The Elephant Controversy 

The Elephant Controversy 

A family group of elephants coming to the water to drink.

As a rule, I steer clear of controversial subjects in this column. They are both inappropriate and unnecessary. However, I do feel that some topics are worthy, and the subject of The Elephant Controversy is just such an issue. That said, the views expressed below are my own, and do not reflect those of Cross Country in any way… Prior to delving deeper into this subject per se, there are several terms one should clarify. 

An ‘animal lover‘ is someone who is fond of animals, who feels an EMOTIONAL attachment to animals, and (this next part is my personal opinion) who always wants what is best for the individual animal. A ‘conservationist’, on the other hand, is defined as a person who “advocates or acts for the protection and preservation of the environment and wildlife”.In other words, there is a far more comprehensive approach, a strategic approach, a SCIENTIFIC approach, to the natural world which encompasses the entire system. There is an understanding that the survival of the wilderness depends on a holistic methodology. All animal lovers are not necessarily conservationists, whilst I would argue that generally conservationists are animal lovers. Which often makes their job challenging, as some of the solutions are not necessarily in the interests of the individual animal. 

The definition of ‘carrying capacity’ in the field of ecology is effectively the number of animals that a region can support without environmental degradation and without threatening other species in that habitat. You could also define it as the number of individuals in a population of a species which an ecosystem can support or sustain in terms of resources – in the LONG TERM. It doesn’t help to estimate the carrying capacity of an area in a bumper year of rains, because that same area needs to support the same game in years of scarcity/drought as well – ideally without permanent damage to the land. You get the idea…

Another point: sometimes it is acceptable to consider all opinions and still be unsure of what one’s final point of view is… This is an in-depth subject without an easy answer. Long, long ago, when training as a field guide, I attended a lecture by Ron Thomson who spoke on the subject of elephants in the Chobe National Park and the damage that they were doing. It had a huge impact on me, perhaps even causing the dawning of the realisation that conservation conclusions weren’t necessarily cut and dried, and often involved distasteful solutions.

Two lonely large trees on the banks of the Chobe River.

As a starting point for this debate, one needs to get one’s mind around the fact that animals are no longer free to roam and expand their population out of their home range. All parks, no matter how extensive, are ultimately still managed areas with people living on their borders. 

Let’s explore this issue by focusing on the area we have been discussing in the last few columns, the Chobe National Park. But be aware that many of the same issues are being raised in areas such as the Kruger National Park. One needs to understand layer after layer of facts to get the true crux of the matter of what we are currently facing in these areas. So, let’s begin…

Adult African elephants eat around 150 kg of food a day. They also need to drink about 70 to 100 litres of water daily but can easily consume between 100 to 200 litres. If one looks at the environment as a starting point, the Chobe River is a permanent water source. During the dry months of the year (May to October), it is often the ONLY water source. The park becomes ever more parched as the dry season progresses and, as the inland waterholes dry up, so animals, particularly elephants, congregate at the river in huge numbers. Whilst this is superb for game viewing, it is a disaster for the vegetation in the area when the carrying capacity for elephants in the area has been significantly exceeded. There is an impact on the elephants as well – each day they need to walk further to find sufficient quantities of food, and then return for their daily drink. It is a cycle which is not sustainable…

The baobab trees are also becoming a casualty of the high-density elephant populations.

From August to October 2022, seven aircraft surveyed over 40,000 miles of southern Africa’s Kavango Zambezi Trans-Frontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) to estimate the number and distribution of Africa’s largest savanna elephant populations. It makes sense that Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe collaborated on this project, as the elephant populations in the regions are fluid, moving regularly across country borders. The final count? 227 900 elephants in the region. It is estimated that Botswana is home to around 130 000 of these animals. Whilst elephant carrying capacities are a highly controversial subject, and there is huge variation and little agreement on numbers, there is fairly common consensus that there are too many elephants in the Chobe National Park.

