Written By: Andreas Wilson-Späth
New research shows that elephant numbers increase when more ecotourists visit the areas with elephant populations. This is in stark contrast to trophy hunting which can have devastating effects on elephant herds.
Monitoring the elephants of Mapungubwe
Ensuring the long-term survival of elephants is not simply a matter of setting aside protected conservation areas and working to keep them ecologically sustainable. It also requires elephant populations to coexist harmoniously with the people in adjacent communities.
The impact which socioeconomic factors have on elephant numbers has been revealed in a report by a team of scientists from the Amarula Elephant Research Programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, led by Dr Jeanetta Selier, which surveys the effects on 1200 elephants resident in the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area (GMTFCA).
Situated on the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers, the GMTFCA covers a 3650 square kilometre mosaic of land straddling the borders of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe comprised of national parks, private game reserves, human settlements, hunting concessions, plots used for subsistence agriculture and commercial farms.
Although their movement is partially restricted by fences, the region’s elephants migrate across the international borders and they are frequently encountered outside of protected areas.
Ecotourism raises elephant numbers
By applying statistical methods to elephant numbers determined during aerial surveys conducted from 2000 to 2012, the researchers were able to evaluate how various ecological and socioeconomic factors influenced the distribution of elephants in the GMTFCA during that period.
As might be expected, those parts of the GMTFCA which experienced an increase in the extent of farm land and the density of the human population were associated with dropping elephant numbers. Conversely, in regions which saw more visits from ecotourists, the density of the elephant population tended to rise.
In the words of the researchers, “elephant numbers were higher where the proportion of total land surface under cultivation was the lowest; where population density was the lowest and where tourist numbers had increased over the years”.
They emphasise the fact that this positive impact of ecotourism can potentially be used to the advantage of local inhabitants by helping to address the “big African challenge on how to more adequately reward locals for sharing the same landscape with elephants”.
According to Enrico Di Minin, one of Selier’s co-authors, “local communities often pay the costs of elephant conservation without tangible benefits. Making sure the benefits generated from nature-based tourism, such as ecotourism safaris, are shared with communities who co-exist with elephants remains crucial to ensure the long-term persistence of this iconic species”.
The threat of trophy hunting
While growing ecotourism thus has the potential of bolstering the well-being of both elephants and humans in this area, the same cannot be said of hunting safaris.
In an earlier study, Selier and her colleagues assessed the sustainability of elephant trophy hunting in the GMTFCA.
They found that the hunting of trophy bulls (typically male animals older than 35) “resulted in movement of elephants out of the areas in which hunting occurred” and negatively impacted on the social structure and dynamics of the herds.
Because the dominant breeding males in a population tend to be older individuals, aged from around 40 to 50 years, removing too many of them by hunting has detrimental effects on the population.
The ominous conclusion was that “at current rates of hunting, under average ecological conditions, trophy bulls will disappear from the population in less than 10 years”, and Selier warned that “the current [hunting] quotas are neither sustainable nor responsible, and this needs to change quickly, before it’s too late.”
Unlike Zimbabwe and South Africa, Botswana has since banned trophy hunting.
In the new paper, Selier and her colleagues recommend a number of measures for the survival of elephant populations in human-dominated landscapes straddling international borders such as the GMTFCA.
Along with efforts to share the benefits of ecotourism with local communities, these include joint management and “the development of coordinated legislation and policies to improve land-use planning, the development of multi-use zones around protected areas, and conservation corridors to link current protected areas between range countries”.
Co-author Rob Slotow explains that “with the increasing demand for land for human settlement and agriculture, coordinated legislation and policies across national boundaries are needed to improve long term land use planning”.
Selier adds that their results “highlight that an increase in human population, coupled with the need to produce more food, will affect elephant numbers even more negatively in the future” and cautions that “if this happens in southern Africa, where elephant populations are currently doing much better compared to the rest of the continent, then the picture is grim”.