into the public domain, opinions and prejudices which have no validity in science. The Daily Maverick, therefore, has a lot to answer for!

Yet the Daily Maverick continues to tell its readership that it brings “the truth” to South African readers. Don Pinnock, however, is the lie to that statement!

An animal rightist is someone who works to abolish all animal uses by man. They say that man has no right to use an animal, any animal, for his own benefit. They say that animals have the same right to life as those enjoyed by humankind; and they say that man should subsist on a vegetable diet alone. Whether Pinnock journeys along this ultimate road to self-destruction I cannot say: but his wife admits to being a vegan.

Animal rightists denounce mankind for breeding domestic animals – cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, chickens etc., for food. They abhor the idea that man should slaughter an animal for food; or use a horse or a donkey to pull a cart; or an ox to plough a field. They condemn people who own a cat or a dog, and those that keep a tame budgie in a cage. And they condemn hunting and lethal wildlife management (culling) out of hand.

I don’t know, however, if Pinnock has, himself, become a vegan (or a vegetarian) to satisfy his religious beliefs! Some animal rightists are very selective in the practices that they object to and those that they don’t! Indeed, hypocrisy is rife within the animal rights movement as a whole when it comes to principles!

Animal welfare advocates have quite a different approach to man’s use of animals. They do not object to the fact that man uses animals for all sorts of reasons provided, in the process, the animals are treated with care and respect. They do not object to man killing an animal to obtain meat to eat or that man uses an animal for his own benefit. However, when a live animal is used for such purposes, the animal welfarist insists that man should treat such an animal without cruelty; and that if he has to kill it to obtain benefits, the killing procedure should be quick and humane. Animal welfare people, therefore, look after man’s civilized standards in his use of animals.

It is important that the reader understands these basic circumstances because how a writer thinks is how he will address himself to particular issues. Pinnock disapproves the hunting and culling of elephants, and he has animal rightist acquaintances high up in the Botswana tourism industry-chain who have convinced him that tourism is the answer to all that country’s wildlife woes. He claims that what he calls “the migration corridors” provide some of the finest wildlife tourist viewing in the world.

Further, he claims that “aerial surveys have shown that Botswana’s elephant population has been stable for many years”. That is bunkum! But you only have my word for that! What I can say, however, is that as their food supply subsides within in their traditional dry-season home-ranges, so do we learn of ever more places on the map where the excess elephants are expanding their distribution.

When we talk about the hunting and culling of elephants, therefore, we already know how he is going to respond. He is going to offer tourism as the answer to every problem imaginable. And this he does all the time. He, like many others of his ilk, regularly climbs onto the population-stability bandwagon and he (and his colleagues) make multiple statements, in this regard, without any proof whatsoever. But he (or rather they) find this ploy – statements to the effect that the Botswana elephant population has “stabilised” – a good enough reason (or excuse) to debunk the importance of hunting and culling in Botswana’s elephant management practices.

In fact, hunting and culling are the only tools that can be used to reduce elephant population numbers to levels equal to their habitat carrying capacity imperatives. And the single most important thing that will happen – if the game reserves of southern Africa do not reduce their elephant populations to their respective habitat carrying capacity levels – is that southern Africa will lose its all-important biological diversity.

Now let me nit-pick at Pinnock’s article.

1. In his very first sentence Pinnock claims that hunters celebrate and “conservationists” mourn the recent killing of two of Botswana’s largest tusked elephants. And clearly, because he and his animal rightist friends are “in mourning” over these events, he registers himself, and people of his ilk, as “conservationists”.

