Elephants Mega Population

As I have already explained, the elephants that live in northern Botswana are part of a single mega-population that includes the elephants of North-Eastern Namibia, Eastern Angola, the southern part of Western Zambia; and Western Zimbabwe (Hwange). During the rains – when surface water is not limiting – these elephants roam throughout all these countries; returning to their more permanent home-ranges during every dry season. Some animals may sometimes linger in the distant parts of their expanded wet season home ranges for longer periods – when, for example, extra-heavy seasonal rains have benefitted those countries’ habitats. One should not be surprised, therefore, at annual and variable differences in the elephant sub-population numbers in any and all of these countries. Very rarely is a complete mega-population count ever carried out.

An annual incremental rate of 7.2 percent will cause elephant populations to double their numbers every 10 years. But as the population groups increase in number, they begin to over-utilise the resources of their dry season habitats and that will cause the incremental rate to decline. We cannot, and must not, therefore, be too concerned about accepting or rejecting stated elephant population numbers – because, in the end, exactitude in this regard is not the issue. What is important is the impact that an elephant population (no matter what its number) has on the dry season habitats that it occupies every year. This is a reflection of the size of the population relative to the sustainable elephant carrying capacity of its habitat; and the history of its habitat use. And – when elephant populations are grossly excessive (as they are in Botswana today) and teetering on collapse – very good or very bad annual rainfall figures can change the short-term annual elephant carrying capacity hugely.

NB: The elephants of Botswana have shown that they can roam away from water, each day of every six-months long dry season, for a distance of 25 kilometres – during which ‘ranging’ they somehow find enough food to stay alive. But in so doing so, over the last several decades, they have stripped every vestige of food (all edible grass and browse) within that 25 kilometre range of their water supply. So that 25 kilometre radius has become a virtual food-desert for all the other animals which share the elephants’ habitat during every dry season. These lesser animals cannot walk 25 kilometres every day to find food. That is why, when the 2013 elephant count was made public, the Botswana government informed the world that ‘all other species’ had declined by between 60 percent and 90 percent.

The elephants suffer too. At the height of every dry season, hundreds of elephant mothers with small babies at foot, suffer the consequences of this annual starvation regime. They stop lactating and hundreds of starving baby elephants are abandoned because they cannot keep up with their mothers on their long daily treks. Recently, weaned babies in Kruger seem to have been particularly badly affected. So it is the age-range of one-to-four years that are abandoned. And they die of starvation, heat-fatigue and/or thirst, or they are killed and eaten by hyenas and lions.

About this state of affairs, Derek and Beverley Joubert told National Geographic a few years ago that man has no need to cull elephants in Botswana because the lions were doing the culling for them. He seemingly doesn’t understand the real starvation syndrome that is taking place.

I would now like to determine for us the elephant carrying capacity of the Botswana dry season habitats. How do we do that?

Well, if we accept the fact that elephants can double their numbers every ten years going forwards; we can determine elephant population sizes at any time in the recent past, by extrapolating the same data backwards.   We were told, for example, that there were some 60 000 elephants in northern Botswana in 1990. Therefore, there must have been (roughly) 30 000 in 1980; 15 000 in 1970; and 7 500 in 1960… which was when the elephants were demolishing the Chobe riverine forest strip. 7 500, therefore, were too many elephants for Botswana in 1960. So, maybe 5 000 would be a good guess at the elephant carrying capacity for Botswana in the dry season of 1960 – at which time the habitats were still reasonably healthy? Today, by comparison, all the habitats have been well and truly trashed.

I have gone to great pains to explain to you that the ACTUAL elephant carrying capacities of all our elephant sanctuaries in southern Africa are minuscule compared to the very large numbers of elephants these game reserves are ACTUALLY carrying at this time. In other words, all our national parks are carrying grossly far too many elephants. And I have explained that for a reason.

The sustainable-use of these elephants – for the purpose of creating desirable, sustainable and symbiotic partnerships between the elephants and the rural people in this country – will have no negative impact whatsoever on the numbers of elephants in Botswana. The likely annual increment – alone – of the elephants living in Botswana at this time, will be something in excess of 10 000 elephants a year.

In my estimation, the game reserve sanctuaries of ALL the countries of southern Africa are each carrying between 10 and 20 times too many elephants – and they will all benefit extensively by having those populations reduced by several tens of thousands. These excessive elephant populations, therefore, have an enormous potential for eliminating long term poverty – and providing sustainable employment – in the villages in those remote regions of southern Africa where the people are living cheek by jowl with masses of these highly dangerous and very crop-destructive animals.

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.

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One thought on “Elephants Mega Population

  • Very correct your reasoning. It is a complete fiasco that solid criteria such as the sustainable use of wildlife are no longer recognized and employed in the management of conservation policies. “Nature will do its best” is a concept that is totally out of context given the growing and unstoppable loss of habitat and environmental degradation. These are tough times for wildlife managers, where old and proven methods of population control have been relegated by decision makers.

    At a time when people believe that it is better for elephants and all wildlife to fight for survival in a heavily degraded habitat, rather than accepting the employment of scientifically implemented adaptive management in an attempt to correct and rebalance degraded ecosystems for decades, all rationality is lost. Scientists such as Ph.Ds: John Hanks, Brian Child, Rolf D. Baldus have long warned of the catastrophic loss of pasture and landscapes caused by swollen elephant populations. It takes a lot of resilience and mental strength to fight against misinformation and innocuous policies that are implemented in response to the wishes of donors, those interested in the crisis, the political role of the IUCN.

    Lately seeing Dr. Amy Dickman leave Ruaha and attend lectures/meetings/forums in an attempt to get around this vast reductionist thinking that is affecting the use of classical methods of local conservation, we see that we are going through a very serious moment. Instead of expanding the toolbox, they are emptying them to the point that any practical understanding is impracticable, due to their inability to form strong ties between the conservation economy and local communities.

    The killing of elephants is a matter of high impact on people’s minds and old footage showing an entire family being slaughtered are scenes worthy of the greatest holocausts. People are not ready to accept this again. They prefer to see National Geographic narratives showing a baby lost by its mother being eaten alive by a group of hyenas (pictures only show the beginning and end of the attack – spare the harrowing death of a creature eaten alive) as an isolated, disconnected case of the real reason for a degraded habitat, hiding that thousands of orphans are left to die every year. An ugly reality that serves no interest in educating the Western masses to promote a broader understanding of the challenges facing South African states. The reality is working with a population of less than 200,000 elephants in SADC member countries. There is a general lack of awareness of what the rural population of Botswana goes through each year in the face of endless conflicts and confrontations, which will potentially be magnified year by year. There is a lot of talk about expanding corridors in the TFCA, but the movement of elephants, due to their numbers and extension in the existing habitat bubbles, will not order an annual migration in order to recover land that is currently degraded. An illusion to believe that runners will be able to mitigate this vast and often disorderly population on the move. Due to their natural deterioration, the old veterinary fences no longer impose an effective restriction on movement, but are unable to promote safe and non-conflicting paths – there is very little safe space for elephants in these ranges. “Without reducing the elephant population, Botswana will be hostage to an endless work to mitigate conflicts that will weaken the spirits of the professionals responsible for this clash and condemn the spirit of a country that dreamed years ago of an inclusive policy that would meet the wishes of its citizens in line with its wildlife”.


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