The ABC of Elephant Management

This dissertation has been written for all those poor misguided folks who simply do not comprehend the need for elephant management.

Elephant management is not difficult to understand if you base your comprehension of the subject on FACT.

NB: A ‘fact’ is a ‘thing’ that is known to be consistent with objective reality and it can be proved to be true with evidence. fact is an idea, therefore, which is wholly and absolutely true. The purpose of using facts in this essay is to remove all ambiguity from its interpretation.    

An ‘opinion’, on the other hand, is the way that an individual feels about ‘something’. It is probable, however, that many other people will ‘feel’ very differently about that same thing! When that happens, they are said to have a ‘different opinion’ about it. A personal preference opinion, however, is NOT ‘a fact’. Elephant management is based on the principles – that is on the ‘facts’ – of science-based wildlife management. Please take note of the facts relevant to the art and craft of wildlife management that are outlined below.

  • ‘Management’ is simply the action man takes to achieve a man-desired objective;

There is, therefore, nothing ‘natural’ about wildlife management. It is an artefact of man.

  • The concept of wildlife management is:
  • man-conceived;
  • man-designed;
  • man-implemented;
  • man- manipulated; and
  • man is the principle beneficiary.

Man is the principle beneficiary because it is man’s chosen objective that is achieved during the management process.

In the modern day and age in southern Africa, elephants live in defined and finite wildlife sanctuaries (called game reserves or national parks). They are consequently a major component of these sanctuaries’ ecosystems.

NB: An ‘ecosystem’ is a biological community of interacting organisms (plants and animals) and their physical environment.

In South Africa, the government body responsible for managing these sanctuaries is called SANParks (The South African National Parks {Department} – formerly called the National Parks Board). Other sovereign states have assigned a similar government authority to manage their own national wildlife management affairs. And, like national park authorities all over the world, they have all declared the same hierarchies of ‘wildlife management (conservation) priorities’:

These comprise:-

  • FIRST priority – to ensure the maintenance, protection and/or ‘wise use’ (conservation) of the SOIL (because without soil no plants will grow; and without plants there will be no animals);
  • SECOND priority – to ensure the maintenance, protection and/or ‘wise use’ (conservation) of plants (because without plants there would be no animals);
  • THIRD (and LAST) priority- to ensure the maintenance, protection and/or ‘wise use’ (conservation) of ANIMALS. ANIMALS come last on this hierarchical list of priorities not because they are UN-important but because they are LESS-important than the soil and plants.

Green plants are ‘energy producers’. They are the only living organisms on earth that are capable of converting the sun’s energy (through as process called photosynthesis) into food (energy) for herbivorous animals to eat. And herbivorous animals, in turn, are food for carnivorous animals. Without green plants, therefore, there would be no animals of any kind on planet earth.

Besides providing herbivorous animals with food, plants do a number of other things in the environment:

  • Plants provide cover for the soil, protecting it from the erosive forces of the sun, the wind and (especially) the rain, and from excessive heat and excessive cold;
  • Plants provide cover for animals, too, protecting them from the elements and hiding them from their enemies; and finally
  • Plants – coupled with the physical character of their local environment – create the many different habitat types that are the reason for the existence, and the survival, of the world’s diverse spectrum of wild animal species.

Different animal species are adapted to a specific habitat type – or to a range of different habitat types – without which those species of animals would not exist. The occurrence of a particular habitat – or of a range of particular habitat types – therefore, determines what species of animals can live in a national park. The existence of those habitats, therefore, is infinitely more important than the occurrence of the animal species that are adapted to them. Indeed, the importance of those habitats is so great should they disappear (for whatever reason) the animal species that are adapted to them will become extinct.

No one can practice wildlife management without taking all these considerations – and a lot more – into account. The wildlife manager of a national park, therefore, should be programmed to holistically ‘manage’ the entire ecosystem of his wildlife sanctuary. In this regard, it should be his purpose to maintain a constant, sustainable and ecological balance between all the living organisms (all the living plants and animals) and their physical environment, in his game reserve. And this is what every wildlife manager of every national park in South Africa has been charged to do.

The SANParks management authority in South Africa was, a long time ago, mandated by the South African parliament to (above all else) “maintain species diversity” in all the national parks under its control. This is a succinct way of saying, the wildlife managers of South Africa’s national parks are charged with the task of maintaining the country’s national parks in a state of constant and dynamic ecological equilibrium. In a nutshell, THIS is man’s primary wildlife management objective for all southern Africa’s wildlife sanctuaries.

