Part 1

I would have to forgive anybody, in this day and age, if they admitted that – after all the many past decades during which the national parks boards of Africa have been annually counting elephant populations and (sometimes) culling their numbers – they believed the elephant management conundrum had been solved, that the whole elephant management jigsaw puzzle had finally been assembled, framed and put into the archives, and that there was really not much more to learn about the science of elephant management.

If they believe that fairy tale, they would be so very wrong! Today, our national park managers actually face the biggest elephant management challenge they are ever likely to encounter. On top of that, few of them have the slightest idea how to address themselves to the many questions that the whole world has started to fire at them.
The much-applauded Great Elephant Census (GEC) came to an end at CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) in Johannesburg in 2016 when the elephant counts from 18 out of the 37 elephant range states in Africa were made public. A lot of trumpet blowing was done at that sideshow, which was convened by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature), and there was a lot of patting each other’s backs for a job well done. At the end of the presentation, it was announced that now that everybody knew the figures, the responsible scientists of the world would be able to properly manage the continent’s elephant herds. This is a very strange and quite wrong interpretation.
The GEC provided us with just two pieces of new information, namely a long list of elephant population numbers, and the corresponding names of the wildlife sanctuaries that supported those populations. That is all. With a good deal of effort, I could find out from other sources the sizes of the named sanctuaries, which would enable me to determine their current elephant population densities. But that is the sum total of what I could possibly glean from the GEC data. And none of the GEC leaders present at CoP 17 (CITES 2016) were able to tell me how that information could possibly help “responsible scientists to determine how to properly manage the continent’s elephants”.
Had the GEC also given us the 2016 elephant habitat carrying capacities for those different reserves, the outcome would have been a whole new ball game. I am amazed that so few people understand this reality.

NB: Elephant carrying capacity is the maximum number of elephants that a habitat (or game reserve) can sustainably carry without causing irreparable (and so progressive) damage to the existing habitat.

To explain this further, so as to remove all ambiguity, for anything to be “sustainable” means that (whatever it is) it must be repeatable forever. For an elephant carrying capacity figure to be sustainable, therefore, requires that whatever damage an elephant population causes to the vegetation in any one year, must be totally replaced by new growth during the next rainy season.
If habitat “use” (the eating and the breaking down of trees by elephants) is greater than the growing season’s capacity to replace the damaged vegetation, then progressive and continuous damage will obviously occur to the habitat every year. That level of “use”, therefore, is unsustainable. It will cause the habitat to perpetually degrade until ultimately it will be utterly destroyed; the landscape will become a desert and massive biological diversity losses will occur.
Provided the state of the habitat remains dynamically stable, a game reserve’s sustainable elephant carrying capacity will not change over time. The greatest number of elephants that can be sustainably carried in any game reserve, therefore, occurs when the game reserve’s habitats are at (or close to) the vegetative climax, and when the elephants are not causing habitat degradation. This is the benchmark that should be known for every game reserve that is required to sustainably support an elephant population, because it is against this parameter that wildlife managers can gauge the appropriateness of their elephant management strategies.
A degrading habitat’s elephant carrying capacity, however, will constantly change in concert with the degree and the rate of the habitat’s degradation (caused by too many elephants). In game reserves like Hwange, the Gonarezhou or Kruger, where in all these cases the benchmark sustainable elephant carrying capacity (i.e. when the habitats were still healthy) is probably one elephant per 5 km2, the actual carrying capacity at this point in time is probably one elephant per 20 km2.

If the wildlife manager was to hold the elephant population in any of these game reserves at one elephant per 10 km2, this would theoretically hold the habitat in its current state of degradation (i.e. the habitat would not degrade further). Ideally, however, the wildlife manager would want to reduce elephant numbers still further to a level that would allow the habitat to recover to its former near-climax state. That would mean reducing the elephant carrying capacity to one elephant per 20 km2.

– One elephant per 5 km2 equates to a Kruger elephant population of c 4 000.
– One elephant per 10 km2 equates to a Kruger elephant population of c 2 000.
– One elephant per 20 km2 equates to a Kruger elephant population of c 1 000.
– My calculations suggest that the ideal elephant population for the Kruger National Park, when the habitats were healthy (c 1955), was 3 500.
– The current elephant population in the Kruger (calculated by Dr S Joubert) is 32 000.

These figures will give you some idea of the complexity and magnitude of determining the “right” elephant management strategy for the Kruger National Park.
All wildlife management works (or should work) towards the achievement of an approved wildlife management objective. And the wildlife management objective approved (by parliament) for the Kruger National Park – as it should be for every national park anywhere in the world – is to maintain the park’s biological diversity. This can only happen if the park manager is able to maintain the park’s habitats in a healthy and stable state. Healthy and properly managed soil produces healthy plants (habitats), and healthy habitats produce healthy animals.
It is a well-known biological fact that animal species are specifically adapted to particular habitat types. If those habitats are maintained in a healthy state and managed in a proper manner, the different animal species that are attracted to those habitats will thrive and their species populations will require very little management by man.

South Africa’s Kruger National Park habitats were healthy and undamaged up to about 1955, despite an expanding elephant population at that time. Unfortunately, there are no reliable figures for the size of Kruger’s elephant population during that period. However, by extrapolating accurate figures from the Kruger culling era (1967 to 1994) backwards, I came to the conclusion that the Kruger elephant population stood at “about” 3 500 in the year 1955. In my estimation that is the Kruger National Park’s benchmark elephant carrying capacity figure. It equates to roughly one elephant per 5 km2.

In Part 2 I will explain how the habitat of the Kruger National Park deteriorated over a period of 30 years because of too many elephants.

Note from the editor’s desk
Ron Thomson is the author of some very fine books. His seven limited-edition and exclusive big-game hunting memoirs (only 1 000 of each were ever printed) record his remarkable big-game hunting career, others explain the principles and practices of wildlife management, and others discuss his specialty – “elephant management”. For details about each of these books, visit his website: www.ronthomsonshuntingbooks.co.za. You can also contact Ron directly at magron@ripplesoft.co.za or phone him on 072 587 1111.

Back to articles