South Africa

Letter to the Editor

Botswana’s elephant conundrum

Botswana’s elephant conundrum

Everybody, it seems, is an expert when it comes to Botswana’s management of its elephants. President Mokgweetsi Masisi’s lifting of the hunting ban has given animal rights groups plenty of cannon fodder. But, argues controversial wildlife management expert Ron Thomson, if we are to save the habitat that nurtures and sustains not just elephants, but all wildlife in the area, a massive reduction in the elephant population is both inevitable and desirable.

When elephants fight, it is the grass (and the trees and shrubs) that suffer

I have lived all my adult life in the service of Africa’s national parks and its wildlife. And I despair over the amount of disinformation that the uninformed media spreads about wildlife and its management needs, seemingly for the sole purpose of influencing public opinion. And the only losers are the wild animals that everybody purports to care so much about — provided it is their point of view that holds precedence.

The latest wildlife controversy is the pronouncement by the new Botswana President, His Excellency, Mokgweetsi Masisi, that he is going to reopen elephant hunting — which was stopped by his predecessor, Ian Khama, in 2014. This has brought a mountain of vilification on to Masisi’s head and so-called “elephant management experts” have crept out from under every available bush to add their opinions to the debate. Ross Harvey (Daily Maverick, 29 May 2019) is one.

A great deal has been mentioned about the possibility of there being “too many elephants” in Botswana and the pro-hunting lobbyists have argued that hunting is a legitimate way to reduce their excessive numbers. Hunting will, of course, reduce the numbers of elephants in Botswana by however many are killed by hunters, but — and here I have to agree with the animal rightists’ statements — hunting will have no ecological impact whatsoever on the elephant over-population problem that certainly exists.

Elephant management in Botswana has nothing to do with hunting. It has nothing to do with politics. It has nothing to do with the opinions of animal rightists or animal welfarists. It has everything to do with establishing a “best practice” management solution to a population of elephants that is very obviously grossly in excess of its habitat’s sustainable carrying capacity.

Elephant management in Botswana is all about saving Botswana’s national parks from total destruction and it is about preserving for posterity Botswana’s once-rich biological diversity — which has been severely mauled for many years by too many elephants.

How do we know there are too many elephants in Botswana? We know that this is so because there are people alive today who will testify to the fact that the elephants, since 1960 (before and after), have totally demolished most of the pristine habitats that once existed in that country. I am one of those people.

I am indebted to Professor Brian Child for sending me notes written by himself and by his late father, Dr Graham Child, on the subject of elephant-induced habitat damage in Botswana (particularly in the Chobe) dating back to 1960. To these notes I have taken the liberty of adding a few small comments of my own:

The late Dr Graham Child worked for the FAO in Botswana in the 1960s and was greatly responsible for the creation of Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks.

He writes about “building a small house on the banks of the Chobe River near the present park gate”. Set among huge riverine trees, this ‘house’ over-looked the dense reedbeds of the Chobe floodplain, and it could not be seen from the nearby road because of thick bush.

Professor Brian Child writes of this house: “The dense bush is (now) gone. The reedbeds are no more. The ruins of the house are now clearly visible from the road. Indeed, Botswana’s ecosystems have experienced radical change since the 1960s… nowhere more visible than (on) the Chobe river front.”

In 1965, Graham counted 299 trees, comprising 17 species, of “big, impressive giants lining the river in a demarcated transect” near his camp on the Chobe. By comparison, in 2007 there were 324 “woody plants” in the same transect, but 270 of these were the scrubby bush, Croton megalobotrus (which nothing eats).

Only four of the 152 Acacia nigrescens (knob thorn trees) had survived (by 2007), and six tree species had disappeared altogether. Furthermore, whereas there were no quick-growing weed-like crotons in 1965, they made up 83% of the trees in 2007. Knob thorns, that had constituted 51% of the woodland species in 1965 were then down to 1.3%; and five species of “slow-growing large riverine tree species” had been extirpated.