Is this being achieved in South Africa? No it isn’t!

Is this being achieved in Namibia? No it isn’t!

Is this being achieved in Zimbabwe? No it isn’t!

Is this being achieved in Botswana? No it isn’t!

Is this being achieved anywhere in southern Africa? No it isn’t!

Why not? Principally because wherever elephants occur in southern Africa they are being maintained in numbers that far exceed the elephant carrying capacities of their habitats; and because that has been the case – in many instances – for at least the last 50 years. A major contributing factor – indeed, a very serious contributing (political) factor – has been that Western governments – in total ignorance of (and with an apparent lack of concern for) the pertaining ecological circumstances – refuse to support African countries when they elect to implement the only wildlife management action that can possibly solve this over-population-of-elephants problem (and that is, ‘population reduction’). Western states simply will not countenance a reduction of elephant population numbers – anywhere, in any guise and for whatever reason. And African governments – cowed by threats from these super powers – have been compliant with their ‘Big Brother’ demands. What this means is that African countries don’t want to antagonise the big Western powers by acting unilaterally – even though they KNOW that elephant population reduction is essential for the preservation of their national parks. And so, the grossly excessive elephant herds that exist throughout southern Africa have been criminally forced into a state of total MIS-management by ‘The West’.

This brings us to the next level of necessary understanding. What are the ecological and/or biological factors that come into play when wildlife management actions to solve this overpopulation-of-elephants problem, are being contemplated. First of all, it is vital that the term “elephant carrying capacity” is properly understood.

NB: The elephant carrying capacity of a game reserve is the maximum number of elephants that its habitats can sustain indefinitely, given the food, water and other ecological necessities that are available. It reflects the maximum number of elephants that can feed on-and-in the game reserve’s habitats without destroying them.

So, what kind of elephant carrying capacity ‘numbers’ are we looking at? They are surprisingly low. And the tragedy is that – if we don’t reduce our elephant numbers to those low levels – there is absolutely no chance that we will ever achieve our primary wildlife management objective which is: to maintain our national parks’ species diversities.

I doubt that there is a single wildlife management scientist in the whole of Africa who is prepared to hazard even a guess at any wildlife sanctuary’s elephant carrying capacity. Nobody has bothered to determine such a figure, probably because there has been no urgent need to know such a statistic – until, perhaps, now!   Today, due to the internet and social media, every single wastrel, who spends his day sitting vacantly on an upturned galvanized bucket on the street corner, demands to have ‘proof of everything’ before he will accept anything.

During the last 60 years – which covers the period of my working with elephants inside and around southern Africa’s national parks – and researching and writing about elephants and their management needs – I like to think that I have achieved a reasonable grasp of the elephant carrying capacity conundrum. I am even prepared to state (boldly and confidently) that the probable elephant carrying capacity for most of southern Africa’s national parks (when their habitats were still healthy – i.e. prior to 1960), is no more than ‘about’ one elephant per 5 square kilometers. This was the approximate figure I concluded for both Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park and South Africa’s Kruger National Park. And I believe this figure is as near as dammit to the elephant carrying capacities for all other national parks in southern Africa (prior to 1960).

So, if these figures are investigated and found to be acceptable, what kind of management issues face the Hwange and Kruger National Park (and all the other national park) wildlife management teams?

Hwange is some 5 000 square miles (13 000 square kilometers) in extent. At a carrying capacity of one elephant per two square miles (or one elephant per five square kilometers) Hwange COULD have sustainably carried 2 500 elephants – when the game reserve’s habitats were still undamaged and healthy (i.e. prior to 1960). How many elephants is Hwange carrying today (in 2019)? Depending on the rains and the movement of elephants between Hwange and Botswana at any one time during the year, Hwange is said to carry anything between 35 000 and 50 000 elephants. That equates to between 14 and 20 TIMES more elephants than what I call its benchmark (1960) carrying capacity.

Kruger National Park is 8 000 square miles (20 000 square kilometers) in extent. At a carrying capacity of one elephant per two square miles (or one elephant per 5 square kilometers) KNP COULD have sustainably carried between 3 500 and 4000 elephants – when the Kruger habitats were still undamaged and healthy (i.e. prior to 1960). How many elephants is KNP carrying today (in 2019)? According to Dr Salomon Joubert – a recently retired manager of Kruger National Park (and one of its past large mammal scientists) – Kruger is currently carrying no less than 32 000 elephants. And that is roughly 10 times the number of elephants that it should be carrying.

