A crisis of too many, not too few (Part 3)

A lone elephant crossing the Chobe River from Botswana into Namibia PIC. THALEFANG CHARLES
A lone elephant crossing the Chobe River from Botswana into Namibia PIC. THALEFANG CHARLES

To return to the facts. The elephant population in northern Botswana has increased from a few thousands in the 1940s to some 130,000 elephant, four or even six times the sustainable carrying capacity.

We can argue all day about carrying capacity, but damage began to occur when there were perhaps 15,000 elephants in Botswana. Comparatively, the two million hectare Kruger National Park experienced a significant loss of trees in some habitats with a mere 3,500 elephants compared to 18,000 today.  

Very few national parks in the world can compete with Chobe’s list of 38 species of large mammal species, spanning the abundance of wildlife diversity of semi-arid savannas as well as the desert-adapted species of the northern fringes of the Kalahari.

Elephants are putting this at risk. Even before we consider the conflicts they cause as they spill into areas of human habitation, they are grossly simplifying age-adapted and fragile ecosystems, with a loss of plant and even large mammal species. The ecosystem is now under serious threat in the nearby Hwange National Park, with up to 3,000 elephants using some waterholes each day. Mark Butcher notes that once magnificent herds of 100 sable, 3-4,000 buffalo, and 500 eland are no more – they simply cannot compete with elephants.


Botswana now has at least 130,000 elephant in an area that, ecologically, should probably have only 25,000-50,000, and certainly had far less than this only a few decades ago. The natural increase is 6,500 additional elephants each year. If 10,000 elephants are culled every year, it will take 15 years to get down to 50,000 elephants, and if 20,000 are culled it will take six years. These challenges are difficult to contemplate. But not contemplating them is also irresponsible, as it dooms vast habitats and the species that live in them, not to mention the enhanced risks caused by climate change. Botswana faces tough choices and massive economic opportunities, but the debate is not helped by the amount of emotion and mis-information in the international press. The hardest choice is what to do about 130,000 elephants in a habitat that should have only 50,000 or perhaps as few as 15,000.

In a decision that is quite understandably deeply affected by emotion, what should Botswana do with its elephants? What are the ecological and economic facts, and what choices does Botswana have?

First off, elephant are clearly not endangered, although the world’s largest elephant population is rapidly becoming a serious threat to itself, and certainly to Botswana’s responsibility to conserve biodiversity.

 The simplest choice – a no brainer, really – is the reintroduction of safari hunting, albeit in ways that are directly aligned with the needs of rural people. However, this does not solve the problem because safari hunting has a negligible impact on elephant numbers but, as we discuss below, is a powerful way of creating more wildlife habitat.

The more tricky issue is the management of elephants in park, which are legally created for biodiversity conservation. Yellowstone experienced enormous ecological benefits from returning its apex predator – the wolf – to the system, but in Africa we have removed this apex predator which, for nearly four million years has been us, the hunter-gather. Without predation, elephants in national parks are unnaturally sedentary and concentred, causing habitat changes akin to those caused by Yellowstone’s elk herds, but at a much large scale.

Ecosystems in hunting blocks in Southern Africa are often in much better shape that in nearby protected areas, and Yellowstone shows how the reintroduction of wolves has re-created dynamic grazing and browsing patterns through restored predator avoidance behaviour. At the risk of being branded a conservation heretic, would judicious hunting in national parks actually be a good thing for biodiversity?

So what then are the options? The first option is to continue to ignore the problem, with major costs in terms of biodiversity loss, ecosystem degradation, and conflicts with humans.

Reducing elephants by non-lethal means such as translocation or contraception is unrealistic given the numbers involved. The most palatable option would be to encourage neighbouring countries like Zambia and Angola to provide habitat for elephants. This will require building an elephant economy to persuade local people to accept elephants by making them as profitable as possible, through bold policy reform and massive investment. Southern Africa has demonstrated that making wildlife a profitable land use option has played a massive role in the recovery of our wildlife.

