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Elephants: Beyond Borders In Southern Africa

Elephants: Beyond Borders In Southern Africa

Southern Africa is home to almost two-thirds of Africa’s elephants. The conditions in which elephants find themselves in the region vary considerably, from small, relatively isolated populations in some instances, to farmed environments in others, to large, contiguous trans-boundary populations. It is these large populations that extend well beyond the boundaries of national parks, and even countries in many cases, that are of particular conservation interest.

Wild elephants need open natural spaces for their survival. Fencing, or providing artificial support systems, like water and food, might seem to be the right approach, but may not work as a long-term conservation strategy. Photo: by Rudi van Aarde.

One thing that has often struck me when engaging in discussion and debates on the threats confronting elephant populations in the wild is that these often focus on symptoms as opposed to causes and thus solutions to problems. We all know that the ivory trade and habitat loss (through fragmentation and/or destruction) represent the two most significant threats to wild elephant populations.  We like to talk about this. However, we seldom hear descriptions of what it is that we would like to see the world looking like for elephants 10, 20 or 30 years down the line. This is what I am interested in and this is what the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) concerns itself with within the region: a vision of conserving more than half of Africa’s elephants by ensuring viable populations in secure habitats, across space and time. Now that sounds like a solutions-oriented plan.

Elephants need space

The conceptual notion that certain elephant populations, although spatially separated, may well be part of larger meta-populations, is not new to the world of science. Work conducted on butterflies in the 1980s showed how individual populations comprised a number of sub-populations linked together by immigration and emigration. This might sound rather academic, and you may wonder just how theories about butterflies are related to elephants, but if you ever find yourself in Botswana’s Chobe National Park, the penny will most certainly drop. At the confluence of the Zambezi and Chobe Rivers, where Botswana meets Zimbabwe, and only a stone’s throw away from Namibia and Zambia, elephants move across country borders as if they didn’t exist. And why shouldn’t they? After all, elephants don’t have passports. Officially, this area is known as the Kavango-Zambezi (KAZA) Trans-frontier Conservation Area (TFCA). The presidents of the four countries have officially agreed to a declaration to promote inter-governmental cooperation in conservation and tourism services, thus taking a more regional approach to economic development. And, a number of stakeholders have come to the party to ensure that these initiatives make good biological and ecological sense, thus not valuing them in economic terms alone. While KAZA is only one of a number of important TFCAs in the region, it is a good example of why such initiatives are important.

This is where IFAW’s research partnership with the Conservation Ecology Research Unit (CERU) of the University of Pretoria comes in. IFAW has been working with CERU for over 10 years now in trying to get a handle on the dynamics of elephant populations in southern Africa. Through this partnership, we have looked at the varying situations in which elephant populations occur in the region, how these situations have an impact on the dynamics of the populations concerned, and how elephants interact in their environments. All of this has a direct bearing on policy. Gone are the days of doing science for its own sake. For example, in a multi-year, comprehensive assessment involving a large number of research initiatives, we learned a few things about the elephant populations in the Kruger National Park in South Africa. In the past, culling was implemented to control elephant numbers, the “scientific” rationale being that elephant populations were increasing at alarming rates and thus destroying habitats. However, what we learned was that if you put up fences, thereby isolating populations, and provide elephants with lots of water through artificial sources, you interfere directly with their dynamics, which could have “unwanted” consequences. By providing water, for example, the elephants don’t have to move very far to gain access to it and thus could have localised impact, however that is defined. In recent years Kruger managers and scientists have accepted and are implementing a spatial management framework for Kruger’s elephants, based on reducing human interferences (water provision, fencing) and focused on understanding how and why elephants use space. This is an important shift and moves management policies away from archaic agricultural approaches to one based on sound ecological principles.

The idea of connecting elephant populations in southern Africa through a network of key linkages will help redress the problems of fragmentation, habitat loss, encroachment, human-animal conflict, but this will need inter-governmental cooperation. Photo: IFAW/D. Willetts.

Elephant Connectivity

The idea of connecting elephant populations in southern Africa through a network of key linkages makes a great deal of sense for a number of reasons. First, the reality in Africa is that habitats are becoming more and more fragmented. Initiatives that aim to redress this fragmentation present the most viable, long-term solutions for the maintenance of genetically viable elephant populations across African landscapes. Second, with habitat loss and fragmentation comes encroachment and thus increased conflict between local communities and elephants. The maintenance of ecologically sensible linkages will ensure that space is not a limiting factor for elephants and thus go a long way in reducing levels of human-elephant conflict in the region. Third, it is clear that you cannot manage elephants in a vacuum, that inter-governmental cooperation is required…and that having one overarching roadmap for elephant conservation in the region will have direct bearing on socio-economic development in the region.

Ultimately, what IFAW and CERU have set out to achieve in the region is to let elephants tell us their story first. Once we understand that, we will be in a much better position to make important management and land-use decisions. The good news is that we have come a long way in this regard. We now know that Kruger’s elephant population has stabilised. We see this in northern Botswana, too. We are coming to grips with what is driving this stability. But, at the end of the day, having a network of populations across the region, some increasing, others stable and some in decline, will present a viable ecologically-sound solution for elephants. The key is in maintaining this and here is where management and land-use planning comes in – at the nexus where science meets policy.

Author: Jason Bell, First appeared in: Sanctuary Asia Vol. XXXIII No.5, October 2013.


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