The elephant in the room


It is always a pleasure to watch elephant on game drives, but conserving destructive species and ecosystems can be a complex matter. René de Klerk finds out more about the various aspects of managing these giants.

Elephants in Africa

Southern Africa holds more than 70% of Africa’s elephants.
Botswana supports 30% of the African continent’s elephant population.
Gabon and Congo hold Africa’s most important forest-elephant populations.
Eastern Africa’s elephant populations are severely affected by poaching. Populations have declined by 50% since 2007.
Western Africa’s elephant populations are small, fragmented and isolated.
Statistics acquired in the African Elephant Status Report 2016.

Elephants are found in a wide variety of environments ranging from grassland to savanna and everything in between. They even inhabit some desert landscapes, and South Africa’s indigenous forests teemed with elephants in days gone by. The large amount of publicity that elephant poaching has received has completely overshadowed the booming elephant population in much of Southern Africa. Many experts and scientists believe extensive elephant numbers have already caused plant and animal communities to change and will continue to cause damage if something is not done.

An elephant at a waterhole in the Addo Elephant National Park. Photo: René de Klerk

South Africa’s largest protected area, the Kruger National Park, has an elephant population of just under 20 000 according to a 2019 census. At the current growth rate, their numbers could reach 23 000 in the next five years if conditions are favourable. In addition, the 75 000 hectare Madikwe Game Reserve’s founding population of 200 elephants in the early 1990s reached 1 200 just two years ago.

Due to political influence and pressure from animal-rights activists, elephant management in Southern Africa took a turn and culling was stopped in 1995. It is still seen as socially unacceptable to cull elephants, but the management of these giants, or their effects on the landscape, is crucial. “Successful local approaches are being undermined from afar without understanding them, and this is not based on conservation results,” says Dr Brian Child, associate professor at the Center for African Studies at the University of Florida. Child says he has observed more than one international meeting about African elephants, with no Africans in the room. “Non-workable ideas have been imposed on Africans by people who are neither properly informed nor accountable for the costs that their actions impose.”

Otch Otto works in many of the protected areas in Africa as a security expert protecting wildlife. He has seen the effect of elephants, where there are many and few, on the landscape and agrees with Child. “People who do not live with, or own elephant, should not prescribe,” he says. “We should rather blame human invasive behaviour; and human perception regarding the necessity of intervention.”

A boabab stripped of its bark by an elephant. Photo: René de Klerk

Concern has also come from Dr Salomon Joubert, former director of the Kruger National Park. “I am more convinced than ever that the intrinsic values and ecological integrity of the Kruger National Park have been, and are being, sacrificed by a policy that has no interest other than ‘hands off elephants’,” he says.
According to John Varty, co-owner of Londolozi Game Reserve, elephants are severely modifying the woodlands in certain areas in private reserves. “The private reserves are famous for their leopard viewing,” he says. “Now their prime habitat is being modified towards an open woodland/grassland, less beneficial for leopards.”

History of elephants in Kruger

When the Kruger was first proclaimed, elephants were not prominent in the landscape, possibly due to ivory trade in the 1700s and 1800s, and excessive hunting. Only three of the 109 historic rock art sites, dating back to between 7000BC and 300AD, showcase elephants. Hunting tales by Europeans who hunted in the area long before the park was proclaimed do not feature many elephants either.

Elephants were spotted in the park in 1905 near the Letaba and Olifants river confluence. With no hunting pressure, this safe haven allowed their numbers to grow.

Ron Thomson is an author, veteran game warden and CEO of the True Green Alliance, an organisation that educates the public about the principles and practices of science-based wildlife management. He also argues that the Kruger’s elephant population is excessive and must be brought in check to prevent desertification.

“There is every need to cull elephants in the Kruger. If I could have it my way, I would bring the elephant population in the Kruger down to 2 000 animals,” says the 81 year-old Thomson, who argues that modern management methods do not work. He managed elephant populations in Zimbabwe during colonial times by shooting excessive herds to keep numbers in check.

What is happening elsewhere?

The Sábiè Game Park in Mozambique shares a border with the Kruger. Peter Ruddle, tourism marketing manager at the park, says they have had an influx of elephants from the Kruger since 2014. The issue of large elephant numbers and the extensive damage to the trees in Sábiè Game Park have been incorporated into their management plan. Tree damage has increased by about 7% from 2015-2016. If the trends continue, all trees could disappear within about 14 years. “Elephant numbers vary considerably during the season, but the bottom line is that they are causing extensive damage to the trees,” says Ruddle.