Ignoring the facts, this model is opposed by many conservationists; they make the false presumption that our wildlife is a global resource in which they have a powerful say, with little or no accountability for outcomes or the associated costs.

To succeed in expanding wildlife habitat we need to “maximise the value of wildlife to landholders,” by devolving wildlife proprietorship to landholders and communities, with full rights to use, manage and sell wildlife.

To maximise the price of wildlife we need to encouraging hunting, trade in wildlife products, and tourism, oppose market restrictions, and ensure that 100% of this value is returned to landholders and communities. Neither Zambia nor Angola currently pursue such policies, while global strategies like banning trade or attacking hunting further undercut the potential for wildlife to pay for itself.

Moreover, contrary to perceptions, elephants are not very profitable. The price of trophy bulls may be high, but these are long-lived species so that offtake rates are low, usually well below one percent of the population.

This means that the viability of a sustainable elephant economy is questionable unless this in turn becomes a sustainable wildlife economy based on a full spectrum of wildlife and a full spectrum of uses.  This will require tens or, more likely, hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in the parks and tourism economy in the Kavango-Zambezi TFCA, coupled with sound wildlife utilisation policies in the buffer zones and corridors between these parks. The good news is that the data shows that such investments have a high return on investment in terms of job creation and economic growth.

However, again, we face a problem of perception and reality. More than 80% of the wildlife that now exists outside protected areas in Southern Africa is paid for by hunting, with ecotourism contributing less than five percent of the bill. Against our advice, CITES has already closed markets for some valuable wildlife products that could pay for more wildlife. Given the current international pressures to close markets for hunting, and how much some Botswana communities have suffered from such bans, how can we in true conscience expect poor rural people to place their livelihoods in the hands of an economy so prone to the influence of external special interest? 

This leaves a final, and probably unavoidable, option – culling.

It may seem callous, but the potential to build an industry around elephant products will also provide justification to ordinary Batswana to keep more space for elephants.

Before the so-called ivory ban in 1989, Zimbabwe had invested heavily in manufacturing elephant products. Meat was important to local people. Some ivory was exported but it was increasingly being carved at home, adding jobs and value by multiple factors. What few people know is that the most valuable aspect of the elephant economy was the skins – high quality leather converted into fashion objects – especially briefcases and cowboy boots – providing large numbers of jobs.

Botswana thus faces a number of decisions and obligations. At the top of all these is whether and how to reduce the elephant population to a sustainable number. Only the third and fourth option described above have any realistic chance of resolving the problem.

To sustain Botswana’s biodiversity, especially in the face of impending climate change, elephant culling is inevitable. However, culling comes with several obligations. The first is to maximise the value of any elephant products in terms of jobs and economic growth – to waste anything on a crowded planet is problematic.

The second is to ensure that the profitability of elephants is reinvested in the elephants and people that live with them. As my father said way back in the day, all conservation actions needs to be ecologically sustainable, economically viable, and socio-politically acceptable.


*Dr Brian Child is an Associate Professor at the University of Florida where he focuses on wildlife economy and governance, and higher education in African leadership development. With a D.Phil from Oxford about the economics of wildlife and livestock, he grew up in Botswana, served private landholders and the CAMPFIRE programme for Zimbabwe Parks for 12 years, and established CBNRM and park management systems in Zambia for 10 years. His current interest is building a $ 30 billion wildlife economy in southern Africa by 2020.

This is the third part of a serialised article made available exclusively to Mmegi.


Editor's Comment
A Call For Government To Save Jobs

The minister further shared that from the 320 businesses that notified the Commissioner of Labour about their plans to retrench, 20 were acceded to, which resulted in 204 workers being retrenched during April 2020 and July 2021.The retrenchments were carried out while the SoE was in place, meaning the companies that succeeded must have had solid reasons, despite the strict SOE regulations imposed on businesses to not retrench. We are left with...

Have a Story? Send Us a tip
arrow up