Compared to the state of affairs that existed in 1965, by 2007 there were substantial increases in elephant, impala, kudu and giraffe, but the general diversity of wildlife was woefully down with serious declines in warthog and sable. There was no sign at all of the famous Chobe bushbuck, puku and wildebeest; and we suspected that waterbuck, tsessebe and perhaps roan and sable too, were much reduced in number.

The tendency for elephants to feed upon and/or to damage particular tree species in given areas was widespread in the Chobe Reserve. In 1963, the majority of mukwa trees (Pterocarpus angolensis) and mugongo-nut trees, were ring-barked in an area just to the north of the Ngwezumba Bridge. In 1965, virtually all the Kirkia and Commiphora trees were pushed over in a large area on the face of the sand ridge west of Ihaha.

That same year, 1965, only one of the 124 lone Acacia tortillis (haak-en-steek) trees — previously counted throughout the mopani woodlands in the eastern Mababe — had been pushed over by elephants. Many of the old majestic camel thorn trees (Acacia erioloba) around the Savuti Channel and to the north of the Gubatsa hills were also killed by elephants that same year; or in the next one.

The once-magnificent riparian strip along the Chobe River with its attendant species of birds and small mammals had all but disappeared by 2007, except where it was protected by the old park headquarters, and even there it is (still) under threat. When we (the Childs) left Kasane at the end of 1965, there was a magnificent belt of (woodland) mainly camel-thorn trees running up the length of the Sedudu Valley (where Selous camped in 1874), but the elephants had already started to work on them. Today, virtually all of those 600-odd, 400-year-old, trees have now gone.

By 2007, the mopani forests of the Moremi — once reminiscent in size and grandeur of the old oak forests of Europe — had been trashed, and six of the 14 tree species recorded in 1965 had disappeared. They included Ziziphus mucronata; Diospyrus mespiliformis; Kigelia africana (pinata); Acacia albida; Acacia galpinii; and Acacia erioloba. Many of these are big, impressive trees (all eaten by elephants). Three species not previously present have colonised the area: Markhamia obtusfolia; Markhamia zanzibarica; and Caparis tomentosa (a vine that grows into the tree layer of woodlands, but can be self-supporting). The biggest change, however, is in the replacement of knob thorn trees by Crotron megalobotrus (which is now the dominant species).

Dr Graham Child and Professor Brian Child are two eminent scientists with loads of academic training and practical experience, and great knowledge about managing Africa’s national parks and, particularly, Africa’s elephants. They are not fly-by-night armchair ecologists who manipulate so-called scientific statements (made by often unnamed scientific “experts” and by other people with no practical experience in elephant management) in support of their own personal preference opinions and without any concern for the harm that they are doing to wildlife management in Africa.

So, I hope the “Child Observations” will be accepted by the readers of this article as fact.

Ross Harvey’s statement that a large number of scientists (not named) “did not see any ecological reason to artificially change the number of elephants in Chobe National Park” is, actually, therefore, just hyperbole.

So is his statement:

Much of the research community and many managers (also not named) accept that ecosystem structure and function are not about elephant numbers but, instead, about elephant distribution across a landscape and in relation to plant communities.”

Harvey claims, inter alia, that elephants are important in natural ecosystems (which fact I don’t dispute) because, he says, “they deposit seeds up to 90km away from the areas in which they feed, and because of that fact, elephants cause the regeneration of vegetation elsewhere.” I have to ask him — and here I use my own 50 years of practical wildlife management experience in the field — where do these seeds come from when the trees that once produced them have all been destroyed by too many elephants?

Why do once very common trees like the marula (Sclerocarya caffra) not bristle like the hairs on a dog’s back all over our game reserves? The marula fruit is greatly favoured by elephants. Indeed, the whole tree is eaten by them right down to the roots. So, why has the marula tree become (or is becoming) locally extinct in all our national parks? It has become locally extinct — like every other tree species that the elephants favour — because every one of their seedlings that rear their heads above the ground is very quickly snaffled up by whatever elephant passes them by.