Broken and dead trees due to elephant damage in Botswana. Photo: Erik Verreynne

In Botswana, there recently was an outcry from activists as the hunting ban imposed by the former president was lifted, and packages were sold to hunt a quota of 272 elephant. Removing the quota of 272 elephants from the landscape through trophy hunting will probably not make a dent.

According to the Great Elephant Census, there are at least 131 626 elephants in Botswana, which form part of approximately 216 000 elephants in the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area. This area lies in the Kavango and Zambezi river basins where Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe meet. Child published a paper on the changes brought on by elephants in Botswana. He compared his late father’s work, as the first professional ecologist in Botswana, to new data, and believes Botswana’s elephant population has had a negative effect on vegetation.

Much like the Kruger, there was an absence of elephants in the Chobe National Park. Child’s father interviewed elderly Bushmen who had grown up around the source of the Ngwezuma River, which is now in the centre of the park. “Elephant were unknown to the Bushmen living in the east of the Chobe National Park for several generations, at least until the mid-1940s.”

Dead trees in Botswana. Photo: Erik Verreynne.

Child says that, in 1963, Pat Hepburn, the park warden and their neighbour in Kasane, counted an average 497 sets of tracks along the main Chobe road each day. This grew to 619 by 1966, an increase of at
least 20%.

Child grew up on the banks of the Chobe River, in a home (built in 1965) set among riverine forest overlooking the dense reed beds of the Chobe floodplain. “The reed beds are all gone, and there is no longer any thick bush to hide the ruins. This is one small symptom of the radical alterations to Botswana’s ecosystem since the 1960s wrought by tens of thousands of elephants.”

In 1965, 299 trees lined a mile-long river transect from their house. Seventeen of these were big tree species. They were recounted during the recent study and, much to Child’s surprise, there were more trees,
324 to be exact. However, the structure of the habitat had been transformed. “Now, 83% of those ‘trees’ are scrubby bush.

Huge knob thorns (Senegalia nigrescens) that had constituted 51% of the forest were now down to 1.3%, and only four of the 152 had survived,” says Child. “Six slow-growing large species disappeared altogether. Only unpalatable Natal mahoganies (Tricelia emetica) are still there.”

Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe is another example where changes occurred. Here, approximately 60 artificial water holes were installed. “In 1960, we counted 3 500 elephants. At the time, 90% of the kiaat trees (Pterocarpus angolensis) were pushed over by elephants,” says Thomson. Today, there are no kiaat trees left. “All the big thorn trees and lala palms (Hyphaene coriacea) are going as well. Half a dozen thorn trees are gone forever.”

Zimbabwe’s overall elephant population grew from only 4 000 in 1900 to more than 76 000 by 1991.

A fallen baobab tree due to elephant damage. Photo: Erik Verreynne

“Culling some 46 775 animals to save the vegetation caused only a minor blip,” says Child. “People often try to blame dead and dying trees on non-elephant causes, and sometimes this is the case. However, in many cases it is quite clear that the primary cause is elephants. We had one of our students check every single one of more than 400 trees in Chobe to assess cause of death.” Most of the trees died because of ringbarking by elephants.

Modern elephant-management methods

The National Norms and Standards for the Management of Elephants in South Africa does not make provision for culling, except as a last resort, when all other options have been tried and rejected, or in the case of problem animals. The plan mentions relocation, contraception and range manipulation as the best methods. Agreements between protected areas and neighbouring properties also allow the movement of wildlife over larger areas when fences are dropped.

Dr Sam Ferreira, Kruger’s large-mammal ecologist, says they have used contraception in smaller parks such as Addo Elephant National Park, but in the Kruger they are manipulating the landscape successfully to control the growth rate of elephants. In the past, large numbers of artificial water holes were dotted across the landscape, but this had negative effects on the vegetation.

At the peak of water-hole creation in the Kruger, there were more than 300 artificial water holes. “Elephants never had to walk further than 5km to access water,” says Ferreira. Vegetation around water holes was decimated, and elephants stayed in the same areas, walking the same paths and damaging the same vegetation. Ferreira says they decreased the number of water holes by two thirds, forcing elephants to travel further to access quality water.