Zimbabwe’s relatively small Gonarezhou National Park (2 000 square miles or 5000 square kilometers in extent), is said to be carrying some 12 to 14 000 elephants. If its carrying capacity is similar to that for KNP (which is located just 50 kms south of the Gonarezhou’s southern boundary) then the Gonarezhou should be carrying no more than 1000 elephants.

Dr Graham Child reported to the Botswana government in 1960, that the country’s Chobe National Park was then carrying too many elephants. He also reported the total destruction of 600 400-year-old Camel Thorns trees in the Chobe National Park that year; and the total destruction of the Chobe’s riverine forest, too. Nobody knows exactly how many elephants lived in Botswana in 1960, but however many there were, their numbers most definitely exceeded the habitat’s sustainable carrying capacity (then). How do we know that? Because the elephants were then busy destroying all the natural habitats of Chobe National Park (and they have been doing that every more assiduously ever since).

Extrapolating backwards from the actual elephant counts of the 1990s, I have determined that Botswana’s elephants probably numbered (roughly) 7500 in 1960!

The Great Elephant Census (2016) claimed that there were 130 000 elephants in Botswana. Others have questioned this figure (me included), claiming the number is more like 250 000. I am not going to enter into this debate at this time, however, because the actual number doesn’t really matter anymore. Botswana’s elephants are simply grossly excessive and the remedial action indicates that – as a FIRST management action – Botswana needs to immediately reduce its elephant herds by at least 100 000 animals. And more will need to be taken-off next year and the year following.

NB: Maybe, by now, you will be beginning to get the message… that ALL of southern Africa’s national parks are carrying far too many elephants!

Botswana’s re-opening of elephant hunting next year (2020) – with a hunting quota of some 400 bull elephants – is going to do absolutely nothing for Botswana’s greatly over-taxed and heavily elephant-damaged environment. The removal of 400 bull elephants won’t even scratch the surface. And my greatest disappointment about Botswana this year, was when I found out that the government did not contemplate initiating an elephant ‘culling’ programme, too. My disappointment stems from the sudden and stark realization that the government is not going to reduce the country’s elephant numbers, because it does not understand the gravity of the ecological disaster that it faces at this time. Reducing Botswana’s overall elephant population numbers (by way of population reduction management) is infinitely more important than justifying the hunting of a paltry few hundred elephant bulls.

After 60 years of too-many-elephants gobbling up all the edible plant resources of the Botswana game reserve habitats, the current elephant carrying capacity (of the already greatly demolished sanctuary habitats) is infinitely less than was the elephant carrying capacity prior to1960. Probably 90 percent less if we use the Kruger National Park as a yardstick. So, the current state of wildlife management affairs in Botswana is very bad – very bad indeed – and it is deteriorating further every year. And the nature of the habitat recovery effort that Botswana needs gets more and more arduous and more complicated every year that nothing is done about it. What is an absolute fact is that no habitat recovery will take place AT ALL in Botswana, until the elephant population numbers are reduced to a level that is BELOW the CURRENT elephant habitat carrying capacity figure (whatever that might be). And all the while, the biological diversities of ALL southern Africa’s game reserves are being ever more-rapidly eroded away.

NB: In 64 AD two thirds of the city of Rome burned to the ground and, legend has it, that the Emperor Nero, ‘fiddled and he sang’ as he watched the city being destroyed all around him; and he did nothing to put the fire out. The sovereign states of southern Africa are doing much the same thing. They are figuratively ‘fiddling and singing’ as they watch and allow the Western World to impose its will on Africa – complying meekly to Western demands that our elephants be ‘preserved’ not ‘conserved’. As a consequence, we are destroying all our own national parks because we lack the intestinal fortitude to “do what is right” in the face of uninformed and misguided foreign interference!

If our wildlife management programme is to benefit Africa, Africa’s people and Africa’s wildlife, the sovereign states of southern Africa are going to have to learn to ‘handle’ the Western powers (USA, the UK & the EUROPEAN UNION) with a great deal more resolution than they have shown in the past. We cannot apply our wildlife management skills if our ignorant ‘Big Brothers’ are constantly telling us how we may or may not function!

