Why Elephants are Dying in Botswana?

Submission to Daily Maverick by Ron Thomson.

Over the last several weeks some 400 elephants have (so far this year) died mysterious deaths in Botswana; and the reports suggest that there are many more sick animals wandering about the game reserves. I feel confident enough, at this stage, therefore, to predict that a lot more elephants are going to die before the end of the current dry season. Anthrax and poison have been ruled out as the cause of these deaths. No tusks have been removed from the carcasses. So, poaching seems not to be the reason, either.

I believe the cause of these deaths is, purely and simply, starvation. I say this with some conviction because I have been predicting that this was going to happen for many years.

I see these deaths, therefore, as something of an apocalyptic event.  They are telling us of a significant elephant die-off that is yet to come. This year? Probably! Next year then? Maybe!

Let me explain why.

For the readers to understand and to accept this prognosis, requires that they have some knowledge and understanding about the history of elephant management.

The first person of authority to declare that there were too many elephants in Botswana was the late Dr Graham Child who, in 1960, was working in what is today called Chobe National Park in Botswana. He was then employed by the United Nations Organisation FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation). He witnessed and recorded the destruction of the Chobe riverine forest which, that year, was already in an advanced stage of damage. He took the trouble to count and to identify all the big trees comprising that forest. Today none of them are still standing. The forest has gone! All the trees were killed by the feeding pressure of too many elephants.

A Camel thorn tree with Sparrow-Weaver nests near the Botswanan border at Tshelanyemba village in south-western Zimbabwe. Source: Wikipedia

He also recorded another forest at Chobe. Six hundred giant camel-thorn trees growing in a single valley away from the river. He determined that these trees were all, uniformly, 400 years old – which suggests (to me) that they grew out of a once extensive and later abandoned agricultural cropland (which is where the seeds of this tree species best germinate en masse). Despite their great size in 1960, today none of those ancient camel-thorns are still standing. All were killed by the feeding pressure of too many elephants after 1960.

There were also smaller forests of Commiphora (Kanniedood) trees growing on sandy hillsides. They too have now all gone.

Graham also recorded the multiple isolated occurrences of various quite common Acacia tree species; African ebonies (Dyospyros); and many others, that were commonly scattered and/or growing on anthills throughout the Ngamiland game reserve habitats between Chobe and Maun. They, too, have all disappeared!

The once common and ancient Baobab tree – some said to be 5000 years old – have mostly already disappeared; or they are damaged beyond redemption.

I, too, can vouch for all Graham Child’s statements about habitat change in Botswana, caused by too many elephants. In 1960-64 I was a young game ranger stationed in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park which adjoins the Chobe. I, too, have seen this all happening – but I did not measure the changes (as Dr Child did).

The elephant carrying capacity of any habitat (or game reserve) can be defined as:

The maximum number of elephants that a habitat can carry without the elephants causing permanent damage to the vegetation.

What I call the sustainable bench-mark elephant habitat carrying capacity can only be measured when a habitat is stable, undamaged and healthy. And there are very few such undamaged and healthy elephant habitats left in Africa today.

This authentic history – of massive habitat damage caused by too many elephants – recorded by reputable people like Graham Child – tells us that Botswana has been carrying far too many elephants since before 1960.

Absolutely nothing has been done about Botswana’s excessive elephant population – ever. Elephant bulls have been hunted on license for many years (prior to 2014); but that had no effect on elephant population numbers. The regular reduction of breeding cows is the only management activity that can reduce population growth. That means culling!

And the fact that no population reduction management has ever taken place is a major cause of today’s elephant deaths in Botswana.

Extrapolating backwards from the year 2000 – when the official elephant count in Botswana was 120 604 – and when the average annual elephant population incremental-rate was 8 percent – I have determined that the elephant population in Botswana in the year 1960 was, roughly, 7500. Today, Botswana admits to carrying at least 130 000 elephants – which is seventeen times greater than the overall elephant population I have calculated for 1960. And in 1960 the elephant population was then already excessive – which is I why I say that Botswana is, today, carrying at least 20 times too many elephants.

In the year 2013, Botswana’s official elephant count was 207 000 – which causes me to question today’s estimate of only 130 000. Are we all to believe that between 2013 and today, the elephant population of Botswana has declined by 77 000? I don’t believe it. Where are all the carcasses? But, let’s not stall this argument on such niceties. Let’s accept the figure 130 000. Which means we also have to accept the estimate that Botswana is currently carrying 17 times too many elephants. Whichever figure you accept, it is clearly infinitely more than the sustainable elephant carrying capacity of the Botswana elephant habitats. And that is the important conclusion we have to make!