He is wrong!
In 1956, when the International Union for the Preservation of Nature (IUPN) changed its name to the IUCN (The International Union for the Conservation of Nature), they did so in order to attract new memberships of paying sovereign states. The sovereign states of those times, however, wanted to sustainably use their abundant wild natural resources so they were reluctant to join an organization that they believed would prohibit them from doing so. In the process of this renaming, the IUCN cemented its interpretations of these two words in society’s mind. Preservation was effectively labeled “protection from all harm” and Conservation was identified as meaning “the sustainable-use of a wild natural resource for the benefit of mankind”.
For an animal rightist to call himself and his friends “conservationists”, therefore, is a misnomer of gigantic proportions. In fact, the last thing an animal rightist is, is a “conservationist”. But this mistake is not a mistake at all. Calling themselves “conservationists” is an animal rightist smokescreen tactic to make their ideology more acceptable to the general public.

2. Next he misuses the word “migration”. He says that “for millions of years, elephants have undertaken seasonal migrations, following the rains that nourish the foliage that they eat”.

This statement leaves the reader with the idea that elephants locate themselves in a particular habitat for one (limited) period of the year (the dry season), from which they disappear when the rains break – and that during the rains they move, en masse, to some other habitat far away (like geese migrate out of their arctic summer-breeding grounds when winter snows force them to move, south, into warmer climes). This kind of migration does not happen with elephants.

During the dry season of the year the occurrence of elephant herds is regulated by available water. When the rains break, however, water becomes non-limiting because it occurs everywhere. During the rains, therefore, elephants are not restricted in where they can live. So they disperse when the rains break, and they move far and wide (to take advantage of the seasonally abundant food supply that occurs during the wet season). But they never completely vacate their dry season home range. Elephants can be found living (or visiting) their dry season home ranges throughout the year. This makes their annual movements not a migration.

I liken these seasonal elephant movements to a pulse. They constrict into a relatively small dry season home-range and (when the rains come) they expand into a much bigger home range. During the rains, however, the elephants continue to move in and out of their dry season home range all the time.

I challenge anybody to go visit Chobe National Park in December, January or February and tell me that they don’t see any elephants!

Pinnock’s allusion to the fact that “for millions of years, elephants have undertaken seasonal migrations (out of Botswana)”, therefore, is a carefully contrived subterfuge. And it puts into the minds of the people-in-the-street something that it is not.

He claims that the elephants’ main dispersal routes, as they move from the Okavango Delta and central Botswana, is northwards along the Kwando River into Namibia, Angola and Zambia; and from the Delta to the Chobe River. And he calls these routes “corridors”. Elephants certainly do use these so-called “migration corridors” – all the time – but not as migration routes.

Pinnock alludes to the much tarnished legend that elephants “spread” plant seeds in their dung. They do! But, when (as has happened in Botswana) the elephants have rendered locally extinct all those plants (grasses and trees) that once produced those seeds, there are not very many seeds left that they can “spread”. This is one famous delusion that animal rightists use all the time to mis-lead the general public. I hope that there are intelligent people reading this article who will understand my counter logic. In this regard, animal rightists often shoot themselves in the foot.

How can elephants distribute the seeds of the marula-tree, of the camel thorn tree, of the winter thorn tree, of the umbrella thorn tree, of the sweet thorn tree, and many others – when they have long ago eliminated all these tree species from the woodland-habitat-spectrums in Botswana’s game reserves?

He intimates that the shooting of two 100-pounder elephant bulls this year, inside the “migration corridors” will disrupt what he sees as the important annual elephant migration. He quotes another animal rightist who passes on her personal preference opinion (for what it is worth) that: “hunting in migration corridors could have devastating consequences for transient elephants”. Because there is no such thing as a “migration” of elephants into and out of Botswana, these claims are asinine.

Does hunting (or culling) disrupt an elephant population? It can! And, in Botswana, it probably does – in a very small way. The degree of disturbance, however, will be commensurate with the intensity of the hunting. So let’s look at that factor!

The hunting of 400 elephant bulls out of a mega-population of 220 000 – once a year – and spread over a six-month’s long dry season, are the main statistics we need to consider. The hunting pressure is distributed within habitats that cover half the size of Botswana – a truly giant piece of real estate. Taking all these factors into account, I would consider that the disturbance impact will be so insignificant as to be of absolutely no consequence.