Loxodonta Africana, the African Savanna Elephant, is listed as endangered on the IUCN red list – which in itself is fairly controversial in many circles. But this fact makes the discussion even more complicated. Until you consider that the mandate (or even simply good conservation practice) is that National Parks preserve biodiversity.

In an article written by Brian Child, he states that “If you enter Chobe National Park along the original road from Kasane town, you pass a small, ruined house on the banks of the Chobe River near the old park gate. This was built by my father in 1965. Set among huge trees, this house overlooked the dense, tall reedbeds of the Chobe floodplain”. His father kept copious notes, which is how we know that in 1965, 299 trees lined a mile-long river transect from our Chobe camp, including 17 species of big, impressive giants. Few are left. “To quantify these losses, we repeated dad’s early transects along the riverbank. Much to our surprise, there were now slightly more “trees”—324, to be exact. However, 270 of these—83%—were the scrubby bush Croton megalobotrus and three species (Markhamia obtusfoliaMarkamia zanzibarica and Capparis tomentosa) not previously present had colonized the riverbank. (Tomentosa is actually a vine that grows into the tree layer and can be self-supporting.) The huge knobthorns, Senegalia nigrescens, that had constituted 51% of the forest were now down to 1.3% and only four of the 152 large ones present in 1965 had survived. Six slow-growing large species had disappeared altogether. The only real “trees” to survive are the unpalatable (to elephants) Natal mahoganies, Tricelia emetica.” See the info block for the whole article.

The martial eagle requires large trees in which to nest.

There are many birds which nest only in large trees – the martial eagle for example. Consider the reduction of nesting sites as a direct result of the elephants destroying the trees. Ground Hornbills almost always nest in a large, natural tree cavity a couple of feet off the ground – once again, none to be found, or only in very limited numbers, as a result of the elephants. 

Elephants also know that baobabs store water and especially in the dry season when water is scarce, they look for baobab trees to quench their thirst. They also use them as a source of food. As the elephant herds increase in size, and the park areas remain static, more and more of these trees are being decimated – some of which are thousands of years old…

Consider animals such as the Chobe Bushbuck which are dependent on the cover offered by forests, dense bush and thickets. This animal is becoming progressively more rare along the Chobe River Front.

Male elephants destroy far more trees than females, and it is believed that many of these incidents relate to demonstrations of physical prowess and thus the attendant position of the animal in the bachelor hierarchies.

Elephant herds continue to do elephant things – blissfully unaware of the looming disaster. 

Many are trying to find solutions to this dilemma – beyond the obvious answer of culling. An interesting approach to this problem was taken by Dr Lucy King who did her research in Kenya. It clearly showed that African honeybees can be used to protect crops from crop-raiding elephants, thus increasing human-elephant co-existence around protected areas. Elephants Alive’s Dr Michelle Henley and South African National Parks extrapolated this research, together with various partners, to test the theory with Marula trees – one of the elephants’ favourite trees to abuse! The results show that beehives can decrease tree mortality by six-fold – see the article below in the info box. The larger solution becomes more difficult as it is clearly not possible to hang hives in all the large trees in, for example, The Chobe National Park – or The Kruger National Park for that matter…

This issue needs resolving, and those intimately involved in preserving the wilderness are working tirelessly to find solutions. But they are hampered every step of the way by, primarily, overseas groups who get public buy-in and proceed to create a Public Relations nightmare. The reality is that we need African solutions for what is an African problem. Those individuals who have literally given their lives to protecting our wilderness should at least have earned the right to be heard, and the evidence to be considered in a non-emotional manner. 

Animal lovers and conservationists alike should do what is right for the species as a whole. The only way this is going to happen is if people understand the real issues behind the decisions, and then make decisions in a pragmatic, non-emotional way. The future of our wilderness depends on this…

Jacqui Ikin & The Cross Country Team


Elephants: A Crisis of Too Many, Not Too Few. By Brian Child:

Protecting Trees with Bees:

Efforts under way to save baobab trees from being destroyed by the bushveld’s biggest animal:

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