Elephants at Savuti waterhole

Elephants are a keystone species in ecological systems, thinning woodland, creating areas of grassland or savannah and having a massive influence on the flora but also the other fauna of an area.  Where they survive in Africa they are generally a threatened species – suffering from poaching, habitat loss or closure of migration routes that enable them to move from area to area to find food and water.  Movement and the ability to disperse is a survival technique that also prevents sustained damage to forests, dry woodlands and plant species in particular areas; availability of water year round can deter dispersal and so escalate likely damage to vegetation.  Estimates of the numbers of elephants remaining on the continent vary and are not precise.  The Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) puts totals at between 470,000 and 690,000 while the Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) says that a 2012 census showed definite, verifiable numbers at 422,955 (down from the definite figure on 2007 of 472,134) but with the possibility that there could be as many as another 235,896 (this possible figure was 3,000 higher in 2007).  What is clear is that across much of Africa, the numbers are declining.

My own observations in September this year, in the Savuti Marsh and Linyanti Marsh sectors of the wider Chobe conservation area, showed large numbers of elephants with good-sized family herds each with a large number of young.  The local rangers expressed concern that the abundance of water in the Chobe River, Savuti Channel and Linyanti Marsh meant that numbers were expanding both through natural reproduction and by herds being attracted from other areas by the water and the lush vegetation.  While this is a boon for the tourist industry and looked fine during the wet season, the rangers said that come the dry season and the loss of much of the surface water along with green vegetation, large numbers of the young would die and there would be further damage to the mopane trees and areas of dry woodland as the elephants would be forced to tear down trees for food.  One can argue that this will serve over time as a natural means of limiting numbers, but it hasn’t done so, as the expanding numbers show.  It has led to environmental degradation that affects bio-diversity and will adversely affect other species which will lose food or cover. It is noticeable in some of the areas I visited that while grassland was expanding and along with it grazing species like buffalo, there was an absence of species that prefer bush or woodland with browse vegetation or cover for protection.

Scientific evidence suggests that the population in the Chobe area, in particular, is reaching potentially dangerous levels which could lead to severe environmental effects and ultimately a massive die-off in prolonged dry periods.  The carrying capacity of land is in the region of 0.4 elephants per sq km (varying obviously according to water availability, nature of vegetation).  In Chobe there are 6.41 elephants per sq km (over 71,000 elephants).  Okavango also has a problem, with 1.69 per sq. km.  This gives the Botswana government and wildlife department a major long-term problem.  Tourism is an important source of income (producing some 12% of GDP) through the development of high-cost, low volume, sustainable tourism.  In Chobe and the Okavango, the prospect of seeing large herds of elephants is one of the major selling points for safari operators and the country’s tourist board.  Elephants are not just a keystone species in the Botswana eco-system but an economic asset.  But like all assets they need management to ensure continuity of income and husbanding of resources.

Botswana has probably the most successful tourism and conservation management system in Africa.  It not only carefully manages tourism to get a balance between income and the environment but has also largely indigenized the industry in terms of employment and increasingly management.  In conservation areas it has traditionally mixed well-protected national parks or reserves with private safari and hunting reserves.  Lessons from other countries and from its own loss of rhino through poaching 30 years ago have been learned and the DWNP with strong support from the Botswana Defence Force have cut poaching dramatically – the current President and former BDF chief, Ian Khama, is fiercely committed to conservation and has banned all hunting of game species and all trophy hunting (including elephants) from January 2014.


Linyanti woodland destroyed by elephants

But ironically, the conservation success now presents the problem of what to do about an elephant population that is nationally four times higher than the estimated carrying capacity, and in Chobe is vastly more threatening than that.  Past management measures have included culling, some translocation and the development of wider conservation areas crossing the borders with Zimbabwe, Namibia and Zambia (through the Kovango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area).  But the issue of managing numbers and environments is becoming more and more urgent as the spiralling population threatens eco-systems, other species and increases the possibility of elephant-human conflict when herds are forced into farming areas in search of food in the dry season.  The DWNP is drawing up a new management plan, as it recognizes that local overabundance of elephants can impact negatively on conservation.  The challenge it faces is to accurately calculate the optimum numbers of elephants any area can hold to achieve the protection of habitats and other species, prevent or reverse elephant damage, optimize the economic benefits of elephants but also to ensure continued protection of elephants and prevent poaching, while not allowing elephant numbers to affect other ecologically and economically important species.  The loss of antelope species and large herds would then have a knock-on effect on predators such as lions, leopards, wild dogs and hyenas, also major tourist magnets for the safari industry.

The options are limited for a number of reasons – cost, logistics, the sheer size and strength of animals individually and as a herd and public/global opinion.  The possible measures are the  erection of barriers;  translocation; promoting dispersal and the opening up of migration routes; culling and controlled or spot removals; totally protecting selected stands of vegetation by excluding elephants, and in some cases other herbivores, using electric or cable fences.  But these will require substantial funding, while barriers and fences to protect vegetation could attract opposition from wildlife lobbies (as happened in the 80s and 90s with the erection of veterinary fences for the cattle industry) and be unattractive in terms of the important tourism industry – where the high cost of tourism can be maintained partly through the wilderness quality of the Chobe and Okavango areas.  Translocation is on paper an attractive answer as it does not kill or contain elephants and could offer means of helping revive populations elsewhere threatened by poaching – but it is costly, logistically difficult and highly stressful and potentially dangerous for elephants and has limited application.  Promoting dispersal through transfrontier migration routes/corridors and the removals or barriers is attractive but the region as a whole (including Zimbabwe and Namibia) has too many elephants and it also has the danger of channelling elephants through areas where they could come into increased conflict with people.  There is also the problem along the Chobe border with Namibia’s Caprivi Strip of the Windhoek government’s sensitivity over Caprivi nationalism and the consequent desire for secure, fenced borders.  Finally, culling is an obvious solution but one that is again costly (as CITES is less and less likely to agree to limited ivory sales from culls and to fund culls as elephant herds are being decimated by poachers in Central Africa and poaching is on the increase in East Africa and Zimbabwe) and is the option most strenuously resisted by wildlife and conservation NGOs. It also can damage tourism if people stay away because of disapproval of culling. Culling, the Botswana government has suggested, is not being considered in the short-term, though one suspects that it may be unavoidable five or ten years down the road as numbers continue to increase.

It is ironic that a successful conservation policy has now created a problem that will not go away and has presented the Botswana government with very difficult choices.  The elephant issue cannot be ignored without risking a future catastrophe but there is no simple solution and in putting together a new management plan, the Khama government will have to perform a careful balancing act and be willing to take tough and even unpopular decisions.
Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, teaches in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent and edits the Africa – News and Analysis website.