Why Elephants are Dying in Botswana!

Submission to Daily Maverick by Ron Thomson – ARTICLE.2. 2020/07/03

Over the last several weeks some 400 elephants have (so far this year) died mysterious deaths in Botswana; and the reports suggest that there are many more sick animals wandering about the game reserves. I feel confident enough, at this stage, therefore, to predict that a lot more elephants are going to die before the end of the current dry season. Anthrax and poison have been ruled out as the cause of these deaths. No tusks have been removed from the carcasses. So, poaching seems not to be the reason, either.

I believe the cause of these deaths is, purely and simply, starvation. I say this with some conviction because I have been predicting that this was going to happen for many years.

I see these deaths, therefore, as something of an apocalyptic event.  They are telling us of a significant elephant die-off that is yet to come. This year? Probably! Next year then? Maybe!

Let me explain why.

For the readers to understand and to accept this prognosis, requires that they have some knowledge and understanding about the history of elephant management.

The first person of authority to declare that there were too many elephants in Botswana was the late Dr Graham Child who, in 1960, was working in what is today called Chobe National Park in Botswana. He was then employed by the United Nations Organisation FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation). He witnessed and recorded the destruction of the Chobe riverine forest which, that year, was already in an advanced stage of damage. He took the trouble to count and to identify all the big trees comprising that forest. Today none of them are still standing. The forest has gone! All the trees were killed by the feeding pressure of too many elephants.

A Camel thorn tree with Sparrow-Weaver nests near the Botswanan border at Tshelanyemba village in south-western Zimbabwe. Source: Wikipedia

He also recorded another forest at Chobe. Six hundred giant camel-thorn trees growing in a single valley away from the river. He determined that these trees were all, uniformly, 400 years old – which suggests (to me) that they grew out of a once extensive and later abandoned agricultural cropland (which is where the seeds of this tree species best germinate en masse). Despite their great size in 1960, today none of those ancient camel-thorns are still standing. All were killed by the feeding pressure of too many elephants after 1960.

There were also smaller forests of Commiphora (Kanniedood) trees growing on sandy hillsides. They too have now all gone.

Graham also recorded the multiple isolated occurrences of various quite common Acacia tree species; African ebonies (Dyospyros); and many others, that were commonly scattered and/or growing on anthills throughout the Ngamiland game reserve habitats between Chobe and Maun. They, too, have all disappeared!

The once common and ancient Baobab tree – some said to be 5000 years old – have mostly already disappeared; or they are damaged beyond redemption.

I, too, can vouch for all Graham Child’s statements about habitat change in Botswana, caused by too many elephants. In 1960-64 I was a young game ranger stationed in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park which adjoins the Chobe. I, too, have seen this all happening – but I did not measure the changes (as Dr Child did).

The elephant carrying capacity of any habitat (or game reserve) can be defined as:

The maximum number of elephants that a habitat can carry without the elephants causing permanent damage to the vegetation.

 What I call the sustainable bench-mark elephant habitat carrying capacity can only be measured when a habitat is stable, undamaged and healthy. And there are very few such undamaged and healthy elephant habitats left in Africa today.

This authentic history – of massive habitat damage caused by too many elephants – recorded by reputable people like Graham Child – tells us that Botswana has been carrying far too many elephants since before 1960.

Absolutely nothing has been done about Botswana’s excessive elephant population – ever. Elephant bulls have been hunted on license for many years (prior to 2014); but that had no effect on elephant population numbers. The regular reduction of breeding cows is the only management activity that can reduce population growth. That means culling!

 

And the fact that no population reduction management has ever taken place is a major cause of today’s elephant deaths in Botswana.

Extrapolating backwards from the year 2000 – when the official elephant count in Botswana was 120 604 – and when the average annual elephant population incremental-rate was 8 percent – I have determined that the elephant population in Botswana in the year 1960 was, roughly, 7500. Today, Botswana admits to carrying at least 130 000 elephants – which is seventeen times greater than the overall elephant population I have calculated for 1960. And in 1960 the elephant population was then already excessive – which is I why I say that Botswana is, today, carrying at least 20 times too many elephants.

