Zimbabwe and Its Elephants: Some Revealing Information.

Dear John,

YOU WANT TO KNOW MY THOUGHTS ON ZIMBABWE’S ELEPHANTS consequent upon recent publications. Maybe this is the time to tell our SUCo members, and the general public of South Africa, too, what makes the world of elephants go round.
The recent report by a Zimbabwean “elephant management expert” (or so it seems), which went ‘the rounds’ of our various emails down here in South Africa, claims that Zimbabwe’s elephant population has “doubled its number” in recent years. From what I gather they have increased from 83 000 in 2014 to over 100 000 elephants today.
I am not going to nit-pick over these figures because THAT is NOT the important issue here.

It has been suggested, apparently, that this huge population needs to be culled down to 45 000 or 50 000 (which our Zimbabwe elephant friend seems to believe is that country’s elephant carrying capacity). The claim that Zimbabwe’s elephant population has increased to over 100 000 has also been contested by people down here in South Africa.

I

don’t listen to (nor read) these kinds of guru figures because they are normally not based on any kind of scientific fact. So, to make these figures in any way even slightly plausible, we first have to ask the people who made these statements and who made these management recommendations, to tell us on what kind of information they base their points of view. It is not easy to determine an elephant carrying capacity for any game reserve (as I will shortly make plain to you), and I know that many people use guesstimates (their personal preference opinions) on which to base their conclusions. And that is really not good enough.

I do not, however, contest the observation that Zimbabwe’s elephants have greatly increased in number recently, and I do not contest the assessment that they now number over “over 100 000”. Elephant populations have the capacity to double their population numbers every ten years (even less).

And when an elephant population starts to run away with itself, it is very difficult to bring it back under control. Believe me, I have been involved in such escapades. So, let us accept that Zimbabwe’s elephant numbers DO now exceed 100 000 because that number is probably true. It is certainly well within the bounds of probability. And let’s not contest the author’s desire to reduce the population to 50 000 because he is certainly on the right track.

Removing 50 percent of the population is the right first step approach to the management of excessive elephant populations like those in Zimbabwe today. BUT, 50 000 is NOT Zimbabwe’s elephant carrying capacity, not by a long chalk. We must stop guessing these facts and learn the right way to manage elephants. On the cards, if we keep guessing these kinds of issues, is the probable extinction of southern Africa’s once great range of biological diversity.

A habitat’s (or a game reserve’s) elephant carrying capacity can be defined as “THE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF ELEPHANTS THAT A HABITAT (OR A GAME RESERVE) CAN CARRY WITHOUT CAUSING IRREPARABLE AND PROGRESSIVE DAMAGE TO THE VEGETATION”.

This must be the determining factor when elephant population management is contemplated. In bald terms, if you don’t know what the habitat’s (or game reserve’s) elephant carrying capacity is, you cannot make any kind of responsible decision on how many elephants the habitat (or the game reserve) can sustainably carry. THAT, in a nutshell, is the problem. And I reiterate:

There is no easy way to determine elephant habitat carrying capacity.

So, anybody who knows the man who wrote these words should ask him HOW he came to determine his conclusions. What were his foundation figures? And, having been intimately and deeply involved with this kind of argument for the last 60 years and more, I will bet my bottom dollar that he will not have any kind of plausible answer. This does not mean that the man is stupid. It means that the answer to that question is very difficult to determine (as you will come learn as you progress through this report).

I was first seriously faced with trying to evaluate this conundrum in 1960, just after we had concluded the game count in Hwange National Park that year. In those days, at the height of every dry season (October) (during a 24 hour period on the night of the full moon: 12 00 midday, right throughout the night to 12 noon the next day), we counted all the game animals in the national park that came down to drink water at the national park’s (in those days) 14 artificial game water supplies.

The air, in the extremely hot days of October in Hwange, is almost crystal clear. And with 7:50 or 8:30 binoculars, you can see the animals that come down to drink at midnight, just as clearly as you can see them during the hours of daylight. And, with particular reference to elephants, we carefully counted and described every elephant in every herd that came down to drink. In that way we were able to identify herds that had previously come down to drink during that same 24 hour period, and thus to eliminate any chance of duplicating the counting. And, that year, we counted 3500 elephants.

The annual game count at Hwange was, in those days, the wildlife event of the year in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Head office was left with a skeleton staff and all the senior officers travelled the 500 miles (800 kilometres) from Salisbury (now Harare) to Main Camp in Hwange, to participate in the event. Even the National Parks Board members abandoned their diverse responsibilities and made their way to Main Camp. The chairman of the board in those days, Sir Hugh Beadle (Rhodesia’s Chief Justice) was one of the truants. And the elephant count that year was (as near as dammit to) 3500 animals.

