Its faults and its foibles

I acknowledge the great efforts expended by the many people who took part in the Africa-wide GREAT ELEPHANT CENSUS (GEC) but the population figures they produced are, truly, just a bunch of numbers. This is an unfortunate trend. Whenever elephants are counted today everyone rejoices when the numbers are up; long faces are displayed when the numbers are down – and poaching is always blamed (without any proof) for declines.

The census results indicate that by 2016 there were 352 271 elephants ranging over 18 countries. There are, however, 37 elephant range states so 19 countries were omitted from the census.  This is NOT a criticism. It is just a fact.  Nevertheless, the scientists assure us that the final figure represents 93 percent of Africa’s savannah elephants.  This observation may or may not be true.

Conclusion: According to the census report Africa’s savannah elephants declined by 30 percent (equal to 144 000 elephants) between 2007 and 2014.  This reflects an average annual net loss of 20 571 per year; 56 per day; 2.3 per hour; or one every 25 minutes. The report concludes that this decline was primarily due to poaching.


In the 1970s and 1980s the political elite in Kenya were said to have been responsible for the reduction of Kenya’s elephants from an estimated 275 000 (1970) to 20 000 (1989); for the killing of 10 000 black rhinos; and the slaughter of thousands of other species for their skins.  Two village hunters, on one occasion, were arrested for having 26 000 Colobus Monkey skins in their possession. The day after their arrest, however, they were released from prison when official papers (from the highest office in the land) were produced to indicate the hunters were in legal possession of these skins.

A similar tale emerges from Tanzania.  Between 1976 and 1986 the elephants of Tanzania’s Selous Game Reserve were reduced from 110 000 to 55 000 (ref. Dr Rolf Baldus). And over a much longer period of time (1977 – 1993) Baldus claims that Tanzania’s poachers reduced the elephant numbers, throughout Tanzania, from  365 000 to 53 000. Baldus further reported: “The poaching had its roots in political and business circles in Tanzania, the villages bordering the SGR (Selous Game Reserve) and partly within the conservation system itself (i.e. government game rangers).” He goes on to say: “Village poachers and game scouts did the shooting, but ‘big people’ – politicians, civil servants, businessmen and even hunting operators – masterminded the slaughter.”  So here we have a repeat of what happened in Kenya!

THEN – between 2008 and 2014 – 44 000 elephants were removed (poached) from the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania under circumstances that were entirely orchestrated by (as before) members of that country’s political, social and business elite; and the army and police force.

All this contraband (1970 – 2016) was exported from Kenya’s and Tanzania’s seaports directly to illegal markets in the Far East without any kind of CITES documentation; but with presidential approval.

Concomitant with the last Selous slaughter, tens of thousands of elephants were removed from northern Mozambique, allegedly, by this same elite class of government people in Mozambique.

NB: These latter two sets of elephant figures – the 44 000 (poached in the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania), and the alleged several tens of thousands of elephants killed in the Niassa Province of Mozambique at roughly the same time, are included in the 144 000 elephants that were recorded as having been killed “by poachers” (between 2007 and 2014) in the Great Elephant Census.  

The term “poacher” is not defined in the GEC. It is left to the reader’s imagination to believe what he wants to believe. The massive weight of continuous animal rights propaganda, however, has convinced the whole world that the poaching is/was controlled and organised by the Chinese Mafia; and the killing is carried out by greedy village poachers. So, I must suppose that that is what most people believe – because it is a statement that has been repeated many, many times since CITES 1989, and rarely refuted. But it is clearly not true!

Q&A. Is there such a thing as the Chinese or Vietnamese mafia?

YES – I believe there is!

Is it true that the mafia orchestrate all elephant and rhino poaching in Africa?


So what do they do?

They act more like opportunistic “buyers” – than anything else. They buy illegal elephant tusks and rhino horns procured from African village poachers; and from wherever else they can get such contraband.

What else do they do? I don’t know!

So, who organises the big poaching events?

Corrupt members of Africa’s political elite; and/or African criminal syndicates.

One must never forget that whatever involvement the village hunters have had in elephant and rhino poaching events – as independent poachers or as village hunter-employees of their state presidents et al (who provide them with immunity from prosecution) – they participate because they are poverty-stricken and unemployed. They poach, therefore, in order to survive. And every single one of us would do exactly the same thing if we were in their shoes.