Pinnock, in the very first sentence of his article, states that the killing of two elephant bulls with 100-pound tusks is a “biodiversity tragedy waiting in the wings”. Many other so-called scientists have said the same sort of thing – which is a sad indictment of such people’s knowledge of elephant behaviour and genetics.

He also says that: “Targeting these elephants is extremely detrimental to the population because they provide critically important ecological and social knowledge and aid the survival of the entire group. Old bulls control musth in younger, inexperienced bulls who otherwise manifest delinquent behaviour.

This statement tells me that Pinnock knows nothing about elephant behaviour or their social structures.

What does Pinnock think is the purpose of elephant society? He seems to think that, among other things, it is a finishing school to put the social polish on young boys and to thus turn them into “gentlemen” of which the whole population-of-the-realm can be proud! Such is the level of his ignorance! He clearly doesn’t know that elephant society is split into two very distinct parts. There are separate bull herds – in which every individual looks only after itself. And there are separate cow herds in which young animals grow up to the stage of puberty (which happens at about eleven or twelve years old). Young bulls stay with the breeding herd a little longer after puberty.
These bull and cow groups often live many kilometers apart.

It is easy for people who so easily ascribe human traits to animals – ignorant people with slick tongues (like Don Pinnock) – to convince the general public that big elephant bulls, carrying ivory of this size and weight (100 pounders), are vitally important “gene-banks” for their populations. But that is not true.

In order for me to counter such a conviction, however, it is not sufficient just to state: “That is not true”. There is a lot more to this state-of-affairs than meets the eye.

So let’s dissect this argument before it escalates further. This is how I explain such predicaments to people who are not biologists but who really want to know the facts.

Elephants (on average) live to the ripe old age of 60 years. If we dissect an elephant’s life span into four Life-Quarters, therefore, we end up with four periods each comprising 15 years. And when we track an elephant bull’s life through these four-life-quarter parts this is what we get:

FIRST-Life-Quarter (birth to 15 years of age). The elephant bull is born. It suckles from its mother. It learns how to eat adult bush-food; it reaches puberty and, at about fifteen years of age, it is evicted (by the bigger cows) from the animal’s matriarchal herd. Thereafter, if it is to survive, it has to assimilate into the quite separate bull herd society.
SECOND-Life-Quarter (16 to 30 years) the young bull grows rapidly (as does a human teenager) and they slowly become assimilated into the bull herd-society.
During their THIRD-Life-Quarter (31 to 45 years), young bulls grow to maximum adult body size and they come into regular musth two or three times a year. Musth is a hormonal state that readies bulls for copulation. Adult bulls in musth breed only with cows that are in oestrus – which is a hormonal state that readies cows for copulation.

THIRD-Life-Quarter bulls (now in prime adult condition) come into musth two or three times a year. When two adult, THIRD-Life-Quarter bulls come in musth at the same time, they fight hard and furiously to determine which of them will have the first right to mate with a cow that is in oestrus. These fights are vicious and often lethal for the loser. THIRD Life-Quarter bulls do all the mating in elephant bull society and they are always fighting to retain their hierarchical rank.
THIRD-Life-Quarter bulls in musth also bully the smaller SECOND-Life-Quarter bulls should the younger animals show any signs of coming into early musth. In other words, they do not tolerate sexual competition from the younger males. This is how (and why) SECOND-Life-Quarter bulls are disciplined in bull society. The bullying experience reduces the testosterone levels in the younger bulls’ hormonal balances – which is how and why they switch-off any tendency to come into Musth.