In the year 2013, Botswana’s official elephant count was 207 000 – which causes me to question today’s estimate of only 130 000. Are we all to believe that between 2013 and today, the elephant population of Botswana has declined by 77 000? I don’t believe it. Where are all the carcasses? But, let’s not stall this argument on such niceties. Let’s accept the figure 130 000. Which means we also have to accept the estimate that Botswana is currently carrying 17 times too many elephants. Whichever figure you accept, it is clearly infinitely more than the sustainable elephant carrying capacity of the Botswana elephant habitats. And that is the important conclusion we have to make!

Another thing we have to understand about the sustainable elephant carrying capacity of a habitat – and this factor is unmeasurable – is the fact that as a habitat degrades (which happens when it is forced to continuously carry an excessive elephant population), the carrying capacity declines.

Why does the habitat degrade? It degrades because, first of all, the excessive numbers of elephant eat into extinction all their favourite food plants. Then they eat into extinction the less favoured, but still palatable, other plant species. Finally, they will eat any plant left that is not poisonous… simply because they have to eat something.

This state of affairs has been variously in operation in Botswana since before 1960 – getting worse and worse every year. That means Botswana’s elephant habitats have been continuously degrading for more than 60 years! And, in my estimation, this is a major reason why elephants are dying in Botswana today. The habitats have been abused for far too long. They are now in such poor health they cannot produce enough food to keep the massively excessive elephant population numbers alive any more. I am, quite frankly, amazed that it has taken so long to reach this cataclysmic state.

I sincerely believe that the maximum number of elephants that any game reserve in southern Africa should be expected to carry, should be no greater than one elephant per five square kilometres. This is the bench-mark elephant carrying capacity for both Hwange and Kruger National Parks (c.1960). This means that Hwange National Park is carrying 20 times too many elephants today; Gonarezhou is carrying 14 times too many; and Kruger (if the Kruger National Park population really is 32 000 [ref. Joubert]) is carrying 10 times too many. So, I see this over-population-of-elephants problem as not just affecting Botswana. If we carry on mismanaging the elephant populations in all these game reserves, as we are doing at this time, we are going to suffer large-scale elephant die-offs – sooner or later – in every single one of them.

Last year I stated that I believed the Botswana elephant population – as listed on the Great Elephant Census (GEC- 2016) report – had been cooked by the authors. Why? Because they are animal rightists and they wanted to create the illusion that international poachers posed a great threat to Botswana’s reduced elephant numbers. Their purpose was to stop the hunting of elephants in Botswana; and to make sure the closed legal international market in elephant ivory was not re-opened.

I also stated that I believed the Botswana mega-population of elephants (which includes the elephants of North East Namibia; South East Angola; Southern Zambia; Hwange in Western Zimbabwe; and in northern Botswana itself) numbered in excess of 200 000. And, that being the case, I believed that some 100 000 of those elephants needed to be harvested… immediately… to start off with. When considering this recommendation, readers should take into account the fact that elephants are dying in Botswana today from starvation; AND the fact that if you reduced the current overall mega elephant population numbers by half, the habitats will then have twice as much food available to feed those elephants that remained. But 100 000 would not be enough. All these populations should ultimately be reduced to a numerical level that enables the habitats to carry the remaining numbers – sustainably – succoured by a recovering habitat. And because the current sustainable elephant carrying capacities of their habitats have been seriously compromised, after decades of abuse, these elephant populations should not be allowed to increase above a density level any more than one elephant per five square kilometres.

In ecological terms, we have to consider that our national parks were not set aside for the uncontrolled proliferation of elephants. They were set aside to maintain our national parks’ species diversities. And, because every single one of our national parks is now carrying an excessive elephant population, that (in itself) tells us that the elephants are posing a threat to each park’s biological diversity. That, in turn, means – from an elephant management point of view – the elephant populations of each of our national parks need to be drastically reduced to a number that is well below the sustainable elephant carrying capacity.

