By Jared Kukura – Wild Things Initiative
Feeling the pressure of the United Kingdom’s upcoming decision on a trophy hunting import ban, Botswana reiterated their unscientific opinion that the country has too many elephants. In their eyes, hunting is desperately needed to control the population of 130,000 elephants that far exceeds the country’s theoretical carrying capacity of 50,000.
The 50,000 number aligns with a density of 0.2 elephants per sq. km that was derived from an outdated study stating tree loss begins to occur at that elephant density. However, research into ecological benchmarking using historical data shows Botswana’s elephant populations are lower than expected given a scenario of limited poaching.
But elephants live in complex and dynamic environments. The idea carrying capacity can be accurately calculated in highly variable environments, even with the best intentions, is unfounded.
And many hunting advocates attempt to leverage this scientific uncertainty around elephant densities as justification for lethal population management. Hunting advocates invoke the precautionary principle, stating elephant numbers should be artificially reduced if they could irreversibly damage ecosystems and imperil other species. In other words, better to be safe than sorry.
The precautionary principle has a long history of being used to justify killing elephants in the absence of clear scientific evidence of environmental damage. But the precautionary principle also has a long history of failure when it comes to killing elephants to protect habitats and biodiversity.
Allan Savory admits his experiment of killing 40,000 elephants to prevent desertification in Zimbabwe was a complete failure. He calls this experiment “the saddest and greatest blunder” of his life. Similarly, Kruger National Park’s officials led a decades long culling program to limit elephant numbers under the guise of protecting large tree species. Again, this experiment failed to prove a clear relationship between elephant densities and dead trees.
Both culling experiments came about in the 1960s when wildlife management was still in its infancy. An argument can be made the mistakes can be forgiven because scientific data was at a premium and the understanding of population dynamics in conservation was still progressing.
But modern research confirms what past management decisions demonstrated, there is no ecological reason to artificially reduce Botswana’s elephant. The cries of habitat destruction caused by elephants are unfounded. The habitat is changing because of ungulate populations rebounding from the rinderpest epidemic at the turn of the 20th century.
However, not managing elephant populations makes many people uncomfortable. If lethal population management is off the table, does that mean non-lethal techniques like translocations and contraception must be used? Those methods are often costly and come with their own issues.
Instead of asking how elephant populations should be managed, the question should be if elephant populations need to be managed. Typically, the answer to this question is “yes” because humans have intervened in the natural world by erecting fences and restricting resources. However, those anthropogenic interventions are forms of bottom-up regulation techniques that already limit elephant populations. Top-down techniques, lethal or not, are both redundant and unnatural.
Many African herbivores evolved larger sizes, in part, as a predator defense mechanism. Species larger than 150 kg have few natural predators and are bottom-up regulated in terms of population numbers. Species larger than 1,000 kg, like elephants, generally have no natural predators once they pass their juvenile stage and have populations regulated by the availability of resources. Essentially, restrict resources to restrict elephant populations.
Despite the propensity to classify humans as super predators, early Homo sapiens likely did not naturally regulate elephant populations. Archaeological evidence shows Middle Stone Age sites in Africa were devoid of elephants. Elephants, like most large herbivores, have a slow life history and would have been especially susceptible to extinction if humans naturally targeted them as a prey species.
Taking a hands-off approach to elephant management forces us to accept that we cannot control nature, something we have been fighting to accomplish for generations. But this laissez faire approach is not a novel idea when it comes to African wildlife.
Tony Sinclair was heavily criticized in the 1960s for allowing the Serengeti wildebeest population to balloon to previously unrecorded numbers. Biologists condemned Sinclair’s failure to implement lethal control over the wildebeest population and feared a complete ecological collapse was inevitable.
Sinclair believed wildebeest numbers would eventually stabilize at an appropriate level given the amount of resources available. And he was right. His experiment showed wildebeest numbers were resource dependent and eventually stabilized. There was no ecological collapse in the Serengeti due to wildebeest overpopulation.
It is clear Botswana does not have too many elephants and hunting will not have any impact on preventing a theoretical ecological collapse. Yet, the country continues to promote their opinions as scientific facts. If the country wishes to base their opinions on experiments from the 1960s, perhaps they should consider the ones that were successful and not the ones that failed.