Age in elephants is scientifically determined by reading the state of their molar teeth. Each elephant grows, uses, and wears out, six sets of molar teeth in its lifetime. And how these teeth replace each other, and how and when they each wear out, fairly accurately determines just how old the elephant is at any time in its life.
When THIRD-Life-Quarter bulls come into musth they are avoided by all other bulls of their age-group. The state of Musth gives all adult bulls a temporary higher rank than they have when they are out-of-musth. The ones that are in-musth remove themselves from the other bulls and they wander off in the habitat, alone, in search of cow herds in which there are cows in oestrus.

Rank in bull society is the dominant factor throughout the lives of all bull elephants. Even when they are babies, young elephant bulls start pushing each other around (play-fighting) in order to gain some kind of superior rank amongst their siblings. And, as they grow older, they will spar with each other for hours on end when their mothers take them to the waterholes. At puberty (11/12 years of age) they are still fighting. At fifteen, when they are kicked out of their mother’s herd, they are still fighting. And when they become SECOND Life-Quarter bulls their fighting become more serious and they are regularly bullied (and put in their places) by the THIRD-Life-Quarter bulls.
So, elephant bull society, start to finish, is a very aggressive community.

During their SECOND-Life-Quarter another behaviour change takes place. The young bulls start to push over trees for no other reason than to show their strength to their peers. And these pushed-over strength-demonstration trees are rarely fed upon. Indeed this behaviour kills more trees than are killed for food by the feeding adult herds. Pushing over trees, and sparring, continues into the bulls’ THIRD-life-quarter period by which time both behaviours have become imprinted on every bull elephant’s soul.

When they enter their FOURTH-Life-Quarter (46 to 60 years old) these now old bulls will have spread their genes far and wide. And they will be starting to feel their age. The rules of elephant engagement, however, still apply. If a Fourth-Life-Quarter bull comes into musth, therefore, it will likely be set upon by some THIRD-Life-Quarter bull that is enjoying its own heavy state of musth. Compared to the superior physical strength of the THIRD-Life Quarter animals, which are big strong animals eager to fight, however, the FOURTH Life-Quarter bulls find themselves outclassed. So, as the older bulls slide into senility they drop out of the breeding game altogether.

It is also at this stage of their lives that the older animals get down to their last molar tooth. And as that last set of molars slowly disintegrates, so the old bulls find themselves in a position where they can’t even masticate their food. In their dotage, therefore, elephant bulls become physically weak and they, eventually, die of starvation. And, throughout this final and senile stage of their lives, the older bulls become ever more disinclined to fight a younger and stronger bull for the right to mate.

Nevertheless, elephant bulls continue to add length and tusk mass to their tusks until the day they die. They, therefore, become ever more attractive to trophy hunters the older they get. It is probably true to say, therefore, that when they enter their fifties, their desire to fight disappears and their urge to breed dies out.

One of the rules of the Trophy Hunting game in Botswana is that the bottom jaws of every elephant that is shot on license has to be collected and surrendered to the authorities. This enables the Botswana scientists to determine the age of each and every elephant that is killed by a hunter. I haven’t seen the full range of the elephant jaws collected this year, but I have a photograph of the bottom jaw that belonged to the last 100-pounder taken. And I am assured, by the people who know how to read such evidence, that that old bull was between 53 and 54 years of age when he was shot. Furthermore, the front part of his last molar had started to crumble. That old elephant bull, therefore, was rapidly sliding down the slippery slope on his way to visit the Pearly Gates. He was certainly in no condition to breed, and his loss to his population was of absolutely no consequence. He was, in fact, already getting to the stage of being surplus to his old population, ten years before his death.

So, get back into your box, Mr Pinnock, you are making a fool of yourself – again.

The most important aspect of elephant management work in Botswana today has nothing to do with hunting or photographic safaris. Four hundred elephant bulls a year, out of a mega-population that is said to number 220 000 strong, is a drop in the ocean. Of infinitely more management importance is getting that massive number of elephants down to a level that the habitats can sustainable support. And that will require removing huge numbers of breeding cows as well as, perhaps, a thousand huntable bulls a year.