We were all made fully aware, therefore, that the most important wildlife management objective of Hwange National Park was to maintain the sanctuary’s biological diversity.

In those days the park still had a wonderful cross-section of Western Matabeleland trees growing in and around the teak forests on a Kalahari sand substrate. But in 1960 the National Parks Board members, who held an impromptu meeting at Main Camp that year, expressed their concern about the health and vigour of the Hwange National Park habitats. In those days there were large areas where Kiaat (Mukwa) (Pterocarpus angolensis) trees were growing in profusion, BUT more than 50 percent of those trees were lying on the ground having been pushed over by the elephants. Many more were showing signs of heavy feeding by elephants, most with more than 50 percent of their bark having been removed. Huge numbers of giant camel-thorn trees (Acacia erioloba) had been ring-barked and whole communities of other thorn trees were standing in tatters. A casual glance at the woodlands as a whole was determined by the board members to have been destroyed by the elephants by more than 50 percent. Mature mlala palm trees were being pushed over and the regenerating palm-tree-cones, in all the mlala thickets, had all been eaten into the ground by the elephants. Baobabs were being attacked and killed, and many quite rare species of tree were being preferentially selected by the elephants to eat. Many tree species were being eliminated altogether. The ultimate conclusion of the board was that the rate of destruction of the Hwange woodland habitats was unsustainable. And that meant that the 3500 elephants that everybody had counted that year was also unsustainable.The kiaat tree is now extinct in Hwange and most baobab trees are gone..

I was a young game ranger in those days and all this discussion was incredibly interesting to me. And I did not forget it when the Chief Justice of the country, Sir Hugh Beadle, asked anybody and everybody present, if they had any idea what the elephant carrying capacity was for Hwange National Park as a whole. Nobody volunteered even a guess. “Well,” Sir Hugh declared, “it is patently obvious that 3500 elephants is far too many elephants for Hwange to carry. And, if we allow the tree damage to continue at the rate the trees are being destroyed today, we will soon have no mature trees left in Hwange National Park. And that,” he declared, “would result in the game reserve losing the bulk of its biological diversity.”

What a great ecology lesson I had that day! And I have never forgotten it.
“Consequently,” Sir Hugh went on to say, ”and knowing that many board members have already expressed an abhorrence towards any suggestion towards elephant culling taking place inside the national park (at that time), I am going to recommend that our young game rangers start shooting every elephant they find crossing the boundaries and taking up temporary residence outside the national park. If elephants are shot in the tribal trust lands that surround the national park in the south, the tribal people will get a lot of free meat and we can get the elephant population numbers down when they are outside our boundaries. And he recommended that we reduce the elephant population from 3500 to 2500. What Beadle said, in effect, was that 3500 were too many elephants for Hwange and that 2500 may be a better number. It was a guess. And because the elephant population moved in and out of the national park on a seasonal basis, that idea might well have been the right thing to do. But the key bit of information I want you to focus on is that 3500 was stated, in 1960, to be grossly in excess of the elephant carrying capacity for the park.

Imagine that: 3500 was considered to be too many elephants for a national park that was 5000 square miles (or 13000 sq kms) in extent. AND that 2500 was closer (than 3500 was) to the real elephant carrying capacity for Hwange. It was a guess. But it was a shrewd and responsible guess. AND 2500 elephants equated to one elephant per 2 square miles (or 1 elephant per 5 sq kms). And consider this, too, that today Hwange carries (variably – depending on the where the most rain falls) between 30 000 and 80 000 (rough average 50 000) elephants in any one year. So, today, the wildlife authorities in Zimbabwe actually tolerate (without a qualm) an elephant population in the country’s premier national park, that is (on rough average) 20 TIMES higher than the elephant carrying capacity was determined to be in 1960. And, although the figures are not Einsteinly precise, you can’t fight the fact that in 1960, 3500 elephants were devastating the woodland habitats. So 3500 – small as it may seem – was definitely much higher than the elephant carrying capacity of the Hwange habitats. And, since 1960, the health and the quality of the habitats has deteriorated.

Look at the definition of elephant carrying capacity once again: Let it sink in. “THE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF ELEPHANTS THAT A HABITAT CAN CARRY WITHOUT CAUSING IRREPARABLE AND PROGRESSIVE DAMAGE TO THE VEGETATION”.

The damage to Hwange’s habitats has been ongoing since before 1960. And when the game reserve is carrying 20 TIMES the number of elephants that it should be carrying, there is absolutely no hope of habitat recovery. There is also no hope for maintaining the park’s species diversity (of both plants and animals). Everything is going downhill.