It is a great distortion of the truth, therefore, to attribute the 144 000 “poached” elephants recorded in the GEC report, to Africa’s greedy rural subsistence poaching fraternity; to the so-called Far Eastern poaching mafia; and/or to any other criminal elements in general African society – unless you include within these groups those members of the political elite who orchestrated the really BIG poaching events in our recent history. So, the inferences made in the GEC report for the need to stop “the poaching” if Africa’s elephants are to be saved, is VERY misleading.

The big question this ideal begs is this:

WHO do we have to stop poaching?

The very top political leaders in Zimbabwe and Zambia were also deeply implicated in the commercial elephant and rhino poaching events that took place in those countries in the 1980s and 1990s. These events – like the Kenyan escapades of the 1970s and 1980s – plus the elephant poaching that took place in Tanzania prior to the year 2000 – all fall outside the period reported upon on in the GEC. Nevertheless, they reinforce my allegations that Africa’s political elite are more to blame for the decline in elephant and rhino numbers in Africa than is any other single group of people.


 Do Africa’s village hunters poach elephants on their own cognizance?

YES. But their contribution to the overall numbers of elephants and rhinos poached is minimal when compared to the numbers that have been killed during the big events orchestrated by Africa’s political elite and their cronies.

This is a very important reality. One of the reasons for the Great Elephant Census was to emphasise the fact, and the reasons for, the current reduced numbers of elephants in Africa; and its statement that the declines were caused “by poaching” was far too simply put. One of the main purposes of the report was to provide world society with all the facts so that everyone can generate a greater social and governmental commitment to help stop the poaching. But all the facts were not presented. The whole truth did not emerge.

If we start chasing moonbeams, however – that is, if we start pursuing the illusions created by animal rights propaganda – and create irreversible international legal situations to stop the poaching (as it has been erroneously portrayed) we will never get to the bottom of Africa’s commercial poaching dilemma.  The truth about what really happened during the last 50 years, however, is actually well known to many people. And it has been recorded in bits and pieces in many places. But nobody will touch it, or talk about it, because it is the biggest hot-potato – ever – in African politics.

This controversial, sensitive and very risky subject has been for decades, and it remains, the biggest “ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM” that everybody avoids. Most Westeners do not understand this but Africans well know that whistle blowers in Africa have a very short life-expectancy!

Nevertheless, if world society ignores the true story about Africa’s elephant poaching saga, it will be guilty of a gigantic miscarriage of justice; and we will NEVER find a solution to saving Africa’s elephants.

Furthermore, if world society decides that the elephant poaching problem must be solved in the manner prescribed by the animal rightists – by way of prohibiting sustainable use management – it will cause the total extinction of Africa’s wildlife later this century. And THAT is the biggest danger inherent in this whole conundrum.

Prohibition has never worked as a solution to any problem. And there is a better alternative!

Within African society, there is a growing understanding that – to save Africa’s wildlife into posterity – will require the symbiotic integration of the needs of Africa’s rural people with the needs of Africa’s national parks. And people in all walks of life are beginning to understand that prohibition will destroy any chance that this can ever happen. So we have to convince society that prohibition is WRONG.

The driving force behind poaching by rural hunters in Africa has always been, and remains, poverty and unemployment. These are the causes that must be removed if poaching is to stop. Only when the rural people can make MORE money out of the sustainable and legal harvest of wildlife – including elephants and rhinos – than they can get from the sale of illegal ivory and rhino horn into the black market, will they stop poaching. It will then not be in their best interests to support the black market!

Thankfully, there is also a growing resentment in Africa that the First World animal rights NGOs – all white in composition – through CITES – are imposing their Ku Klux Klan will on Africa’s people… like the racist neo-colonialists that they are. And if that anger grows it might just tip the scales in Africa’s favour. It is, anyway, time that Africa started solving its own wildlife problems!

Problems cannot be solved simply by treating the symptoms. And poaching is a symptom of Africa’s poverty. Society, therefore, can only solve the poaching problem when we remove its cause – poverty. Nobody can solve the elephant poaching problem by inventing a false problem (as the animal rightists are doing) because if you remove the false problem the real cause of the poaching will remain; and poaching will continue. And the GEC report does not help us to expose the real cause of elephant poaching.


My most severe criticism of the GEC I have left for last. The GEC has given us numbers of elephants. They mean absolutely nothing, however, unless they can be equated to the elephant carrying capacities of the habitats that support each population.

