Strategies for Elephant Management by Douglas Wise.

The principal concern for those managing elephants in most of their populations relates to their declining numbers.  Causes of the declines are well understood and ascribable principally to poaching, but habitat loss and fragmentation also play a role.  It is very simple, in principle, to address these problems, though difficult and expensive in practice.

Given protected space, elephants will quickly expand their numbers.  In cases of sub-optimal populations, so-called conservation in protected areas essentially becomes a policing operation.  One’s aims will be to reduce (ideally to eliminate) poaching for ivory, to bear down on snaring (in which elephants become a by-catch in the bush meat trade) and to attempt to reduce the potential animosity that contiguous human populations may experience in consequence either of their having been evicted from protected areas or of experiencing conflict with elephants dispersing from protected areas.

Despite it being simple to agree on objectives necessary to restore sub-optimal elephant populations, there remain very considerable differences of opinion over the optimum ways to achieve these objectives, particularly when adequate financial resources are difficult to obtain.  The following questions arise:

What proportion of its land area is it reasonable for a third world country to set aside for the protection of wildlife?

If one looks at the GEC data, there are huge differences between   countries in Africa which are not necessarily linked to respective population densities.  Is it preferable to have large proportions, accepting that they won’t be so well policed or smaller, better policed proportions?  If one opts for large proportions, won’t this legitimately cause resentment by growing populations of rural poor?

Tanzania, for example, probably has the largest proportion of its land area set aside for wildlife, but is currently experiencing a drastic decline in elephant numbers in consequence of a surge in poaching. Uganda, with a human population density approximately 3 times that of Tanzania, has far less suitable habitat set aside for wildlife (4% of that of Tanzania) but its elephant density within such habitats is roughly three times greater at 0.45/sq km.

Once elephant populations start to exceed this density, wildlife conservation becomes more complex as sub-optimal numbers threaten to rise to supra-optimal levels (as exemplified in some areas of Zimbabwe and Botswana).  At this stage the long-term sustainability of habitat is called into question and one has to investigate whether range extension is feasible or population reduction necessary. This subject will be dealt with in later stage of the document.

What sources of funding are available that can be used to fight ivory poachers and the bush meat trade?

The most immediate source that springs to the minds of the majority of outsiders is income from photo-tourism.  In reality, this, on its own, is almost invariably totally inadequate even for those areas suited to the purpose.  Many are not.  Furthermore, any great expansion of supply, a costly exercise, might not be matched by an equivalent increase in demand.  A second income stream, particularly in areas not well suited to photo-tourism, comes from consumptive use of wildlife (hunting), which, of itself, when properly conducted, will not necessarily have adverse impacts on wildlife populations.

However, in some countries, consumptive tourism has been banned, either because governments perceive that it will offend the ethical sensibilities of potential photo-tourists or that it will set a bad example to potential poachers.

A third and potentially very lucrative source of endogenous income would be through sales of ivory should the current ban on trade be lifted.  This would be highly contentious.  Protagonists of the ban wish to kill off the trade, legal or illegal, by eliminating demand through legislation.

They would argue that the existence of legal trade would make it impossible to weed out from it that which was illegal.  Those in favour of trade suggest that ivory has been traded for many hundreds of years, that banning trade won’t stop it, that it could become sustainable and that it could provide important funding for policing wildlife habitats for the benefit of elephants and other species.

Both sides make potentially valid cases, but the logic would clearly lie with the pro-traders were corruption to be less endemic and citizens more affluent in Africa.  However, as things currently stand, it is not certain which is the correct stance.

Probably, the current dominant source of funding for policing wildlife areas is exogenous, emanating from foreign NGOs and governments.  It is not necessarily safe to assume that this income stream will continue unchecked in the future, not least because many African citizens resent foreign conservation organisations because they can convey the impression that African wildlife is of greater concern than its people.

How can one reduce the potential animosity of the contiguous rural populations?

Clearly, if some funding from tourism passes directly to such people in the form of money payments, provision of schools, health clinics and jobs within the tourist industry itself, this will be of help.  However, it is unlikely to be sufficient to deflect the ire of those individual families whose crops are trampled and destroyed by elephants straying from their designated areas.  Thus, in some circumstances, it may be deemed sensible to build perimeter fences around national parks.

Majete, a 700sq km National Park in Malawi, run by African Parks in association with the Government of Malawi, is one such example of a fenced park.  Unfortunately, these solutions may initially be helpful while simultaneously sowing the seeds of their eventual downfall.  To make a sweeping generalisation, it would be reasonable to suggest that Africa provides relatively few of the employment opportunities available to those in first world countries and has been slow to urbanise.

Thus, a high proportion of the population will live rurally and survive through pastoralism or subsistence farming, neither of which generally represent efficient land uses.  These rural populations are breeding rapidly such that wildlife areas will be surrounded by an ever-increasing number of human neighbours whose benefits from tourism will be diluted while their per capita customary land entitlements will be simultaneously shrinking.  This could lead to resentment when they look over boundaries to see the wide-open areas extant in the wildlife zones.  Perhaps, precipitated by drought, an example of the possible consequences is currently being seen in the land invasions in Laikipia County, Kenya.

What is to be done when all land that can be reasonably protected for wildlife is, indeed, effectively protected (in the unlikely event that this will happen)?

Quite soon, “elephant days of use” in each area will be on the way to optimisation.  Once elephant numbers have reached a level above which there will be adverse impacts on habitats or other herbivores, what are the available action plans?  Obviously, translocation, apart from its huge associated costs, will not be an option as one is envisaging that all areas will have optimum numbers of elephants.