Harvey also claims that “carrying capacity” is an arbitrary factor in the science of wildlife management and is outdated. He, and those he quotes, are wrong.

Carrying capacity is the only factor that can give us any idea of the size that an elephant population should be when “best practice elephant management” is our objective.

So let’s ignore the fairy tales and let’s get down to quoting some facts.

Wildlife management is the action that man takes to achieve a man-desired objective. There is nothing “natural” about wildlife management. It is an artefact of man. It is:

  • Man conceived;

  • Man designed;

  • Man implemented;

  • Man manipulated; and

  • Man is the principal beneficiary.

Why is man the principal beneficiary? Because it is man’s objective that is achieved.

And why is this important? It is important because it is ludicrous to expend energy in any pursuit unless you are working towards achieving a clearly defined objective. And this is where the mindset of everybody who has ever participated in this elephant management debate has gone off course.

The primary wildlife management objective for our national parks is to “maintain species diversity”. In a nutshell, that means our national park management authorities have to make sure that no species of plant or animal, no matter how large or small, becomes extinct. Nothing else matters. Our primary consideration when managing our national parks, therefore, is to achieve this objective.

Elephants, tourism, and personal-preference opinions are all subjugated to this basic desideratum. Consideration of any and all other such matters only come into play when the national park ecosystem is stable and when no species is under threat. And that is the mandate that Parliament handed down to SANParks — South Africa’s National Parks Board of old — a long time ago. Furthermore, this is a universal requirement of all governments and their national park authorities. So, when the public want to question our national park authorities, it should only be to ask if they are achieving their clearly defined objective. And, in that regard, they are clearly not.

Harvey’s arguments about the rights and wrongs of elephant management proposals in Botswana (and elsewhere) — and those others who have pontificated so royally on this controversial subject in recent years — are, therefore, all way off beam, because the real argument has nothing to do with elephants.

Governments everywhere have been negligent (except in Botswana). They have ignored their own parliaments’ demands to maintain species diversity. So, they have lost both direction and impetus. Today, all over southern Africa, our national parks are being managed as “elephant sanctuaries” — at great cost to biological diversity. And we should all be ashamed of ourselves for having allowed this to happen.

It has happened because society has been cowed by aggressive animal rights propaganda, and everyone has succumbed to irrational and uninformed public opinion. The public — and governments everywhere — need to understand that you cannot manage wildlife by way of public referendums.

Today, governments will not cull even the most excessive of elephant populations “because the public disapproves of culling”. What nonsense! And because of that fact, we are destroying every single facet of biological diversity in our national parks. Where is our intestinal fortitude? It has gone to wherever mankind’s common sense has been pushed. Anarchy, therefore, looms.

Everyone who has any modicum of interest in nature will tell you that animal species are especially adapted to specific habitat types and that they will occur, survive and/or thrive in no other. The importance of maintaining nature’s diversity of habitats in a healthy and stable state, therefore, is far more important than trying to keep different animal species, per se, alive.

Indeed, you don’t have to worry about keeping animal species alive if their habitats are intact. If an animal’s habitat is healthy and safe from damage, the animal species will be able to look after itself without much assistance from man.

Real wildlife management experts — like Professor Koos Bothma — will tell you that healthy soils produce healthy habitats produce healthy animals. Only a fool would think otherwise. And the more diverse and healthy your habitat spectrum is, the more kinds of wild animal species will survive in those habitats and thrive. So, properly managing the soil (because without soil no plants will grow) is man’s first wildlife management priority. Looking after and maintaining healthy habitats is man’s second-most important responsibility. The animals come last in man’s hierarchical list of wildlife management responsibilities; not because they are unimportant, but because they are less important than the soil and plants.

And that is the crux of wildlife management.

