Most African elephants live in southern Africa. And contrary to what animal rights groups would have you believe, they’re doing just fine. In fact, they’re doing far too well for their own good, and for the good of their environment. If they don’t stop doing so extremely well, they’ll cause the collapse of entire ecosystems, on which not only they, but people and all other animals depend.
Overall elephant population figures, both modern and historic, appear to be hard to pin down. The IUCN Red List entry for the elephant says: “In Southern Africa, which now harbours the largest known populations on the continent, elephant numbers are believed to have been at their lowest around the turn of the 20th century, and to have been increasing steadily ever since.”
It adds: “Although elephant populations may at present be declining in parts of their range, major populations in Eastern and southern Africa, accounting for over two-thirds of all known elephants on the continent, have been surveyed, and are currently increasing at an average annual rate of 4.0% per annum. As a result, more than 15,000 elephants are estimated to have been recruited into the population in 2006 and, if current rates of increase continue, the number of elephants born in these populations between 2005 and 2010 will be larger than the currently estimated total number of elephants in Central and West Africa combined. In other words, the magnitude of ongoing increases in southern and eastern Africa are likely to outweigh the magnitude of any likely declines in the other two regions.”
In short, they’re doing just fine, by sheer numbers alone. Yet despite this, the species as a whole has been classified as “vulnerable”. Between 1996 and 2004, it was even classed as “endangered”. Specifically, IUCN criterion A2 was applied: Reduction greater than or equal to 30% over the past 10 years or three generations (which in the case of elephants means 75 years instead), where the causes of the reduction may not be understood, or may not have ceased, or may not be reversible.
How they worked this out is a mystery. The IUCN Red List entry says “there are no credible estimates for a continental population prior to the late 1970s”. Without any data, how did they decide that a 30% decline in overall elephant numbers must have occurred since 1930?
The reality in Africa’s major game reserves is rather different. Elephants do not organise themselves as a species. They occupy a varied range of habitats, and exist in populations that are largely or entirely isolated from one another. When a population in west Africa is threatened, this does not mean that the same threat applies to populations in South Africa. For this reason alone, the idea of classifying all elephants as “vulnerable” is nonsensical. Different populations might be in danger, stable, or thriving, but to apply the same management criteria and practices to the entire species is not useful.
In fact, southern Africa’s elephant populations are booming. They’re so far from vulnerable, it’s scary. (And I don’t mean that figuratively, as you will see.)
Ron Thomson, a game ranger and park manager with 57 years’ experience, has worked in or managed major national game reserves all over southern Africa, and particularly in Zimbabwe. As part of his work for the government, he became an expert in big game management, including culling programmes, which until two decades ago was a routine population management strategy. (I’m indebted to his fascinating book Elephant ‘Conservation’ for much of the information in this column. I can highly recommend it. It is available directly from the author.)
In Chobe National Park, in the north of Botswana, the elephant population was estimated to be 7,500 in 1960, according to Thomson. By 1990, this population had grown to 54,500 animals, according to the Botswana government. By 2013, the official population number was 207,000. This represents a doubling of the population every 11 years or so, far faster than the IUCN’s estimate of elephant species growth, at 4% per annum, or a doubling every 18 years.
In Gonarezhou National Park, on Zimbabwe’s border with Mozambique, a once-off cull halved the elephant population from 5,000 to 2,500 in 1971/2. A decade later, in 1982, the population numbered 5,000 again, and another cull brought it back down to 2,500. Damage to the ecosystem, and in particular to large, old trees that do not recover in a mere few decades, was becoming extensive. In 1992, a severe drought accomplished the same culling task, but by then, ecosystem damage was so extensive that the government had to save breeding nuclei of numerous species. Since the CITES ivory ban was by then in place, no further culling exercises were conducted, and the present population is about 11,000 animals, again representing a doubling roughly every decade.
In 1960, the carrying capacity of Hwange National Park, on the Zimbabwe side of the border from Botswana’s Chobe National Park, was arbitrarily determined to be 2,500 animals. Today, it hosts 50,000 elephants. It is dangerously overstocked.
By “carrying capacity”, conservationists mean that population which does not consume more in a year than a year’s plant growth can provide, and as a result does not cause long-term damage to its habitat. Even if elephants were able to migrate out of their game reserves, which they’re not, excess animals are an existential threat to the environment. Nature will undoubtedly take its revenge on an over-population by becoming barren and causing the animals to starve. However, when it involves huge animals that have few natural enemies and eat as much as elephants do, this process takes entire ecosystems – including most other plants and animals – with it.
In the Kruger Park, regular culling since the 1960s has kept the elephant population at a level of 7,000, which Thomson says is probably higher than its carrying capacity, judging by the damage to large trees and riverine forests recorded over the decades. Until about 1960, tree counts near Satara recorded about 13 big top-canopy trees per hectare. These are important, because many of the smaller plants and animals in the ecosystem depend on these large, old trees. Their density is also an indicator of long-term damage to the ecosystem. By 1965, the tree count had declined to nine per hectare, and regular elephant culling was taking place. Yet by 1974, the tree count was three per hectare, and by 1981, it was a mere 1.5 top canopy trees per hectare. In 2000, the damage to top canopy trees was estimated to be well in excess of 95%.
