By Jared Kukura – Wild Things Initiative
Elephants are heavily criticized for habitat destruction in many South African countries. Kruger and Chobe are seen as elephant sanctuaries where their large populations put other species’ survival at risk. But how can there be too many elephants when their population decreased 97% in the last century?
Let’s be very clear here, there are no such thing “too many” elephants in this day and age. Elephant populations are a tiny fraction of what they once were and are steadily declining. Down from an estimated 12 million in the early 1900s to about 300,000 today, the idea of elephant overpopulation is a misnomer. This misnomer allows elephants to be demonized across most of Southern Africa.
For many, the connection between elephants and woodland destruction seems crystal clear. Elephants strip bark and uproot trees. If there are more elephants there will be more destructive behavior leading to less trees. Less trees means certain species lose their preferred habitat and biodiversity declines. Not to mention elephants will eventually starve after eliminating their own food sources.
The 2014 elephant trophy hunting ban was recently lifted in Botswana. The rational being there are simply too many elephants in the country and their numbers need to be reduced. Human-elephant conflict is on the rise and there are fears the ecosystem is falling apart in the Chobe area because elephants are destroying the woodland habitats.
However, studies in Chobe show declines in woodland habitats are not due to elephants destroying trees but due to large densities of impala. Elephants have and will always destroy trees but they also eat the trees fruit and disperse seeds as they move through the landscape.
Seed dispersal is integral to the regrowth of previously decimated woodlands. Elephants are taking away mature trees but providing opportunities for new trees to grow. Impala seem to be the limiting factor that changes the woodlands to scrublands since they actively consume seedlings.
Kruger has long been in the debate of whether or not to cull elephants. Its estimated the park has more than double the claimed carrying capacity of 7,000 elephants. The elephants are said to, once again, destroy woodlands and put their own species’ future at risk along with many others.
Studies of high elephant densities in Kruger provided mixed results. In some areas where elephants were removed or limited, woodland diversity continued to decline. Other areas with large elephant populations actually saw an increase in woodland diversity. The only thing clear in studying elephants in Kruger is that we don’t actually understand what over population means both in terms of numbers and effects.
Sometimes elephants destroy woodlands, sometimes elephants benefit woodlands. Sometimes biodiversity decreases, sometimes biodiversity increases. We don’t understand how the natural world functions with all flora and fauna interacting together.
Today what we see as healthy may have been a result of our own introduced diseases. Just because wildlife populations are destroying woodlands does not mean the ecosystems are going to collapse.
Diseases like rinderpest ripped through Africa in the late 1800s and decimated many wild ruminant species. Tree species were able to proliferate during this time of reduced browsing pressure from species like impala and wildebeest.
Researchers in Zambia’s Luangwa Valley also estimate elephant numbers flux and wane in a two hundred-year cycle. Populations grow and suppress woodland growth that lowers their numbers and allows woodlands to grow back and support larger populations again.
For our species to think there is an inherent balance or equilibrium to nature is ignorant. For our species to think we can determine and maintain equilibrium is absurd. The fact is elephant numbers are down considerably due to our own actions. Its time we challenge the idea of “too many” elephants whether stated by trophy hunters or scientists.
If scientific evidence points to elephants reaching their theoretical carrying capacity, the conclusion must be the carrying capacity needs to increase. We can increase carrying capacities by protecting more land and connecting what is already protected. It is unacceptable to continue saying there are too many elephants when they’re heading towards extinction.
The idea we have too many of a species doesn’t only affect African wildlife. Bison in North America face the same challenges. After being hunted to near extinction they survive today. But they’re culled every year to protect what little habitat they have left. Read here for more on that topic.