Our conservation (aka wildlife management) priorities are first for the good and proper management of the soil, because without soil no plants can grow (and without plants there will be no animals); our second conservation priority must be for the good and proper management of the plants because, as I said before, without plants there would be no animals; and our third (and last) priority consideration must be for the good and proper management of the animals. This does NOT mean that animals are un-important, it means that animals are less-important than the soil and the plants. This little mental exercise puts man’s wildlife management priorities into their true and proper perspective. Thus, it must follow, that consideration for the health and vigour of our national park habitats is much more important than trying to keep every elephant-in-creation alive.

If my evaluation of the Botswana elephant situation is correct, at the end of the current elephant die-off this year, I will still recommend that even more elephants be taken off from those that remain. And, if the major die-off does not take place this year. Tighten your belts. And wait. It will happen next year or the one thereafter. One thing is for sure! It will happen!

And if we refuse to address ourselves seriously to solving this elephant over-population problem, we will be responsible for turning our national parks into very low species-diversity deserts.

Ron Thomson. CEO – the 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 189 posts and counting. See all posts by Ron Thomson

18 thoughts on “Why Elephants are Dying in Botswana!

  • July 6, 2020 at 5:20 pm
    Permalink

    This article is the only article that reflects the status quo in the area.
    Ofcourse the world reknown labs will never reveal if the Dumbos were dying of hunger.
    The author has even alluded to the historical facts from research carried out days gone by to substantiate his arguments.
    Yes, Botswana cannot afford to feed her elephants, so the way forward should to cull them.
    PS: other animals should be culled too as they are all competing for limited resources.

    Reply
  • July 6, 2020 at 7:34 pm
    Permalink

    I think the mentioned animal rightists are going to conveniently shun or overlook the reasoning in this article. Because all they want to do is portray us here as savages who are out for blood of these ‘gentle’ giants, which know to go on diets and save food for tomorrow.
    But us citizens who live in areas where elephants were unheard of in recent times, now see these beasts, along with the damage they bring. And I’m talking south central, to southern Botswana. An elephant is the last animal you expected to bump into in these areas. Nowadays, such relative safety for all involved (flora, fauna, humans) is not guaranteed due to the proliferation of these snake nosed beasts beyond the land’s carrying capacity.
    I personally, and there’s a consensus here (Botswana), have no sympathy for their dropping dead from starvation. Let the animal rightists feed them their lawn trimmings.

    Reply
  • July 6, 2020 at 11:50 pm
    Permalink

    The only sensible conclusion I have seen to the deaths of elephant and not the animal rights activists quoted by BBC who are clueless.

    Reply
  • July 7, 2020 at 2:58 am
    Permalink

    The river forest at the Limpopo, Shasi confluence at Mapungubwe National Park is being destroyed at thus very moment by to many elephants. Huge trees are dying, soil erosion is taking place and other species are also suffering because “sentamentalists” are to scared (or stubborn and/or stupid) to control elephant populations. We are conserving elephants into extinction.

    Reply
  • July 7, 2020 at 10:06 am
    Permalink

    Thank you. I consider this a highly palatable insight. If humans do not intervene then it follows that the balancing cycle of nature will kick in. Hope you have submitted your report for review and consideration by the rightful authority.

    Reply
    • July 13, 2020 at 6:14 pm
      Permalink

      WHO IS THE “RIGHTFUL AUTHORITY”? I have been writing about this and predicting this is going to happen for decades. And I have discussed this subject, personally, with the President of Botswana, Mr Masisi. No “RIGHT AUTHORITY” has ever even acknowledged my existence. So, what has changed to make “tgkobedi” think it will make any difference NOW. May I suggest there, that she or she send this information to the “rightful authority” and ask them to get in touch with me. I don’t KNOW of any “rightful authority” that deserves that title.

      Ron

      Reply
  • July 7, 2020 at 11:02 am
    Permalink

    Interesting reading Mr Thomson, I can easily believe this to be true, as I recently saw with my own eyes the difference between an over populated Game Reserve and the neighboring farm in the Aberdeen district.
    This was only due to too many plains game and giraffe and not even elephants.