Let us now examine two very different elephant populations. No.1 numbers 50 000; and No.2 numbers 25 000. What do those numbers tell us about these populations? Absolutely nothing!

If we are also told, however, that population No.1 lives in a habitat the sustainable elephant carrying capacity of which is 25 000, we will be able to immediately ascertain that that population is completely unsustainable. There are twice as many elephants as there should be; that means the habitats are being constantly degraded; species of plants and animals are being rendered extinct; and the ecosystem will eventually collapse.

And if we are told that the habitat supporting population No.2 has a sustainable elephant carrying capacity of 50 000, we will immediately get the picture that all is well; that the habitats are not being over-utilised; and that the sanctuary’s species diversity is safe.

NB: What is “carrying capacity”?   The elephant carrying capacity of a habitat is the maximum number of elephants that the habitat can sustainably carry – which means without causing irreparable damage to the vegetation.

Elephant populations that are excessive (too many) need to have their population numbers immediately and drastically reduced. By how many? In a first management phase, by no less than half! And when will the wildlife manager know that the population has been reduced to a level that is within the carrying capacity of its habitat? When his botanists tell him that the habitat is starting to recover! This may require repeated reductions of 50 percent (of the standing population) until the population is reduced to the right number.

This may seem a very drastic management action but it is unavoidable if the manager is to create environmental conditions that are sustainable; that secure the sanctuary’s biological diversity; and that will not cause plant or animal extinctions due to inappropriate management action (MIS-management). This is called tough-love and hard-talk management. If, however, the wildlife manager is to do his primary job – which is to preserve his sanctuary’s biological diversity into posterity – there is no room for sentiment.

In the case of the second population (No.2) – the numbers of which are only half that of the habitat’s elephant carrying capacity – no management action will be necessary for perhaps 10 years. ONLY when the population increases in number to a level that equates with the habitat’s carrying capacity, will any management action be wholly necessary. And then only annual culling will be needed – to remove each year the population’s annual increment. This will unlikely exceed about 6 or 7 percent of the standing population each year. This is the ideal situation that, today, most national park managers can only dream about.

The most important omission from the GEC report, therefore, is any reference to the elephant carrying capacities of the habitats that support the many populations that were counted

So, although we may say that the mega-population of elephants in the proposed Botswana-Namibia-Angola-Zambia-Zimbabwe Trans-Frontier National Park complex numbers (say) 250 000, this is only good news when the carrying capacity of its extensive habitat is no less than 250 000. There is no point in anybody rejoicing simply because the elephants in this part of Africa number 250 000, however, if the habitats can only sustainably support 50 000 (or far less). But nobody seems to care!

I have been working on this kind of conundrum all my life and can give you some figures to mull over.

In 1960, Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park elephant carrying capacity was deemed to be 2500. This equated to one elephant per 5 sq kms. That year, Hwange’s elephant count was 3500 and they were already causing the local extinction of several important tree species. Today – depending on whose figures you accept – Hwange’s elephant herds number between 35 000 and 80 000. There is, actually, considerable elephant movement between Hwange and Botswana all the time because both countries share the same mega-population. Whatever the varying elephant numbers may be, however, they have well and truly trashed the Hwange habitat. Hwange’s elephant population, therefore, is grossly excessive.

Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park elephants currently number 14 000. If we can gauge the Gonarezhou – a VERY arid area – on the same basis as we did the less-dry Hwange (which, scientifically, is not really acceptable) – the Gonarezhou elephants should only number 1 000 (one elephant per 5 sq.kms). The Gonarezhou’s excessive mass of elephants, over the years, has reduced the number of ancient (2000 – 5000 year old) baobab trees in the park by more than 90 percent; the riverine forests that once grew along the Lundi and Nuanetsi Rivers in 1960 have all gone; and the deciduous woodlands have all been trashed. The Gonarezhou’s elephant population, therefore, is also grossly excessive

In South Africa’s Kruger National Park, where I am now confident in saying that the elephant carrying capacity was only 3 500 (less than one elephant per 5 sq.kms) when the habitats were in good condition (c.1955), the elephants now number between        23 000 and 28 000. This population, therefore, is also grossly excessive; and the elephants have already reduced the game reserve’s vitally important top-canopy trees by more than 95 percent. I am particularly concerned that the Park’s Martial Eagles and Ground Hornbills are in serious decline.