If, Thomson argues, the culling targets had been set at 3,500 instead of 7,000, this damage might have been avoided. But even the 7,000 target was not maintained. Culling programmes were suspended in 1994, five years after CITES banned the international ivory trade and two years before the IUCN listed the elephant as endangered. Today’s Kruger population is officially 16,000 elephant, not counting several thousand that have moved into adjoining parks after the fences were pulled down.
The risk to the environment of a large elephant population is tremendous, and it is not only direct. Once the elephants have done their own damage, including impairing or killing large trees and preventing young trees from growing to maturity, other factors come into play to complete the job. Without any further assistance from elephants, routine veld fires will cause more damage, because tall grass can grow in riverine forest areas that are no longer protected by the top canopy trees. Other browsers, from small antelope up to black rhino, also depend on fresh growth, and eat what’s left after the elephants have moved on. Some animals, like porcupines, compete with elephants for food, and are forced to switch from bulbs and roots to the bark of trees for their diet. Ring-barked trees, of course, die.
The upshot – and academics agree with Thomson on this point – is that elephants change the biodiversity of the ecosystems on which they live, and over-populations actively threaten this biodiversity. Sustainable conservation policies surely ought to be aimed at preserving ecological diversity and processes, rather than merely increasing the population of a handful of iconic species.
So why, then, is wildlife management, including culling, so frowned upon? For that matter, if elephant populations are so large and growing so fast that they destroy entire ecosystems, why is the animal classified as “vulnerable”, and trade in its ivory and hide banned?
Since the founding of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) in 1956, under the auspices of the United Nations (UN), its purpose has been to promote the sustainable utilisation of living resources for the benefit of people. Its original name had used the term “protection” rather than “conservation”, but many member countries were justifiably concerned that the idea of protecting nature just for the sake of it would harm the legitimate interests and welfare of their citizens.
Wildlife management is not a natural process. In fact, because producing the necessities of human life has an unavoidable and irreversible impact on the environment – even large game reserves are limited in extent – human management at every scale is necessary both for the health of the environment and the welfare of humanity.
In 1961, the IUCN was instrumental in founding the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which was later renamed the Worldwide Fund for Nature. It was charged with raising funds and public awareness, which it has done with great success. In the last decade alone, its revenues amounted to more than $2-billion, making it one of the largest green groups in the world.
Along with the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), the WWF and IUCN created a third major conservation organisation in 1975, to implement the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). This body was tasked with combating the illegal trade in wildlife and wildlife products, while regulating the legal trade to minimise the threat to endangered species.
The guiding principle of the IUCN and its sister organisations was made explicitly in its 1980 World Conservation Strategy (WCS), which became a blueprint for a style of nature conservation in which humanity could live in harmony with its environment. The WCS had three objectives: to maintain essential ecological processes and life support systems, to preserve genetic diversity, and to ensure the sustainable utilisation of species and ecosystems.
The rise of the animal rights movement, however, put paid to a conservation strategy based on both animal and human welfare. The difference between animal rights groups and animal welfare groups is stark. The former does not believe animals should be exploited by humans for any purpose, and would grant animals similar legal rights to humans. Animal welfare, by contrast, “focuses on quality of life for a population or species of animals. It does not preclude management of animal populations or use of animals for food or other cultural uses, as long as the loss of life is justified, sustainable, and achieved through humane methods”. (For more detail on this distinction, see this position paper by The Wildlife Society in the United States.)
While not all green groups are alike, most will fight tooth and nail to resist any use of wildlife beyond tourism, whether that use is sustainable or not. In their eyes, every animal killed by man is one animal too many. Many would gladly extend their distaste for killing to domestic animals, if they could, and promote vegetarian or even vegan lifestyles.
Such sentiments might be popular – and even feasible – in rich urban centres, but they are worlds removed from the realities of farming and wildlife conservation that occurs in Africa. More important, they do not even represent an ideal to which African practices should aspire. On the contrary: they cause genuine, serious and widespread harm to both the environment and Africa’s human populations. In practice, these movements know little about actual environmental or wildlife management, and yet they have an outsize public voice in global environmental politics.
In recent decades, the IUCN, WWF and CITES have been heavily influenced by members and associates who do not endorse its 1980 Wildlife Conservation Strategy, which promised sustainable use of living resources for human benefit. International NGOs such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Traffic, the Sierra Club and Greenpeace are ideologically opposed to lethal means of wildlife management, while having little practical experience of wildlife management. The influence of these animal rights groups in the deliberations at CITES can be seen from the fact that the 1989 ivory trade ban was opposed by 73% of all the elephant range states. The international green movement seeks to impose the delicate sensibilities of the mostly foreign urban elite upon those countries which actually have to manage their wildlife, their environment, and the welfare of their people. Having exploited their own environments to death, these neocolonialists now want to prevent the developing world from using their environment at all.
The result is a complete farce. Rhinos are being poached in numbers, despite the fact that rhino horn trade was the first thing that CITES banned in 1975. Clearly, the plan isn’t working. Trade in elephant products was banned in 1989, and the elephant declared to be endangered by the IUCN in 1996, even as elephant populations thrived across most of the species’ range. While the IUCN changed its mind in 2004, CITES has not. Meanwhile, the only thing that is endangered is the biodiversity of the last remaining wildlife reserves in Africa.
The IUCN should declare the elephant to be an endangering species, and CITES should repeal the ban on ivory trade when it next meets in Johannesburg in September of this year. But when have rich foreigners ever done what’s good for Africa? DM
"Don't tell me the sky's the limit when there are footprints on the moon." ~ Paul Brandt