    Reply
    • July 13, 2020 at 6:13 pm
      Permalink

      The over-population syndrome happens with all animal species. Ron

      Reply
      • September 24, 2020 at 5:38 am
        Permalink

        Especially the over population of humans …. the most destructive species on the planet ….. should we “ harvest “ them ??
        The elephant deaths were not caused by hunger ….. but by bacteria in stagnant water which the elephants drank …. too many human beings on the planet …biggest threat is over population of human beings … and yet we still play god & advocate harvesting of other species ….

        Reply
        • September 26, 2020 at 6:25 pm
          Permalink

          I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that the elephants of Botswana and Hwange are dying of hunger. Don’t confuse the issue with pedantic considerations of poisons and other toxins. Prussic Acid (cyanide) can be found every year in wilting Acacia tree leaves – even in the middle of Pretoria; and it can be found in other ‘poisonous’ plants, too, such Mkauzaan – which is common on Kalahari sand soils. But animals that live on kalahari sand soils know all about all these dangerous plants – and they don’t eat them unless they absolutely have to.

          Nevertheless, I am quite sure that there is some truth in the fact that toxic bacteria occurs in stagnant water but that is NOT the underlying cause for elephant deaths. The underlying cause is, very simply, lack of food. And I have been expecting this day to come since 1960.

          If people – who don’t know elephants – are told that scientists have found cyanide in wilted Acacia leaves, they will immediately believe that THAT is what is killing the elephants.

          Cyanide is a poison? Right! Yes! Ipso facto, it must be that common source of poison that is killing the elephants. NOT SO! It is starvation that is killing the elephants. Lack of bulk and lack of nutrition

          A poisonous bacteria has been found in stagnant water in Botswana. THAT must be what is killing the elephants. NOT SO! It is starvation that is killing the elephants.

          Why will we not be satisfied with a common truth? Why must we always seek some mystical exotic reason for the die off? Why can’t we just accept that for over 60 years Botswana has been carrying far too many elephants and they have been slowly eating up all the habitat’s edible plants. Why can’t we understand and accept that there just no more nutrient left in the habitats. Kaput. It is finished – or nearly so. And it is about time that we should be expecting the elephants to die – OF STARVATION.

          It will happen THIS year? Maybe! Next year? Also maybe. Sometime – most certainly. But when? Your guess is a good as mine! But it WILL happen.

          Hope this adds a little more clarity to this enigmatic conundrum.

          Ron Thomson

          Reply
          • October 6, 2020 at 5:33 pm
            Permalink

            Ron Thomson surely by now you must have realised that your doggedly-pursued theory of starvation is utter nonsense. Firstly anyone who knows anything about animals can tell you that if a species is starving, it is the old and the young and lactating females that die first. This was not the case in these deaths – all ages were affected. Secondly, other wildlife species, especially grazers, would die long before elephants which are resilient and generalist mixed feeders capable of surviving on much lower quality forage than most . Thirdly, if it was starvation, how come the deaths stopped abruptly when the dry season is still continuing? Just look at the evidence or be prepared to be the laughing stock.

          • October 23, 2020 at 9:19 pm
            Permalink

            Dear Mr Richard Hoare,

            One of the first signs of serious starvation in a wild animal population is that lactating mothers stop producing milk. When food is scarce nature makes sure that the mother animals are saved (in preference to the babies). Mothers can quickly have new babies, whereas babies take decades to mature. So, whatever limited nutrition is available in a badly damaged habitat, the mother elephants get feeding preference. The main problem is that by the time starvation begins in earnest, the breeding herds have to walk distances up to 25 kms every day – from the water to the food, and 25 kms back to the water again. 50 kms a day! And the energy the elephants get from the food that they eat is less than the energy that they need to walk 50 kms every day.