Contraception, though effective, is massively expensive and hence only applicable to very small individual populations.  Furthermore, it will not bring into effect an immediate halt to population increase.  Thus, in practical terms, there are really only two options – cull that percentage of the population by which it would otherwise naturally increase (circa 5.5% per annum) such that population size remains constant or do nothing and “leave it to nature”.

The culling option, used in the past, seems to be ruled out of consideration by “modern” ecologists on the grounds that current majority public opinion would find it morally repugnant such that any country adopting the practice would lose tourist income.

However, if culling is the only correct option, it is incumbent upon those with responsibility for wildlife management to adopt the policy while simultaneously attempting to alter what they deem to be the hostile perceptions of the general public.  The laissez faire or “leave it to nature” approach depends upon the view that elephant populations will self-regulate without resultant long-term ecosystem damage (with the proviso that there should be no man-made interventions which deter free movement and no encouragement of surplus numbers through the provision of pumped, dry season water).

This approach tends to ignore the fact that competing herbivore species- and, in consequence, predators – will probably be adversely impacted well before the elephants themselves have reached maximum carrying capacity.  This is not to suggest that competing species will necessarily disappear, merely that their numbers will decline as elephant numbers rise to the point of self-regulation.

This outcome would not necessarily be what most park managers or visitors want.  Furthermore, it is not clear why self-regulation is deemed more humane than culling. The physiological drivers of the phenomenon are well understood and imply that most of the population will be continuously “living on the edge” in a state of chronic hunger in normal conditions and that significant numbers will die of starvation in drought periods, having, first, eaten out all accessible vegetation.

One is asked to believe that this will cause no irreversible ecosystem damage.  However, even if this is true, there could be prolonged recovery periods with cycling populations of both elephants and all other mammals.  In effect, self-regulation might be described as repeated cycles population growth, overshoot and crash.

What happens if one is managing an elephant population that is at such great density that the habitat is already being damaged?

A good example is to be found in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, where all ecologists, “traditional” and “modern”, would appear to agree that provision of pumped water has resulted in greater elephant numbers than the Park can sustain in the long term.  It is easy, therefore, to suggest that one solution is to stop pumping water altogether.  This, however, would force elephants to try to move out of the Park in search of alternative sources of water because none would exist in the Park itself in the dry season.

This would cause chaos to populated areas as they went.  In any event, the majority of elephants and most other mammalian herbivore species would probably die of dehydration first.  Another suggestion is to create more pumped pans in areas of the Park in which there are currently none. This would spread the damage if they were all accessible throughout the dry season, but might help reduce the worst of it in the short term.

However, an alternative would be to allow a proportion to be left dry in any one season such that elephants would be encouraged to rotate around the total available area, using it more efficiently and causing less destruction. However, this only really makes sense if one focuses one’s management exclusively on a single species, the elephant.

Many other herbivore species would not cope with this sort of rotation.  Purists might argue that such species were never there in any significant numbers before water was pumped and that it is unnatural for them to be there now.  However, this is to ignore the fact that wildlife is being progressively corralled into areas that are less favoured for agricultural use and that, under such circumstances, it is surely reasonable for conservationists to attempt to improve wildlife productivity by supplying a missing limiting resource (dry season water) so long as it is done in a sustainable manner.

Currently, it is only the expansion of elephant numbers that is unsustainable.  One must also consider the economic consequences of closing or rotating pumped water points.  The Park depends upon tourist income and tourist operators take the responsibility for funding of significant numbers of the pumped pans.  Hypothetically, if it were practicable to create more and more evenly distributed dry season pumped pans and keep all operational and available for use by non-elephant herbivbores while simultaneously preventing access of elephants to some on a rotational basis, one might achieve the best of all worlds.

There are currently about 60 operating pans in the Park, which are not evenly distributed.  To the extent that elephants typically remain within 8 km of water, one can conclude that there will be a 200 sq km circle of vegetation to exploit for each pan.  Sixty such circles would equate to 12000 sq km or nearly the entire area of the Park.

However, many of the circles overlap.  Further, those parts of the Park that are not serviced by pumped pans tend to be areas of poor soils and hence poor vegetation productivity.  Nevertheless, it is possible to envisage that an elephant rotation strategy achieved while allowing dry season water access to other species would allow greater numbers of elephants to be maintained in a sustainable way.

This is not to suggest that the currently unsustainable numbers would not remain excessive, merely that the surplus population would be smaller.  The strategy presupposes that the pumped water is a sustainable resource and that pumping is not causing significant aquifer depletion.  However, there is some evidence that current levels of pumping may, indeed, be causing such depletion.

The “traditional” way of dealing with damaging surpluses was population reduction through large scale culls of family groups.  Currently, this is no longer being practised.  There are two reasons given for the abandonment of the approach:  The first posits that it is unethical, presumably because better alternatives are presumed to exist.

The second that it has become unaffordable since the ban on the ivory trade.  However, one is tempted to wonder whether this is not a false reason dreamt up by those who are antipathetic to large scale culling.  Graham Child discussed the economics of culling.  The value of the elephant meat alone was more than enough to cover all cull costs.  Admittedly, both ivory and hide values were each 2.5 times greater than meat value despite the culls being undertaken on family groups such that many of the elephants were small and without much ivory.

Child laid great emphasis on the fact that, in his view, the cull was necessary for the good of the Park’s habitat and would have been undertaken even if it had not been profitable.  It must be understood that a one-off large scale population reduction cull designed to reduce the elephant population to the maximum number that is sustainable must logically be followed by annual culls to prevent the number from growing again.  Annual culls will not necessarily require the culling of entire family groups.  Instead, substandard and senescent individuals could be selected and opportunities would arise to derive income from foreign hunters.