Another thing we have to understand about the sustainable elephant carrying capacity of a habitat – and this factor is unmeasurable – is the fact that as a habitat degrades (which happens when it is forced to continuously carry an excessive elephant population), the carrying capacity declines.

Why does the habitat degrade? It degrades because, first of all, the excessive numbers of elephant eat into extinction all their favourite food plants. Then they eat into extinction the less favoured, but still palatable, other plant species. Finally, they will eat any plant left that is not poisonous… simply because they have to eat something.

This state of affairs has been variously in operation in Botswana since before 1960 – getting worse and worse every year. That means Botswana’s elephant habitats have been continuously degrading for more than 60 years! And, in my estimation, this is a major reason why elephants are dying in Botswana today. The habitats have been abused for far too long. They are now in such poor health they cannot produce enough food to keep the massively excessive elephant population numbers alive any more. I am, quite frankly, amazed that it has taken so long to reach this cataclysmic state.

I sincerely believe that the maximum number of elephants that any game reserve in southern Africa should be expected to carry, should be no greater than one elephant per five square kilometres. This is the bench-mark elephant carrying capacity for both Hwange and Kruger National Parks (c.1960). This means that Hwange National Park is carrying 20 times too many elephants today; Gonarezhou is carrying 14 times too many; and Kruger (if the Kruger National Park population really is 32 000 [ref. Joubert]) is carrying 10 times too many. So, I see this over-population-of-elephants problem as not just affecting Botswana. If we carry on mismanaging the elephant populations in all these game reserves, as we are doing at this time, we are going to suffer large-scale elephant die-offs – sooner or later – in every single one of them.

Last year I stated that I believed the Botswana elephant population – as listed on the Great Elephant Census (GEC- 2016) report – had been cooked by the authors. Why? Because they are animal rightists and they wanted to create the illusion that international poachers posed a great threat to Botswana’s reduced elephant numbers. Their purpose was to stop the hunting of elephants in Botswana; and to make sure the closed legal international market in elephant ivory was not re-opened.

I also stated that I believed the Botswana mega-population of elephants (which includes the elephants of North East Namibia; South East Angola; Southern Zambia; Hwange in Western Zimbabwe; and in northern Botswana itself) numbered in excess of 200 000. And, that being the case, I believed that some 100 000 of those elephants needed to be harvested… immediately… to start off with. When considering this recommendation, readers should take into account the fact that elephants are dying in Botswana today from starvation; AND the fact that if you reduced the current overall mega elephant population numbers by half, the habitats will then have twice as much food available to feed those elephants that remained. But 100 000 would not be enough. All these populations should ultimately be reduced to a numerical level that enables the habitats to carry the remaining numbers – sustainably – succoured by a recovering habitat. And because the current sustainable elephant carrying capacities of their habitats have been seriously compromised, after decades of abuse, these elephant populations should not be allowed to increase above a density level any more than one elephant per five square kilometres.

In ecological terms, we have to consider that our national parks were not set aside for the uncontrolled proliferation of elephants. They were set aside to maintain our national parks’ species diversities. And, because every single one of our national parks is now carrying an excessive elephant population, that (in itself) tells us that the elephants are posing a threat to each park’s biological diversity. That, in turn, means – from an elephant management point of view – the elephant populations of each of our national parks need to be drastically reduced to a number that is well below the sustainable elephant carrying capacity.

Our conservation (aka wildlife management) priorities are first for the good and proper management of the soil, because without soil no plants can grow (and without plants there will be no animals); our second conservation priority must be for the good and proper management of the plants because, as I said before, without plants there would be no animals; and our third (and last) priority consideration must be for the good and proper management of the animals. This does NOT mean that animals are un-important, it means that animals are less-important than the soil and the plants. This little mental exercise puts man’s wildlife management priorities into their true and proper perspective. Thus, it must follow, that consideration for the health and vigour of our national park habitats is much more important than trying to keep every elephant-in-creation alive.

If my evaluation of the Botswana elephant situation is correct, at the end of the current elephant die-off this year, I will still recommend that even more elephants be taken off from those that remain. And, if the major die-off does not take place this year. Tighten your belts. And wait. It will happen next year or the one thereafter. One thing is for sure! It will happen!

And if we refuse to address ourselves seriously to solving this elephant over-population problem, we will be responsible for turning our national parks into very low species-diversity deserts.



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