            This does not happen overnight. It takes many years of eating out all edible plants near the water – first – then gradually the breeding herds eat out ALL edible plants WITHIN 25 KMS OF THEIR WATER HOLES. And as the mother elephants milk dries up so the babies – which are dependent on their mother’s milk (ALONE) – lack the strength to keep up the long daily hikes between water and food and back again. So the babies are abandoned by their mothers; and the babies die (or they are mauled, killed and eaten by lions and hyenas). This abandonment of baby elephants (between birth and three years old) has been happening in Botswana, in Namibia’s Caprivi Strip; and in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe for the last 40 years to my knowledge. (It is the same mega-population across in all these countries). And this syndrome has been getting worse and worse. My first photographs of abandoned baby elephants I took in Hwange National Park in 1982. Prior to 1982 (1959 – 1982). we never saw an abandoned baby elephant in Hwange. Since 1982, however, tourist guides at Kasane (in the Chobe National Park in Botswana) have been directing tourists to lions and hyenas feeding of abandoned and dead baby elephants in Botswana’s Chobe National Park. Predators eating baby elephants, in fact, has become a macabre tourist attraction. To me, who has been in this ‘game’ since 1959, it is very strange to see so many baby elephants running around the game reserves on their own; and dying horrible deaths; and being eaten by predators. It is simply not ‘natural’.

            The first proper report of elephants over-populating their habitats in Botswana began in 1960 (Dr. Graham Child). So the full syndrome takes time to mature. It ends up with the once rich habitats becoming deserts (which is happening in Botswana and Hwange today). It starts off with the babies dying – which has now been happening for many years. And it has been getting worse and worse for the last 40 years to my knowledge. Nowadays, because so many baby elephants have been dying every dry season for so many years, there are truly not many baby elephants left in the breeding herds. The conclusion to this elephant-death-by-starvation syndrome comes when whole herds of elephants, of all ages, succumb in a single year (when the last vestiges of food dries up). And the syndrome is not unique to the countries of southern Africa. Tsavo East National Park, in Kenya, suffered a die off of 15 000 elephants (and 5 000 black rhinos) in the dry season of 1972. And several species of antelope became extinct in Tsavo that year, too .

            Nothing in nature, however, is absolute or entirely predictable. I am expecting a massive die off of elephants this year in Hwange and Botswana, before the end of this year’s dry season. But it may not happen this year. It may not happen next year. BUT IT WILL HAPPEN!

            I am well aware of the ‘evidence’, Mr Hoare. I have been personally following what has been happening in Botswana vis-à-vis the elephants and their destruction of their own habitats since 1960. I filmed those habitats when they were relatively healthy; and again when they had degraded into tatters. And I have noted, and worried about, all the things that I have seen and witnessed. And I have been expecting another Tsavo-type die off of elephants in Botswana for some years.

            All the possible reasons for these elephant deaths have been investigated and found wanting. All that is left is starvation. Starvation ‘ticks all the boxes’. And, if you are so adamant that it is not starvation that is killing these elephants, Mr Hoare, pray tell me what YOU think is the cause of their deaths.

            So, I have been ‘looking at the evidence’ now for 60 years (since 1959); and I have no fear of becoming ‘the laughing stock’ of people with less experience and less passion for this subject.

            So, I have to wonder, will it be you or me, who gets the last laugh.

            Kind regards,

            Ron Thomson. CEO- TGA

  • July 7, 2020 at 11:30 am
    Permalink

    Ron Thomson hits the nail on the head. And he has been doing so for decades. The simple, cruel truth is that elephant habitat is more important than elephants, and we all know that elephants are extremely important, not only in terms of biodiversity, but in the hearts and minds of many people the world over. Accordingly, habitat is the critical factor, and from this simple, unavoidable truth we must realize that elephant management policies in southern Africa have steadily enabled the destruction, in some cases beyond recovery, of elephant habitat. If we allow this to continue, the end result will be the loss of both the elephant and its habitat. Thomson’s solution is mass culling. Hideous as that may be to most people, it is still better than the loss of Loxodonta africana.