In 1960, what is now the Zimbabwe National Parks authority determined that Hwange National Park had a carrying capacity of approximately one elephant per two square miles (or one elephant per 5 square kilometers) – this, when the habitats were still relatively healthy. Alas, those halcyon days are long gone. Today Hwange is carrying 50 000 elephants – twenty times what it should be carrying – and its habitats have been trashed. And Hwange is but one small part of Botswana’s mega-elephant-population range. I believe, however, this kind of carrying capacity pertains throughout the entire occupied range of Botswana’s mega-elephant population and these habitats have also all been trashed.
It is the state of the trashed habitats that represents the real danger to this region’s biological diversity. And the key to improving this situation lies in properly managing this hugely excessive number of elephants.

The key to elephant management and to national park management as a whole, everywhere, is to create a healthy and stable ecosystem that can withstand nature’s often gravid poundings. Then, and only then, can every other facet of a game reserve’s character be superimposed on top of this sound and sustainable foundation.

Just at the moment, however, Botswana’s wild habitats are on the verge of collapse. The state of its protected area ecosystems, therefore, is not sustainable. So, anything that is constructed on top of the current protected area foundation will collapse when the ecosystem collapses, as it surely will. Consequently, the state of Botswana’s still unique biological diversity is precarious and critical. And the application of proper elephant management strategies is the only thing that can save Botswana’s wild places from absolute disaster.

The Botswana wildlife management problem, therefore, is infinitely bigger and more complicated than most people realise.

What I can say with total confidence, however, is that the manner in which the Botswana authorities are addressing themselves to the management of this year’s elephant hunting quota – which is a spit in the ocean – is the right way to go. President Masisi, however, must expand his horizons beyond what is currently the most obvious. Involving the local rural communities in the elephant management conundrum, however, is the only way these sorts of wildlife management problems should be addressed. And President Masisi is doing just that. How he will address himself to the next part of the elephant management problem – the reduction of the mega-elephant-population numbers by 50 percent (to start off with) – which, to me is vital, will not be accepted meekly by the animal rights opposition. But, as a first step in a long road to habitat rehabilitation, there is no other route he can take.

Nevertheless, President Masisi of Botswana has my vote!

Good luck Botswana.

Ron Thomson

I am NOT a ‘trophy hunter’ - and never have been. I am not involved in the trophy hunting safari business. I am also not a game rancher. But I have ‘administratively controlled’ professional hunters and safari outfitters in my capacity as a government game warden. I am an 80 year old ex-game warden with 60 years of continuous experience in hands-on wildlife management, and national park management, in Africa (1959 to 2019). In breakdown, I have 24 years experience in the management of national parks in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe - and in the management of the wild animal populations that lived inside those national parks; one year as the Chief Nature Conservation of the Ciskei in South Africa; three years as Director of the Bophuthatswana National Parks Board in South Africa; and I worked for three years as a professional hunter in the South African Great Karoo (taking foreign hunters on quests for plains game trophies). I discovered, however, that professional hunting was not my forte. I worked as an investigative wildlife journalist for 30 years in South Africa. I have written fifteen books and hundreds of magazine articles on the subject of wildlife management and big game hunting in Africa. Five of my books are university-level text books on wildlife management. I am a university-trained ecologist; was a member of the Institute of Biology (London) for 20 years; and was a registered chartered biologist for the European Union for 20 years. I have VAST experience in the “management hunting” of elephants, buffaloes, lions, leopards and hippos (as part of my official national park work in the control of problem animals); and I pioneered the capture of black rhino in Zimbabwe’s Zambezi Valley (1964 - 1970). My university thesis was entitled: “The Factors Affecting the Survival and Distribution of Black Rhinos in Rhodesia”. Look at my personal website if you want any further details about my experience: www.ronthomsonshuntingbooks.co.za.

Ron Thomson has 249 posts and counting. See all posts by Ron Thomson

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