And you can see where and why biodiversity loss is occurring. All animal species are adapted to specific habitat types. And they will not occur in a game reserve if their special habitat does not exist in that game reserve. Furthermore, the different animal species in a game reserve will disappear if their special habitat is destroyed. And, whenever and wherever excessive numbers of elephants occur in a game reserve, the first thing those elephants do is to destroy the habitats. And the inevitable consequences are that plant species will disappear, habitats will change in composition and character, and then the animal species that depend on those special habitats will disappear, too. It is all one big and vicious circle.

Now let’s have a look at the elephants of Kruger National Park (KNP).
In 1944, in expectation of inevitable habitat over-utilisation by an elephant population that was growing rapidly, an extensive botanical research programme was instituted in the Satara area of the park. Certain experimental plots were demarcated and their botanical composition was recorded and measured. In a nutshell, it was concluded that there were 13 “top canopy” trees on average, per hectare, in the study area. The trees were all gauged according to a common set of measurements that determined just what a “top- canopy-tree” was. For the sake of this paper, the criteria used are not important.

What is important is that the experimental plots were checked for elephant damage to these top-canopy-trees, (to begin with) annually. And there was no change to the status of those trees until after 1960. One of the first indications that elephant were feeding, preferentially, on any species of plant, anywhere in the game reserve, occurred when whole communities of Aloe marlothii were wiped out in the Sabi River area of the park in 1959. By the end of the 1950s, however, none of the Satara trees had been damaged.

Then, in 1965 it was suddenly discovered that a significant number of the Satara trees had been extensively damaged. The assessment, in fact, was that the average number of standing trees at Satara had been reduced from 13 to 9 (between 1960 and 1965). The scientists at Skukuza (the Kruger National Park headquarters) then called for a meeting at Skukuza with the Director of the South African National Parks Board (now called SANParks); and they presented their case for an elephant culling programme.

The Director of the board in 1965 was Dr Rocco Knobel. And Dr Knobel asked what the elephant carry capacity for KNP was. Nobody could tell him. As had happened in Hwange in 1960, nobody even hazarded a guess. And Knobel asked his scientists how they expected him to condone an elephant culling programme when none of them could tell him what the park’s elephant carrying capacity was. (reference: Dr. Rocco Knobel, personal communication). What the scientists did do, was to tell him that the elephants in the park numbered, at that time (1965), 7000. And he received a pledge from his scientists that they would investigate an elephant carrying capacity figure as quickly as they could.

But that never happened.

It was agreed that, until such time as the Director could be advised of the carrying capacity figure, he would approve an interim culling programme on the basis that the elephant population would not be allowed to exceed 7000. And, when he knew what the carrying capacity was, he said, he would then discuss with his scientists, possible changes to the annual culling target. It took KNP two years to build an abattoir big enough to handle the number of elephant carcasses the scientists expected to take off each year. It seemed that the processing of the carcasses had taken over as the priority consideration of the culling exercise. When, in fact, the culling could have been carried out without an abattoir. It seemed that the tail had begun to wag the dog very early in the process.

Whatever the pros and cons of the issues involved, however, the first elephant cull took place in 1967 when the KNP population was, for the first time, reduced to 7000. And that year, 1967, it was determined that the Satara trees had been further reduced to 6 trees per hectare.
Thereafter, every year, the elephant population was reduced to 7000. And that went on for 27 years. The culling was not stopped until 1994.

Someone, however, began recording the status of the Satara tree experiment. The records are as follows:

1944 to 1960: 13 trees per hectare still standing (at Satara).

1965: 9 trees per hectare still standing (at Satara).

1967: 6 trees per hectare still standing (at Satara).

1974: 3 trees per hectare still standing (at Satara).

1981: 1.5 trees per hectare still standing (at Satara).

1994: No more trees still standing (at Satara)

And in 1994 the Kruger scientists made it known that they believed the elephants had reduced the top canopy tree population in the deciduous woodlands of Kruger National Park as a whole, since 1960, “by 95 percent”.

Ten years later they claimed that the elephants had reduced the top canopy trees of the deciduous woodlands throughout the park by MORE THAN 95 percent.

This means that for every top canopy tree left standing in the once ubiquitous deciduous woodlands of KNP, MORE THAN twenty equivalent trees have been destroyed, by too many elephants. And nobody seemed to be worried about this tragic state of affairs.

In the 27 years duration of the elephant culling era (1967 to 1994) not one single scientist in the whole of KNP had the gumption to question and to change the 7000 annual elephant culling target. Surely, somebody must have realised that because the Satara top canopy trees had continued their disastrous decline into extinction, 7000 was far too many elephants for Kruger National Park to carry.

Remember, again, the definition for elephant carrying capacity: “THE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF ELEPHANTS THAT A HABITAT CAN CARRY WITHOUT CAUSING IRREPARABLE AND PROGRESSIVE DAMAGE TO THE VEGETATION”.