    Reply
    • July 8, 2020 at 3:41 pm
      Permalink

      I can relate to what’s been said about elephants been so destructive, they are big and hungry. I have lived in the Kruger national park area and seen it first hand.
      The area is not getting sufficient rainfall as it did centuries ago, the human population is actually the problem. Say what you like but human breeding is what needs to be controlled so all creation can enjoy the beautiful earth. Man IS more destructive.

      Reply
      • July 13, 2020 at 6:12 pm
        Permalink

        I AGREE WITH THESE SENTIMENTS. BUT THE OBVIOUS SOLUTION IS NOT APPLICABLE. YOU CAN’T CULL PEOPLE. BUT IT IS POSSIBLE TO DEAL WITH AN ANIMAL OVER-POPULATION PROBLEM. NOBODY LIKES THE IDEA OF CULLING ELEPHANTS, THEREFORE, WE SIT WITH THE PROBLEM AND WATCH OUR BEAUTIFUL GAME RESERVES DEGRADE INTO DESERTS (WITH NO GAME AT ALL). THE PROBLEM HAS NOTHINGTO DO WITH CHANGING RAINFALL PATTERNS. IT HAS EVERYTHIN TO DO WITH MANA “MANAGING” HIS WILD LIFE AND MAINTAINING ECOSTEM BALANCES ACCORDING TO THE CIRCUMSTANCES. Ron

        Reply
  • July 8, 2020 at 5:53 pm
    Permalink

    Im no animail conservation expect and i do agree with Mr. Rom Thompson, but there are a few thing that still puzzles me in his conclusion that elephants are dying due to over population.

    1. These elephants as he rightfully said have no boundries so they roam between Botswana, Zimbabwe Namibia, Angola, Zambia and South Africa. He even indicated the numbers in some of these countries. My question is why are they not dying in these other regions? Why only in Botswana??

    2. If they are dying due to lack of food have they shown any sign of mulnutrition. I belief not because those who are trying to figure out the couse of deaths could have picked that up by now.
    3. If it was due to hunger and starvation woulndt other big game like Buffalos, Girraffs, Zebras, wilderbeests, etc be affected aswell??

    I dont disagree with the gentlemans conclusion, i just thinking aloud.

    Reply
    • July 13, 2020 at 6:10 pm
      Permalink

      A population is a group of animals of the same species, the individuals of which interact with each other on a daily basis; and they breed only with other animals in the same group. Individual animals in a population live inside what are called their own individual ‘home ranges’. An animal’s ‘home range’ is that small part of its whole population’s zone of 24 hour activity (distribution). Home ranges are “owned-or-occupied” by individual animals and they provide their ‘owners’ with their survival needs: food; water, air; and shelter.

      The availability of water defines where, and where not, elephant home ranges can exist during the dry season; and elephant home ranges (in a place like Botswana) can only occur within 25 kilometres of available water. Elephant cow herds cannot survive if they have to walk any further, daily, for their food.

      Elephants – unlike lions, rhinos and many other animal species – do not occupy breeding ‘territories’ – which have nothing to do with ‘home ranges’. So, lets leave ‘territories’ out of this discussion.

      It is perhaps easier to define an elephant’s home range during the dry season because they are normally then static. Home ranges don’t shift around or differ in size. And the same elephants return to the same old home ranges that they have used before, repeatedly, year after year. And every year they eat a little bit more of the available food plants that are growing in their home range – until there are no edible plants left within 25 kilometres of their water supply. Nowadays in Botswana, all the elephants’ survival needs are in short supply during the dry season because what food was once available has long ago been eaten into extinction. And no new growth of ANY food plant occurs during the dry season. AND the elephants’ movements during the dry season are restricted to a maximum distance of 25 kilometers from available water. Bulls, being much bigger and stronger than the animals in the cow herds, can move greater distances; and they can skip a day without water. Cows and calves HAVE to drink water every day during the dry season.

      When the rains break, however, water becomes non-limiting and all plants grow to their maximum possible size. Abundant grass helps elephants during the rains because they are “preferential grazers” (which means they prefer to eat grass than the bitter bark and leaves of trees.) But, when there is no grass, elephants will quite happily eat the bark and leaves of trees. Most other animals cannot do this – i..e. make this change in their diet. Other animals normally eat only grass or only the leaves of trees. Few other animals eat the bark of trees.

