The myth of “too many elephants”

Jul 4, 2024 | Commentary

By Ross Harvey – Business Live

There are three major problems with the idea that elephant numbers have exploded

If you’ve had a conversation with anyone recently returned from the Kruger National Park (KNP), you’re likely to hear: “It was lekker, but there are too many elephants. The damage to the trees is crazy.”

The idea is often linked to thinking that suggests culling  elephants as a “necessary evil” to manage numbers and reopening global trade in ivory. I’ve written at length on why the latter is a poor policy idea. But there are three major problems with the idea of “too many elephants” that need to be addressed.

First, the idea that reduced poaching has exploded elephant numbers feeds a myth that the Kruger’s “carrying capacity” has been exceeded and that “too many elephants” destroy big trees, especially knob thorn and marula. Incidentally, reduced poaching has had little effect on population growth rates. But the myths persist because of historical thinking in conservation that idealises wild landscapes as static entities that must possess a certain unchanging proportion of beautiful old trees to other plants and animals.

However, wild landscapes are not farms that must strike a balance between marauding elephants and old trees. Wild landscapes the size of the Greater Kruger — now nearly 2.5-million hectares — require heterogeneous, dynamic impact, which renders concepts like “carrying capacity” obsolete. In other words, the space is technically large enough to enable elephant populations to increase naturally and engineer the landscape the way nature intended.

By way of evidence, a 2022 scientific paper indicates that there has been no decrease in heterogeneity in the Kruger Park since the 1990s, despite elephant populations having grown a little faster than 4.1% a year on average post-culling. There are about 30,000 elephants now and KNP management has not suggested that this is “too many”. A 2017 paper is similarly clear that elephants are important seed dispersal agents, able to carry seeds up to 65km away from the parent tree. They open thickets of invasive species and thin out trees that are too thickly concentrated. This creates habitats for a variety of other species to flourish.

A 2019 review paper showed that “maintaining elephant numbers at a predetermined carrying capacity level did not prevent the loss of large trees”. My conclusion on this paper at the time was that “in large ecosystems, managing elephant numbers so they don’t exceed a certain threshold number is arbitrary”.     

Evidence for the importance of heterogeneity undermines the usefulness of the carrying capacity concept. Scientists Phyllis Lee, Keith Lindsay and Katarzyna Nowak say: “Much of the research community, and many managers, accept that ecosystem structure and function are not about elephant numbers but instead about elephant distribution across a landscape and in relation to plant communities.”

Conservationist Ian McDonald has similarly written that the idea of carrying capacity derived from an outdated Hwange Game Reserve management policy that had no scientific basis. Good management is ultimately about dispersion and concentration. A high density of elephants in one area may result in some aesthetically undesirable impacts, but these are largely temporary.    

It is true that some vegetation in the Greater Kruger has been unduly affected. However, this is not because elephants are arbitrary tree destroyers. Elephant density has increased in the Associated Private Nature Reserves, for instance, due to the high number of artificial waterholes. The elephant population in the private reserves grew from 1,666 in 2012 to 3,144 in 2021.

Inward migrations should be anticipated if artificial water sources are opened so that each fancy lodge can offer tourists their “own” elephants. An abundance of artificial water sources also runs counter to the Kruger’s own strategy. To KNP management’s credit, its present elephant management strategy steers clear of controlling numbers and towards managing impact for maximum heterogeneity.

A major strategy has been to close two-thirds of the estimated  400 artificial waterpoints to manage the spatial distribution of elephants. The key point is that negative impact (where that actually occurs, not just where tourists perceive it occurs) is more a function of artificial waterpoint placement than of elephant density per se.

Moreover, tourist experiences of KNP are necessarily biased, as they can see only about 20% of the park’s entire vegetation range from the roads. Roads tend to increase the “encounter rate” between elephants and trees, a scientific way of saying that elephants whack trees closer to roads more than those further away. Tourist roads also tend to run along rivers and close to waterholes, which naturally maximise the game-viewing experience. The resultant negative effect on trees is predictable and can be managed.

Second, the myth of “too many” elephants supports the logic of “harvesting excess” elephants, which rationalises trophy hunting (and even culling) today. The term “harvesting” dresses these interventions up as legitimate, scientific conservation tools. Worse, it provides sanitised language for culling. The truth is that culling elephants amounts to the literal slaughter of families of sentient, long-lived beings. Elephants are so like humans in their mental and social capacities that it is highly subversive to liken them to inanimate crops that can be “harvested”.

Moreover, culling was implemented in KNP before the relationship between elephant density and large tree cover was established scientifically. Ecologically, we now know elephants start to disperse once they reach a certain density, and the population growth rate naturally starts to slow down. Ironically, culling prevents this threshold density from being reached, and it caused abnormally high levels of population growth rates in the park; the population growth rate has since been successfully reduced (from more than 6% to just above 4%) by closing two-thirds of the artificial waterpoints.

What is clear from the culling debacle (where 14,629 elephants were slaughtered in SA alone from the 1960s to the 1990s) is that we destroy our own humanity by destroying elephants. For this reason it is probably also “inhumane and illegal” under SA law. This country ended culling in the 1990s because it lacked scientific justification, generated international opprobrium and caused long-lasting trauma both to orphaned elephants and the human executioners. Or, in the words of a paper by Hennie Lötter: “We have a prima facie case not to kill elephants, as all humans have both a moral reason not to kill, as well as an absence of economic or survival reasons to kill.” 

Third, the idea that there are “too many elephants” betrays an ignorance of the nature of elephants in maintaining healthy ecosystems. They are not just one modest component of a habitat — they often create that habitat, provided that heterogeneity is maintained. Elephants are a “keystone” species and their population health in the landscape positively affects the health of interconnected and dependent species. We should not be slaves to static, subjective aesthetic preferences but instead committed to ensuring long-term, dynamic, ecological sustainability. Putting elephants at the centre of that is scientifically and morally desirable.   

Earlier in 2024, the government released an updated Biodiversity Economy Strategy, which envisages a huge revenue increase from trophy hunting (“harvesting”) of big five animals. For the reasons outlined above, and others, this sort of policy thinking needs to be reversed.         

• Harvey is the director of research and programmes at Good Governance Africa.

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