I recently returned from a study abroad trip to South Africa focused on wildlife conservation and as such many of the upcoming topics will be focused on conservation in Africa. The trip was  incredible and as students we were allowed  interact more with Africa’s amazing wildlife than most tourists. We also had the opportunity to speak with some of Africa’s leading experts in wildlife and wildlife management. One topic they kept returning to was the elephant, Loxodonta africana, problem in South Africa.

Although elephants were once decimated by uncontrolled hunting and poaching, they have managed to recover quite successfully in southern Africa. According to the IUCN’s elephant specialist group southern Africa was home to roughly 320,000 elephants in 2007 (IUCN). Although they also stated 15,000 were recruited, generally recruited means they have reached breeding age, into the population in 2006 alone. Given this it is reasonable to assume a current population for southern Africa around 400,000 or more, and according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service there is an estimated 600,000 elephants across the entire continent of Africa (USFWS). One of our lecturers on the subject of elephants, Ralf Kalwa- retired after nearly 30 years of working in Kruger National Park, informed us that when Kruger was first established in the early 1900’s there were only 12 elephants in the park. Now the park holds an estimated 13,050 elephants according to a recent survey by Dr. Ian Whyte (Kruger).

At first glance this seems like a major success. However there is a darker side to elephant conservation in that too many elephants are a problem for the environment. As our lectures on elephants were focused on South Africa, and particularly Kruger, I will stick to this area for the discussion. While Kruger may have 13,000 elephants it originally could only sustain 7,000 elephants. Back in the day this was not a problem as park officials were able to maintain the parks elephant population at this level through translocation and culling of excess elephants. Then in the 1980s things got out of hand.

Elephant numbers started to become a problem in the 80s after parks officials were told they cold no longer cull elephants. Culling means removing excess animals by lethal means. Preservationist groups, which believe in hands off management of wildlife and as such are against killing as well, were behind this change. This left only translocation as a method of controlling elephant numbers. But suitable habitat is limited and Kruger has now run out of space to move their elephants to. As such, elephants have exceeded the carrying capacity of the park and are now destroying large areas through over feeding. We visited one reserve which had dropped its fences with Kruger only 18 months prior to our visit and found that the elephants had already destroyed nearly 25% of its trees, particularly marula, Sclerocarya birrea, and knob thorn acacia, Acacia nigrescens.

If nothing is done to prevent this destruction elephants may soon push their environment to far. Many experts we spoke to predict a population crash will soon take place in which 90% or more of Kruger’s elephants will be lost, not to mention all the other species affected by the habitat loss associated with elephant overpopulation. Elephant are magnificent creatures and something must be done to stop this. In order to prevent this disaster control must be taken back from the preservationist groups and returned to the wildlife experts so that they may practice proper, science based conservation techniques.

End Note: If anyone can provide more recent data on elephants from a reliable source such as IUCN or CITES please leave a comment here or send a link to okie_archer@hotmail.com.

References:

  • IUCN Species Survival Commission: Elephant Specialist Group. http://www.african-elephant.org/aed/pdfs/aesr2007s.pdf
  • Kruger Park Wildlife Encounters http://krugerparkencounters.wordpress.com/2012/02/17/elephant-census-proves-positive/
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service http://www.fws.gov/international/DIC/species/afe/afe_facts_current_cons.html
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