In South Africa’s famous Kruger National Park, the once ubiquitous deciduous woodland habitat – that not that long ago covered the greater surface of Kruger National Park – has been reduced by “more than” 95 percent (since 1960). Let alone the cost in terms of obvious wild plant and wild animal species losses associated with the disappearance of the mega-woodland-habitat itself, we must recognise, also, that there were countless mini-habitats (inside that woodland) and that the plants and animals that were especially adapted to those mini-habitats, have been eliminated, too. The overall biological diversity loss within Kruger National Park, resultant solely from the MIS-MANAGEMENT of the park’s grossly excessive elephant population, is simply too terrible to contemplate.

Many people are wondering if it is not too late to effect remedial management action – claiming that the habitat damage is simply too great to rectify. There is some merit in that argument but I do not believe that that is the attitude the South African public should adopt. I acknowledge that it may take 500 years of hard work – of carefully planned hard work – to bring the habitats of Kruger National Park back into the same age-structure and function, and the same healthy and vibrant condition they were in, circa to1955/60. And I acknowledge that many of the plant and animal species that we have lost since 1955/60 will never return. But the ecological mess that Kruger National Park is in today is the direct result of the park managers not respecting their ecological mandate in the first place – that is, to maintain species diversity in the park. Instead they have buckled under international pressure – Western pressure – to ‘save the elephant at all costs’; and ‘the West’ has prescribed that our elephants may be managed by way ‘preservation’ management (protection from all harm) ONLY.

So, I recommend that the South Africa public insists that the South African government starts the process of reconstructing the Kruger National Park ecosystems into the same kind of shape (or something similar) that they were in, circa 1955/60.

The first question we must ask ourselves is: “How do we begin the process of habitat recovery in our elephant sanctuaries?” And the obvious answer to that question is that we have to first determine a target – and a reasonably accurate and attainable target – to aim at. We cannot work towards trying to achieve ‘anything’ until we know what we are trying to achieve. And, in my opinion, our target must be the re-establishment of a mature mixed habitat (in all our game reserves) that is as near as dammit similar to the habitat (or various habitats) that existed c.1955 (that is, before the elephant populations became excessive; and before the elephants started doing permanent damage to the woodlands.

This is a monumental project that will probably require the establishment of secondary pioneer woody plant communities (such Acacia karoo; Acacia tortillis; and Dichrostachys cinerea) – to create the micro-climates (mottled shade etc) necessary to promote permanent woody plant growth (big trees). It will also require a vigorous programme to control wild fires. And finally, it will require a pro-active reseeding programme for many of the larger tree species.

It may also require the short-term reduction in number of some of the currently plentiful browsing animals (such as impala) – which are prone to snaffle up seedlings (and saplings) just as soon as their leaves pop up above the ground. Alternatively, it may require the erection of multiple fenced ‘exclosures’ to keep browsers, such as impala, kudu and eland, away from the regenerating woody plants (i.e. young trees).

It will also require the application of a vigorous and continuous elephant population reduction programme.

There is no point in trying to introduce a programme of habitat recovery until the numbers of elephants (in every game reserve) have been reduced to a level that allows the habitat to recover. I suggest, therefore, that the first big debate on the workings of this habitat rehabilitation programme should be to decide upon an AVERAGE elephant population density for ALL our national parks in southern Africa. And I believe that population density should be no higher than: ONE ELEPHANT PER FIVE SQUARE KILOMETERS (when the habitats have started to recover).

Elsewhere I have explained the phenomenon of UNSAFE, SAFE and EXCESSIVE elephant populations; and that each category requires the application of a different management treatment. UNSAFE elephant populations need to be managed according to the principles of “preservation” (protection from all harm); SAFE populations should be managed according to the principles of “conservation” management. They should be culled annually to create and maintain a stable-sized population. And EXCESSIVE populations (which, in this context, means any population with an overall density in excess of one elephant per five square kilometers) should initially be subjected to drastic population reduction management.

This may seem to be a Draconian way to ‘manage’ elephant populations, but if you want to do this job properly there is no other way. The public need to understand that when to you are faced with a desperate elephant management problem – such as we are faced with today – desperate measures are needed to solve that problem. And I must emphasis that anyone who can’t stomach the consequences has no right to enter the elephant management debate.

It is time the South African government be challenged on its past and dismal conservation performance. It is time that SANParks – which holds the security of South Africa’s wildlife heritage in its hands – be called to book. It is time the South African public makes its voice heard on all these matters.

Ron Thomson CEO -TRUE GREEN ALLIANCE

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 159 posts and counting. See all posts by Ron Thomson

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