Botswana’s elephant count in 2013 was 207 000; and the habitats within 25 kilometres of water in the combined game reserves of north-western Botswana are already virtual deserts. That year (2013), the Botswana government also admitted that, concomitantly, all other game animal populations in this entire region were in free-fall collapse – with population declines registering between 60% and 90%. There are many animal and plant species in this region of Botswana, therefore, that have either already been rendered locally extinct or are tottering on the brink of local extinction. Botswana’s elephants are also grossly excessive in number.

So, what do we do with Hwange’s, the Gonarezhou’s, Kruger’s and Botswana’s elephant populations under these conditions? What will society allow us to do? The wildlife management principles – with regard to what we SHOULD do – are as clear as a bell. But will the responsible wildlife managers be allowed to do what has to be done?

And here lies the tragedy of the whole wildlife management situation in Africa today. During the last 50 years the animal rights NGOs have hi-jacked the important wildlife management decision-making process in CITES; and our governments have sat back passively and allowed this to happen. The animal rightists rejoice because they are making a lot of fraudulent money out of the situation. Many other nature-loving segments of society have rejoiced, too, because they now have a greater say in our wildlife management affairs than they ever had before – but, even with all the good will in the world they, too, are not qualified to make responsible wildlife management decisions.

I trust that my readers will now understand WHY I insist that the information supplied by the Great Elephant Census is not enough to determine just how many elephants southern Africa’s wildlife sanctuaries can sustainably carry; because THAT was a major purpose of the GEC; and THAT cannot be determined with numbers alone.

Practically every one of the elephant populations that exist south of the Zambezi and Cunene Rivers in southern Africa are, in my estimation, excessive. THAT fact, however, will only be corroborated when or if the GEC boffins sit down and determine the carrying capacities of the habitats that support each and every one of the elephant populations that was counted during the survey.

If they determine – as I have done in this article – that all the elephant populations in southern Africa are, indeed, excessive that will mean that AT LEAST HALF of the elephant numbers counted will have to be culled. And it is my belief that if the habitat carrying capacity assessment is done properly – and due consideration is given to the priority wildlife management objective of maintaining species diversity in our national parks – southern Africa will end up protecting just a tiny fraction of the great numbers of elephants that were counted during the GEC.

There is absolutely no point at all in trying to carry more elephants in our wildlife sanctuaries than the habitats can sustainably support because, in the long run – if we do – the habitats will collapse and they will then likely not be able to carry any elephants at all. BEFORE that happens, however, many unique habitats will have been totally destroyed and entire ranges of the plant and animal species that are adapted to those extinguished habitats, will become locally extinct. And the game reserve will, ultimately, become a desert.

Simply put: the national park sanctuaries of southern Africa (and probably most of the rest of Africa, too) CANNOT sustainably carry the huge numbers of elephants that world society expects us to carry. This fact will give you the complete measure of my concern for the lack of appropriate information revealed to us in the Great Elephant Census report.


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 207 posts and counting. See all posts by Ron Thomson

2 thoughts on “WILDLIFE ARMAGEDDON 17

  • What a sad state of affairs! Africa is already losing some of her oldest treasures, the iconic baobab. Many other ‘less popular’ species are also in danger of extinction, but who cares about the ‘ugly’ ground hornbill anyway? Wildlife managers’ hands are tied behind their backs, unable to do the right thing – ruled by animal rightists who refuse to see the writing on the wall and who deny that they are the cause of the wildlife armageddon in Africa! So sad …

    • Dear Rienie,
      Getting to grips with the reality of this state of affairs is the first step towards solving the problem. But just talking about it is not good enough. We have to “DO” something about it and spreading the word into the public domain is a good way to start. I cannot fight this battle alone. I need foot soldiers, like you, to take the fight to the enemy in the public domain. So, get started. Start writing to the newspapers and magazines whenever and wherever you can – tell them what is going on. Tell them about the killing of our baobab trees by too many elephants. Tell them that too many elephants in Kruger National Park is causing the destruction of the Park’s biological diversity. Tell them about the scourge of animal rightsism. Pooh Pooh the animal rightists assertion that the elephant is an endangered species. Support legal hunting when the animal rightists condemn it. Cause a stir in society. It is the only way we are going to get the South African public to react. And use your membership of the TGA to make our presence and our activities known. Sign your name: Rienie Denner, proud member of the True Green Alliance.
      Thank you for your support.
      Ron. CEO-TGA


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