      During the rains, therefore, elephants expand their dry season home ranges considerably but their dry season homes ranges are never entirely abandoned. Elephants still pass through their dry season habitats during the rains. And the elephants totally return to their smaller dry season home range when the rains are over. I describe this home-range-change as a ‘pulse’. Home ranges get bigger during the summer rains and smaller during the winter dry season – every year. First bigger, then smaller, then bigger, then smaller – every six months. And during the wet season elephant populations intermingle with the fringes of other nearby populations whose home ranges have also expanded during the wet season.

      This home range behaviour gives one the illusion that the Botswana elephants are one big happy family; and that they all move throughout the entire Kalahari Sand zone – comprising Northern-Eastern Namibia, South Eastern Angola, South Western Zambia, North Central Botswana and Western Matabeleland in Zimbabwe. THAT, however, is not true. They are totally separated every dry season when each group confines itself to its annual ‘own-family’ home range area; and they retain their separate identities during the rains – even though they spread out and may intermingle a bit at that time of the year with nearby groups. So, during every wet season and every dry seasons each family clan retains its same (expanded) wet season and dry season homes ranges, the same home ranges that they have used for decades.

      It is only during the dry seasons of each year that each family unit is subjected to the localized environmental conditions – good or bad – that determine whether there is enough food, or not enough food, to feed each family group. Whatever happens during the rains is, ultimately of no consequence. It is what happens during the dry season that counts. AND, it is the continuous damage-history of those habitats where elephants live today that, individually, determines whether those elephants will, in the end, die of starvation or whether they will survive. It is those groups that have done the most damage to their habitats over the most years, that will suffer the most.

      And Botswana’s history of elephant habitat abuse goes back over 60 years.

      And it is my appreciation of the records that they suggest that the whole of Botswana is going to suffer from this tragic environmental ailment – death by starvation – now sooner than later.

      Kenya suffered a loss of 15 000 elephants, and 10 000 black rhinos, in that country’s Tsavo East National Park in 1972. Botswana is suffering the same syndrome right now.

      Botswana’s elephants are all showing lots of signs of malnutrition at this time. Many elephants are skin and bone. Others are showing disorientation due to malnutrition. And for at least the past ten years baby elephants have been dying in large numbers every dry season, all over Botswana. Why? It is a symptom of starvation. Large numbers of baby elephant deaths every year tells us that their mothers have not been able to find enough food to feed themselves – AND ALSO enough extra food to the make enough milk to feed their babies, too. So the mother lives for a little longer – and her baby dies. I have been picking up the fact that hundreds of baby elephants have been dying in this general Botswana/Namibia/Hwange region since 1990 (and before). So, it takes a long time for this syndrome to mature.

      Other species HAVE been adversely affected – going way back to the 1960s – due to habitat change (caused by too many elephants), many animals species have died out of their historical distribution areas. Species like sable, roan, wildebeest, giraffe and others– once many thousands strong – gradually disappeared because ’their’ habitat was THEN adversely affected by too many elephants. And, knowing my eagles, I can bet that the Martial Eagle has declined (or disappeared) overall; and Ground Hornbill, too. The list of declines and or disappearances over the years goes on and on.

      In 2013 the Botswana elephant count was 207 000 (NB it is said to be only 130 000 now – without any culling) and we have not heard of a 100 000 elephant dying in Botswana since then. In 2013 the Botswana government advised the public that, in concert with the count of 207 000 elephants that year, ALL OTHER SPECIES HAD DECLINED BY BETWEEN 60% and 90%.

      So, Kgabo, I hope this scratch-of-the-surface explains your queries adequately.

      My kind regards,

      Ron Thomson

      Reply
  • July 9, 2020 at 2:03 am
    Permalink

    It is surprising that sensible ecologists like Ron are not listened to. Instead many people listen to sensationalists.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.