(Source – Koedoe Vol 59, no 1 2017)

Are there too many elephants? What is the solution? These are questions we get asked regularly.

South African National Parks (SANParks) manage landscapes rather than numbers of elephants (Loxodonta africana) to mitigate the effects that elephants may have on biodiversity, tourism and stakeholder conservation values associated with protected areas. This management philosophy imposes spatial variability of critical resources on elephants. Restoration of such ecological processes through less intensive management predicts a reduction in population growth rates from the eras of intensive management. Collated aerial survey data since 1995 and conducted aerial total count using a helicopter observation platform during 2015 indicated that a minimum of 17 086 elephants were resident in the Kruger National Park (KNP). The data also indicated a growth of 4.2% per annum over the last generation of elephants (i.e. 12 years), compared to 6.5% annual population growth noted during the intensive management era ending in 1994. This may come from responses of elephants to density and environmental factors manifested through reduced birth rates and increased mortality rates.

Authorities should continue to evaluate the demographic responses of elephants to landscape scale interventions directed at restoring the limitation of spatial variance in resource distribution on elephant spatiotemporal dynamics and the consequences that may have for other conservation values.

The Kruger National Park is vast, at about 2 million hectares, and requires a thorough management strategy in order to ensure long-term sustainability. Part of that strategy, The Elephant Management Plan’ is currently in force, and covers the period 2013 to 2022. The Plan was compiled by Kruger National Parks’s Management and Scientific Services, including some of the most experienced scientists and wildlife management personnel in the world.

To further explain, SANParks is managing the Kruger elephant population by restoring or mimicking the spatial and temporal aspects of the ecosystem that impact on elephant spatial use. In other words, let natural processes determine elephant populations and movement. This Plan contrasts with the previous elephant management strategy, which focused on attempting to limit elephant numbers. There are major factors that impact on elephant populations and on where elephants currently choose to roam – primarily in search of water and food.

Some of these factors have historically been introduced by man, examples being fences and artificial water points. Some of these man-induced contributing factors can be removed or altered significantly over time, and others are here to stay. Removing some of these factors generates its own set of consequences for elephants and beyond elephants. For example, removing certain artificial water points will in time suppress elephant population growth and encourage more natural (seasonal) use of that area by elephants – but it will probably also change tourist behaviour, and possibly make Kruger camps and privately-run lodges in the area less commercially viable. Tourists bring in the cash for elephant conservation. Circles within circles.

Elephants are long-lived creatures that will take time to adapt to the current strategy to mitigate the mistakes of the past, and this lag effect means that this is not a ‘one day game’, as they say in cricket. This is a long-term plan that has to deal as best it can with the short and medium term consequences of historical strategies, while it builds its own momentum in the journey to restoring natural ecological processes.

Also remembering that many of the major factors that influence elephant populations and movement are here to stay, so the likely end goal is not utopia. And this has to happen in a rapidly changing world, where human populations are growing rapidly, where conservation legislative changes are driven by political forces and where conservation funding is hard to find. The Kruger Elephant Management Plan does not involve hunting or culling in the long run but it may involve culling as a short-term measure to address the influence of historical elephant management strategies on current elephant numbers and behaviour. This is an extremely complex situation, involving 37 Kruger landscapes and multiple dynamic influencing factors – and so the Plan is accordingly dynamic, agile and reactive.

Kruger’s elephants are also now part of a regional population, with fences having been removed in places (west into private South African game reserves and north/east into Zimbabwe and Mozambique) – and therefore are no longer spatially restricted to Kruger. Much of their current patterns of landscape use seems to be predicated on water availability. Despite the ongoing changes in management strategy, elephants continue to use certain landscapes intensely, due to lags in responding to change from historical strategies. Therefore, targeted short- to medium-term reactive management responses may be required. These could include excluding elephants from selected areas using fences, scaring elephants with noise disturbances and localised reduction in densities through removal by translocation or culling.