This had the desired effects. “Our research shows that the closure of water holes changed the paths elephants walk. In the past, they walked in the same places in winter and summer.

Now they walk in different areas, giving trees the opportunity to recover,” Ferreira explains.
Also, by forcing elephants to travel longer distances to get to fresh drinking water, their growth rate has slowed down.

Ferreira says that, when culling stopped, elephant numbers grew by 6.5% per year but, with the closure of water holes, this has slowed down to 2.9% per year.

He attributes this to calves having to walk long distances to get to water, and not being able to keep up with their mothers. “For every calf that dies, the herd is set back by four years.”

Elephant herd with calf. Photo: René de Klerk

Elephants and other wildlife

Child and his researchers also studied the animal communities in Chobe by looking at dung samples. “Increaser species like elephant, impala and kudu respond positively to shrub encroachment and were doing well, as were giraffe which, historically, never occurred on the riverfront,” explains Child. Furthermore, warthog and waterbuck declined, and they did not count a single bushbuck, puku or wildebeest. “Ironically, the Chobe bushbuck is now rare in Chobe, except near human habitation where thickets are protected from elephants.”

In Hwange, the installation of artificial water holes led to elephants from Botswana migrating into the park. “The ecosystem is now under serious threat in the Hwange National Park, with up to 3 000 elephants using some water holes each day,” says Child. Massive herds of sable, buffalo and eland are no longer around as they can’t compete with elephants.

Thomson says that excessive elephants could also be detrimental to black rhino populations as they rely on thickets for cover. “In habitats stripped by excessive elephant numbers over a long period of time, such as Botswana’s game reserves, the perfect black-rhino conditions no longer exist.”

Damage to large trees?

Elephants are often seen removing bark from trees and breaking branches. Ferreira says there are specific requirements for elephants to kill trees. “The more frequently an elephant is at the same tree, the greater the chance to kill the tree.” However, with the closure of water holes, elephants do not walk along the same paths anymore, so chances of walking past the same trees frequently is much slimmer.

Dr Corli Wigley-Coetsee, Kruger’s vegetation ecologist, says much of the impact on the big-canopy trees in the Kruger happened when elephant numbers were low. “In the time when elephant numbers were around 7 000, we had already lost 90% of those trees.”

Research on top-canopy trees from 1944 in the Satara area showed a decline in large trees, and some argue that this could be as a result of elephants.

At the start of the study, there were 13 top-canopy trees per hectare in the study area, and 10 years later there was no change. By 1965, however, live trees were reduced to nine trees per hectare. “A threshold was reached where the habitat was no longer able to hold the number of elephants without destroying the vegetation,” says Thomson. He says there were 7 000 elephants, and this was the threshold they maintained.

Culling commenced in 1967, bringing numbers back down to 7 000, and by then six large-canopy trees remained per hectare in the study area. These numbers continued declining and, by 1995 when culling stopped, there were no large, top-canopy trees left in the study area. “Elephant numbers can double every 10 years in a healthy habitat,” says Thomson.

He argues that there should only be 3 500 elephants in the park but, because of the damaged habitat, numbers need to be reduced to 2 000 to give the vegetation time to recover. Further research suggests that there is a strong correlation between trees damaged by elephants and fire. Trees debarked by elephants are more likely to die because of fire, says Ferreira.

A herd of elephants in Botswana. Photo: René de Klerk

Advantages of elephants

While excessive elephant populations can destroy vegetation, elephants play an important a role in seed dispersal. Trees such as the winter thorn (Faidherbia albida) grow after passing through an elephant’s digestive system.

Wigley-Coetsee says that, in more recent years, an increase in CO2 levels has led to an increase in bush encroachment, of which there is plenty of evidence in the Kruger. “Many areas that were grassland previously are now covered with small trees. Elephants play a key role in helping to reduce this,” she says.
“Plains game does not do well in times of drought due to less grass, but elephants should make conditions better for them by creating more grassland and removing bushes. Elephants are a great factor to help with
climate change.”

Culling might be frowned on, but drastic action will have to be taken in the future when numbers become even greater. Many protected areas, especially in South Africa, are fenced and do not allow free movement, so the creation of safe spaces in conservation areas spanning borders might be a viable option too.
“If poaching can be brought under control in the Transfrontier Park stretching across Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa, and elephants feel safe, they will colonise the area,” says Varty.


Written by René de Klerk

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