The trouble with elephants: why limits on culling are bad for conservation

Elephants are some of the most majestic animals in African savannahs, but they can also be the most destructive. This is witnessed dramatically if you travel to Gonarezhou National Park (appropriately, the ‘place of the elephants’) in the far southeast of Zimbabwe, as we did recently at the kind invitation of Hugo van der Westhuizen, Director of the Gonarezhou Conservation Trust. As we saw, the areas around water sources are completely hammered, with mopane woodlands destroyed. It is a sorry sight, and the elephants must wander further, including outside the park, to find food.

Too many elephants

Elephant populations have increased dramatically in Gonarezhou (as has indeed been the case across Zimbabwe), with the park populations increasing to around 10,000 animals (some say more). This is around three times the maximum number the park can hold sustainably; although as park ecologists argue they spread over much wider areas, including across large areas of Mozambique to the east. Simple ‘carrying capacity’ estimates don’t work well, but you only have to look at the damage in certain parts of the park to see that there is a problem.

Take a look at the three photographs below of mopane trees, taken on our recent trip to the area, and guess where the vegetation is. One is a protected area, part of a massive conservation effort supported by international money; one is a communal (small-scale) African farming area; and one is a resettlement area, settled by small scale farmers following land reform. The full answers are below, but you probably will have guessed already that the most deforested landscape is in the national park. And the reason is elephants.

Overpopulation of elephants can cause multiple problems. Not only is tree cover destroyed but the whole ecosystem is changed, with knock-on effects for other species, from beetles to birds. Blind ‘protection’ of what is supposed to be an endangered species makes little conservation sense. In these areas, elephants are more of a pest than a protected species.

There are so many of them and they are not happy animals – as we found out close-up when they charged our vehicle (twice). They reputedly become more agitated as they return to the safety of the park in Zimbabwe from Mozambique where poaching is intense. Mines from the liberation war existed along the border for a long time, although most have been cleared, but these also caused elephant rage (and death) when stepped on. And the new electric fence that borders the park within Zimbabwe apparently also gets them jumpy, as they break through to find food in the farms beyond.

Elephants destroy crops and livelihoods

As villagers told us in our study areas near Chikombedzi, just a few kilometres from the park, elephants regularly break through the fence (notionally a foot-and-mouth veterinary fence) or come up the dry riverbeds as the fence does not cross or through the small-scale farms nearby where there is no boundary fence with the park.

Elephants love crop fields and will destroy a whole area in hours. The area along the river is where farmers must eke out a living on small fields, farming sorghum and maize or irrigating vegetables. In this extremely dry area, this is the only place where agriculture is feasible, especially when the rains fail as this year. But this is also where elephants (and buffaloes, hippos, crocodiles and other animals) assemble and cause havoc.

Villagers complain that there is no ‘problem animal control’ efforts by the parks authorities these days, and there is no compensation paid in Zimbabwe, as animals in communal areas are the responsibility of the locals, not the parks, as they can be harvested in line with a quota system as part of the now largely defunct CAMPFIRE scheme (as discussed in a forthcoming blog).

We met Mrs KP, who had moved to her fields in this area to protect her crops. Her young children were staying in the village with relatives, but she was alone defending the last of her sorghum from the nightly raids by elephants. After yet another incursion into her field the previous night, there was little left.

She stays in a makeshift shelter and builds fires at night to ward off elephants. She also has a large torch, which she says sometimes worked to frighten them off. It is a lonely and dangerous life, and she was losing the battle. She told us that there were others nearby doing the same, while others had given up, resigning themselves to hunger or hand-outs instead of getting anything from the fields.

Historical estimates of elephant populations in these areas are a bit shaky, but everyone agrees that today’s numbers are the highest ever, at least since records began in 1975 when the park was established. In the past years populations have been growing at 6% per year, although this may be plateauing.

In the past, elephants could move more easily when fences didn’t exist and population densities were lower. The advent of the ‘transfrontier’ conservation ‘peace park’ area between South Africa, Zimbabwe and Mozambique was supposed to encourage ‘connectivity’, and so larger ranges for migratory and larger animals, but there have been limits to this ambition due to poaching, settlement barriers and geopolitics.

Restrictions on culling are causing major ecological damage

So why have elephant populations got so out of control? The major reason is that they are no longer managed as they once were through culling or relocation programmes that helped balance populations with resources. Although Mrs KP is not one of them, there is a clamouring global advocacy on behalf of elephants.

Organisations such as ‘Save the Elephants’ – along with all the major conservation outfits – raise very large amounts of money on the back of the argument that African elephants are endangered and must be protected and that culling  – and worse, hunting for trophies – is inhumane. If your experience of elephants is mostly derived from wildlife TV programmes watched from the comfort of your living room in London or New York, then you can see why such campaigns exist. But this is far from the experience of those living on the edge of Gonarezhou national park, as we discovered.

The result of such lobbying has been a dramatic decline in the ability of ecologists in parks to manage elephants, with devastating consequences as we saw. Currently CITES – the international body that regulates trade in endangered species – only allows for the culling of 500 elephants per year in the whole of Zimbabwe. For Gonarezhou, the quota is only 25. With trophy hunting imports now banned from the UK and elsewhere, the demand for hunting (made worse by the pandemic) has taken a hit too.

In the past, southern Africa was a major hotspot for hunting. However distasteful the practice, the ecological and economic benefits were significant when attention was paid to the distribution of benefits. Hunting revenues – especially from the trophy fee – were large and were (in theory at least) shared with local communities. With quotas carefully designed, the offtake was sustainable and geared to management of the wider ecosystem for conservation and biodiversity benefits.

Poorly conceived bans on trophy imports and hunting therefore are having major negative consequences on conservation in Zimbabwe. The result in Gonarezhou is widespread deforestation and loss of biodiversity. This in turn has dire consequences for poor people’s livelihoods, increasing poverty and hunger in highly marginal places, as elephants continue to ravage their limited subsistence crops.

This is not what CITES planned for, nor I am sure what those who spend their hard-earned cash on conservation organisations would want either. But somehow these perspectives – and the real, tragic situation of the likes of Mrs KP – are not heard in the air-brushed, positive spin of conservation lobbying.

New thinking needed

What then is the likely consequence of this strategy of protection at all costs, banning hunting and trophies and restricting culling? It is not pretty. We have seen what can happen before when elephant populations get out of control: when their food runs out, populations crash, with major consequences for the wider ecology. This is what happened in Tsavo National Park in Kenya in the early 1970s when around 5,000 elephants died of starvation over several years. It took decades for the ecosystem to recover. Without management, this may well happen in Zimbabwe too.

The mass starvation of large, intelligent animals is not a pleasant sight, and not a good look for the outcome of ill-thought out global conservation strategies. This is why new thinking about protected areas – and the role of elephants within and beyond them – is urgently needed, a theme picked up in the next blog in this short series.

The answer to the mopane tree quiz (from right to left): A: Communal area near Chikombedzi, with distinct browse line; B: Gonarezhou National Park near Chipinda Pools; C: Edenvale A1 resettlement area. And apologies to regular readers of this blog for the gap in posts. There are quite a few lined up for the next weeks, based on recent fieldwork in Zimbabwe, including two more in this series on dilemmas for conservation policy.

This blog was written by Ian Scoones and originally appeared on Zimbabweland

Enjoyed this post? Share it!