Africa has many very valuable natural living assets that could be managed sustainably, given the will and the mindset.
One such living asset and also one of Africa’s most valuable resources is the African elephant – not only the “flagship of “Wild Africa”, but also a “keystone” species, an environmental “engineer” – the last and great of the terrestrial mega-herbivores that have walked our planet - and unlike diamonds and gold, the elephant is a sustainable living resource.
But how are we treating these gentle giants?
For decades the African elephant has been treated with disrespect and exploited mainly by trophy hunting, the ivory trade and consequential horrific poaching. Our immediate question now is: What is the situation of elephants in Africa today?
After extensive conservation efforts, Africa’s elephant population peaked at about 1,3 million individuals at the beginning of the 1980’s – but only for a short period.
In the face of financial and other limiting resources as well as a second wave of ivory wars in many newly independent African states, elephant numbers in Africa halved in recent years. Besides trophy hunting and the demand for ivory, which is behind most of the illegal killings or poaching of elephants – elephant leather and meat are also considered valuable products in Africa.
The good news is: in South Africa, the number of protected areas, game reserves and game ranches increased tremendously over the past two decades - but so has the number of elephants. As a consequence of the rising in the number of elephants in protected areas, the ecosystems that contain elephants and the people that live adjacent to elephant populations are perceived to be coming under increasing threat. This urged the undertaking of a Scientific Assessment of Elephant Management in South Africa during 2007.
Various direct and indirect elephant management options are available and are considered. These include amongst other: range manipulation; trans- or re-locations; contraception, vasectomies and culling. Whatever management option chosen, it must be remembered that elephants are highly intelligent creatures with rich emotional lives, complex social structures and ways of communicating, traditions, memories and highly sentient forms of awareness.
Elephant management clearly continues to be a debatable topic, but all agree that there are two approaches, namely direct and indirect management. For elephant populations, direct management typically aims to reduce numbers by:
1. increasing death rates (e.g. through culling),
2. decreasing birth rates (e.g. through contraception or vasectomies), or
3. mimicking dispersal (e.g. translocation).
The underlying assumption of direct management actions is that a reduction in elephant numbers will lower the intensity of resource use and will ultimately reduce elephant impact on other species, usually vegetation. Populations are protected and managed indirectly by erecting fences around conservation areas and by providing or not providing additional water.
When considering elephant management options, sound scientific research and knowledge need to be very thoroughly considered. The best management method depends critically on the size and rate of growth of the specific population as well as the size and nature of their specific range (nature reserve, park, or game ranch). Killing or the culling of elephants may for example reduce a population’s numbers in the short-term while, in fact, it will stimulate an increase in the reproduction rate of the population in the long-term.
We must remember that nature is dynamic and recent research shows that in large nature reserves, it is the environment that regulates elephant numbers and not the other way round. Long before elephant populations exceed the carrying capacity and threaten the environment their breeding rate falls – due to a fall in nutrients in their food supply, suppressing their reproduction system.
In relatively small parks or reserves with a limited number of elephants, contraception is proposed as a preferred alternative to relocation or culling.
However, it is possible to use translocation to reduce elephant numbers. In recent years, game reserves such as Phinda, Kapama and Shamwari have removed elephants through translocation to keep elephant numbers down. Currently, the lack of new areas or reserves is the greatest limitation to using translocation as a means of controlling elephant population size within a reserve.
The application of contraceptives to reduce fertility in wildlife, including elephants, is well beyond the research phase with contraceptive trials having started more than 10 years ago. It has also been proven that birth rates can be reduced by treating elephant cows with hormones and their derivates, or with immuno-contraceptives to reduce or control fertility - the latter, without effecting the hormone balance and thus not influencing the behaviour of the elephants.
Presently contraception as a management tool is only regarded as a realistic option for reduce population growth in small, confined elephant populations. In larger populations, there is a concern that contraceptive implementation may be cost prohibitive mainly due to the helicopter costs, or more specifically, the costs of ferrying the helicopter to the site. However, according to a study by Dr, Douw Grobler, an expert on elephant contraception, it would cost about R600 per elephant, whereas culling costs around R3000-R5000 per elephant. Another objective for use of this method in elephants seem to be the fact that it will not have an immediate effect but will only reduce numbers of a long-lived and late reproducing species, like the elephant, in the long term.
The question is: If humanity is to survive in the long term, shouldn’t we make decisions like this, that will serve man in the long term as well?
Leading researchers and elephant specialists in South Africa promotes the management of elephants by manipulating the spaces in which they live. This can be done by:
1. controlling water supplies (opening or closing of waterholes),
2. linking protected areas through the creation of migration corridors or
3. expanding ranges by acquiring additional land.
If elephants are freed from intense interference by humans (mainly fences and waterholes), natural checks and balances on elephant populations – namely emigration and immigration, births and deaths – will be restored. This would reduce pressure on vegetation, and concerns about numbers and loss of biodiversity would become less critical.
The idea of creating “megaparks for metapopulations” of not only elephants – thus transfrontier parks, seems to be the best solution for the preservation and conservation of large animal populations.
However, we do not live in such a world. As a result of the violent history between our species, the extraordinary human population explosion, and the resultant loss of elephant habitat, conservationists must explore various management options to create the best life possible for elephants within current constraints.
Although the elephant situation in Southern Africa seems of minor consequence compared to, for instance, to the challenges of global climate change, both these matters offer us an opportunity to question and revise how we as humans chose to live on this planet.
Whatever choice wildlife managers make when determining how humans treat elephant populations, has consequences that cannot be ignored in any way. The consequences of decisions about the management of elephants affect the lives of thousands of animals, plants, all other living species – including humans, as we are all interdependent on each other.
Let us use our vast store of knowledge about nature, ecosystems, mammals, elephants, ethics and morality to fully respect elephants for what they are: beings so close to us and yet so impressively different.
Too many of any species in a biological systems, first destroy their habitat and then inevitably themselves ...
Comments are closed for this post.
|« Face the facts - humans are the only "unmanaged species"!||Have we forgotten our connection with nature, with life ... »|