No easy answer to elephant problem

Many believe that this elephant bull is the last of the Knysna elephants. Image: SANParks

Many believe that this elephant bull is the last of the Knysna elephants. Image: SANParks

The truth is elephants can no longer roam as free as they did before humankind started making its destructive presence felt across the African continent.

There has been an emotional backlash from animal lovers to the Botswana government’s decision to lift its ban on elephant hunting.

Lost on many of those attacking the Botswana authorities is that just 400 licences for elephant hunts will be issued annually. This is hardly enough to make a serious impact on a total elephant population, estimated to be as high as 135 000.

Elephant numbers and the management of the species is one of the most emotive environmental issues of our times, second only to rhino poaching in its potential to generate outrage. The truth is – and it may be difficult to accept for many – that elephants can no longer roam as free as they did before humankind started making its destructive presence felt across the African continent.

In the 19th century, particularly, Africa’s elephants were shot in the tens of thousands by big game hunters. Populations only began recovering when conservation measures were put in place. Yet the impact of human settlement means the animals will always be cooped up by fences, roads and urban concentrations, with their normal ranges drastically curtailed.

In comparatively confined spaces – environmental islands one might call them – elephants can wreak destruction on habitat. Other species can suffer to the point of becoming locally extinct as their natural habitats are destroyed or changed by elephants.

Culling elephants was, for a long time, considered an acceptable management tool – not pleasant to do, but thought to be the price of ensuring continued biodiversity.

In Botswana, elephant populations may have tripled in the past 30 years and they have affected not only vegetation, but also pose a serious threat to the lives and crops of subsistence farmers. This is not a simple problem and there is no easy answer.

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