Yet nobody thought it necessary to query the culling quota when year after year, throughout the 27 years of the culling era, the numbers of trees in the Satara study area continued to decline. I am sorry, I cannot condone this lack of attention to such an important and obvious detail.

But every dark cloud has a silver lining. I began playing around with the KNP culling data. And I reasoned that if an elephant population doubles its number inside an exact period of ten years, when its annual incremental rate is 7.2 percent, that calculation could be used in reverse. And, throughout the KNP culling era, the average annual increment of the Kruger elephant herds was 7.5 percent. So, that magic number (7.2%) readily fell inside this doubling time range parameter. In fact, the KNP elephants were doing better than doubling their numbers every ten years.

And I have to point out that if a population of elephants doubles its number every ten years, going forwards in time, it would half its number going backwards. And suddenly I realised that, using this simple logic, I had cut the Gordian knot.

We know that, according to Dr Rocco Knobel, the KNP elephant population number in 1965 was 7000. That means, in 1955, ten years previously, the elephant population must have numbered half-of-7000. It numbered 3500! And because in 1955, the elephants had not yet started to damage the Satara trees, 3 500 elephants must represent the nearest that any person can ever possibly get to determining the sustainable elephant carrying capacity figure for Kruger National Park (when the habitats were still undamaged and still healthy). And that, in turn, meant that if, at the beginning of the culling era, the annual culling target had been reduced to 3500 (from 7000), then the management objectives of the culling programme would have been satisfactorily achieved. The fact that it was not changed, has resulted in the mess that KNP is in today.

How does this KNP result compare with the virtual calculated guesstimate from Hwange National Park in 1960? KNP is 8 000 square miles in extent (or 20 000 square kms). Kruger’s 3500 elephants equate, as near as dammit, therefore, to one elephant per two square miles (or one elephant per 5 square kilometers). This means that the elephant carrying capacities for the habitats of both Hwange and Kruger National Parks were virtually the same.

And, give or take a bit of leeway for the several different game reserves in the whole of southern Africa, it might be appropriate to consider the elephant carrying capacity for all our game reserves at about one elephant per two square miles.

All this matters if we want to restore the health and vigour of our habitats; and if we want to restore the plant and animal species that have already been lost.

The actual elephant carrying capacity number is infinitely less than the personal preference opinions of our so-called modern day elephant management experts. If we had waved our magic wands sixty years ago, Hwange would be carrying 2500 elephants today and the Hwange habitats would be healthy. And Kruger would be carrying 3500 elephants. These are both infinitely less than the numbers the gurus are suggesting are O.K. in the current day and age. And, on this same basis, Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou, National Park which is 2000 square miles in area, would be carrying just 1000 elephants. Today the Gonarezhou is carrying 14 000 elephants. And Kruger National Park is said to be carrying 34 000 elephants when it should only be carrying only 3500.

If we keep on so grossly exaggerating the elephant carrying capacities of our game reserves, we will end up destroying every habitat that exists within them, and we will cause the extinction of every plant and every animal species, too.

So this is my answer to your question, John. You want to know what Ron Thomson thinks of the figures on elephant numbers in Zimbabwe which have been recently released. This is it: And it is a good reflection on what is happening within all our elephant sanctuaries in southern Africa.

We are on a joy ride to hell at the moment and unless we have both the humility, and the temerity, to change humanity’s perceptions about elephant management issues, we are going to lose everything we have ever loved and treasured. This is not about society’s reaction to suggested high culling quotas. It is not about the negative pressures that may be exerted on our elephant hunting opportunities if society disapproves of the elephant management decisions that we make today.

This is all about saving the biological diversities that will be lost if we don’t understand the problems involved, and if we don’t do WHAT IS RIGHT!

I would be very happy to see both Kruger’s and Hwange’s elephant populations reduced to just 2000 animals each; and held at that level for AT LEAST the next 20 years. Only then will the old habitats have any chance of recovery. Only then will we be able to save these game reserves’ unique biological diversities into posterity. Just at the moment, mankind is going about this elephant management problem in exactly the wrong way.

Managing elephant populations is more a question of managing elephant habitats because only when elephants are capable of living in game reserves without them destroying their own habitats, will the African elephant have any chance of survival. And to achieve desirable elephant numbers in our game reserves – numbers that the habitats can sustainably support – will require a great deal of elephant population reduction management. In other words, we are going to have to cull large numbers of elephants.

And, left out of this discussion, there lies Botswana, which is the biggest and most important elephant management conundrum in the world today. This is not the time nor the place, however, to discuss Botswana and its elephants.

That we will have to leave for another day.

Kind regards,
Ron Thomson CEO – TGA

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 217 posts and counting. See all posts by Ron Thomson

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.