I have been asked to comment on a major article in the Africa Geographic magazine written by its editor, Simon Espley, dated 13th October 2017.
Its title is “The Real Elephant Problem in Botswana” – and it wants to make me cry with frustration. Here is a magazine that purports to reproduce noteworthy “conservation” material that is worthy of consideration by intelligent people – and that purports to inform those who don’t understand “conservation” just what makes the world of wildlife go round.
If this was written as a “first effort” by somebody who genuinely “cares” for wildlife and its woes, who was genuinely struggling to understand all the complexities of wildlife management, I would take the trouble to inform Mr Espley of the facts that he needs to know. But this is his umpteenth article and every one portrays his ignorance ever more adroitly. And I have written to him but have never even had the courtesy of an acknowledgement. So he obviously believes he has all the answers.
But I cannot let him go unscathed on this occasion because, in this article, he is “teaching” his readers all the wrong things – about important matters – matters about which everybody needs to know the truth.
The first thing he needs to understand is that the elephants’ predicament in Botswana has got nothing to do with elephants dying of thirst.
Adult elephants can walk – every day during the dry season – for distances up to 25 kilometres to and from whatever water is available. And north-western Botswana is FULL of water; in the swamps and in the rivers. So water is not the problem.
The problem is that for the last 50 years and more the elephants of Botswana have been “excessive” in number; and every dry season they have been entirely living inside that 25 km zone of habitat that they can reach from those water supplies.
“Excessive” means their numbers – for five decades and more – have been more than the sustainable carrying capacity of the habitats. In other words, they have been living “beyond” their means. And every year – for more than 50 years – the habitats have been progressively ever more over-utilised. And every year, all edible grass and browse inside those 25 kms has been eaten into extinction.
So, although the elephants can walk those distances, they cannot find enough food to stay alive. And the first animals to take the strain are lactating mothers – because THEY have to find enough food to keep themselves alive PLUS enough food to make the milk that keeps their babies alive.
And the first manifestation of a problem is when lactating mothers stop producing milk; baby elephants are then so-called abandoned; they are “orphaned”; and the lions and hyenas have a feast.
So the abandoned baby elephants Espley writes about are NOT ones that have been bullied at the waterholes; they are the ones that their mothers cannot feed any more. And Espley does not have the wildlife management experience to realise that fact!
And when water is supplied within the 25 km zone – although it does extent the elephants range a little bit – if it is supplied within the zone in which the elephants have already eaten out all the edible plants – it does little to solve the “elephant problem” in Botswana.
The land – the soil – can only produce so much food – which is supposed to feed every herbivorous animal species in Botswana. The land cannot produce any more than “the maximum”. And the elephants take the “elephants share” of that food – in other words, ALL that food – long before the dry season ends.
They have to then live in an environment which they themselves have stripped of all edible foods – for the remaining months of the dry season. This causes declines in all wild animal species in Botswana. And it places an extraordinary nutritional stress of all Botswana’s elephants.
And every year the elephants get more and more. And edible vegetation gets less and less. So it is not lack of water that is destroying Botswana’s wild animals – including its elephants – it is lack of food.
And there is nothing that anybody can do about that other than to reduce the elephant population numbers. But that is not going to happen so long as people like Espley laud the anti-hunters and praise those people who – through ignorance – believe they are doing the right thing for Botswana’s elephants – by supplying more water – inside the desertified 25 kms zone of the elephants daily maximum walking range.
What needs to happen in Botswana is a massive elephant population reduction exercise – half the population needs to be removed – but to comprehend that management strategy is beyond Espley.
And despite Espley’s adoration of Botswana’s President, I predict that Ian Khama he will go down in Botswana’s history as the president who destroyed his nation’s once unequalled-in-Africa wildlife resource.