When you read about the elephant and the habitat experiences in Botswana in the 1960s — from people like Graham and Brian Child — it must be obvious to every intelligent person that too many elephants completely destroy essential natural habitats of many kinds — and that as a consequence, both plant and animal species diversity is lost; that productivity all round is lost; and that tourism will be adversely affected, too.

When you learn that in South Africa’s Kruger National Park (since 1960) “more than” 95% of that sanctuary’s top-canopy woodland trees have been “destroyed by too many elephants”, you need to truly comprehend the significance of the overall habitat changes that that event has brought to Kruger.

In just one dimension — think — that for every tree that still stands alive in Kruger National Park today, 20 trees stood alongside each one of those same trees, fewer than 50 years ago. And then tell me that no habitats have been adversely affected because of too many elephants; that no plant species have been lost; that no animal species have been forced into extinction; that no elephant population “adjustment” needs to happen; that hunting, as a management tool, should not be allowed; and that massive elephant population reduction is not necessary.

I am advised that the planned Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Park (Kaza TFP) over the five countries (Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe) — measures in size some 520,000km². The total elephant habitat area, however, must be reduced by at least the equivalent size of the Okavango Delta area — because elephants can’t live in “total swamp”. Without the swamps, this large dry-land area, however, I consider to be the elephants’ wet-season (expanded) home range.

The elephants’ dry-season home range in the Kaza Transfrontier Park will be considerably smaller and it is the dry-season home range that determines the elephant’s overall optimum population size. So, until we know the extent of the dry-season home range in all five countries it will not be possible to provide an estimate of the optimum elephant population size for this giant sanctuary.

I am fairly confident, however, that the elephant-carrying capacity (determined by the size of the dry-season home range only) for most national park habitats in the southern African region is in the vicinity of one elephant per 5km².

Nevertheless, if we use the wet season home range region (which we know to be 520,000km²) the absolute maximum number of elephants this whole region can carry is 104,000. And using the (more correct) dry-season home range size — which is probably half the size of the wet season home range — the number is probably no more than 52,000. Hwange National Park alone, in some years, might itself be carrying such a load. Just how many elephants Botswana, on its own, may be able to sustainably carry, I have no idea — but it is infinitely less than 50,000. If you determine the size of the Botswana dry-season home ranges, however, the reader can work out the optimum size for that country’s elephant population.

There is another factor that everyone should also consider — and that is the fact that the habitats should be “rested” after 60 years of total abuse and heavy destruction by too many elephants. (Remember what happened in the Chobe!) The habitats will need several years of “under-use” (as opposed to “over-use”) to start their recovery towards a healthy state of climax — or near-climax — as was their condition in the 1950s.

And for those readers who believe that such drastic action will force the elephant into extinction, do not fear. Elephants living in rejuvenating habitats, with lots of available nutrition, will double their numbers every 10 years. So they will very soon thereafter require to be heavily culled once again. Also, if you reduce the elephant population by 50% consider this: You will be, immediately, doubling the biomass of food for consumption by those elephants that survive the population reduction-management ordeal. They say every cloud has a silver lining!

The management of elephants in the Kaza Transfrontier Park, therefore, is highly complex and fraught with all sorts of influences — including many differing human viewpoints. Nevertheless, I am in full support of the government of Botswana opening up elephant hunting again — because hunting is a good way to sustainably utilise the elephant resource in Botswana, and it will provide many benefits to the local rural folk.

The only management action that will solve the over-population problem, however, is massive elephant population reduction; and that management action is imperative! DM

Ron Thomson is a qualified field ecologist who has been working in Africa’s national parks and wildlife management systems for 58 years. He began as a cadet ranger with the Rhodesian Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management and went on to become Provincial Game Warden-in-charge of Hwange National Park. He was later the Chief Nature Conservation Officer, Ciskei, and then Director of the Bophuthatswana National Parks Board. He operated as a professional hunter for three years and is now a full-time author and journalist investigating and reporting on wildlife management in Africa, and is CEO of the True Green Alliance.


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