The Great Elephant Balancing Act


Of all the issues that get people worked up into a frenzy of indignation, elephant trophy hunting is high on the list. When Botswana recently announced that it would be opening up elephant hunting after years of the activity being banned, animals-rights activists and the media were quick to respond with highly emotive headlines condemning this as something quite outrageous. But wildlife biological scientists, who one would expect to be detached and objective about such matters, have themselves proven to be fallible to emotive and biased viewpoints.

In a fascinating new article by Gail Thomson, first published here: the author looks at the work of scientists on the biology of elephants in Botswana. Their observations are that old males who have left behind their genetic legacy are less important in elephant society than the matriarchs.

Gail observes that there seems to be no reason why these old bulls should not be hunted. But the authors of the scientific study conclude that old bulls should be afforded the same level of protection as the matriarch, thereby contradicting their own findings.

At the same time, other research into how human societies in Botswana respond to the impact of elephants on their lives and livelihood has shown clearly that this dimension is equally worthy of consideration of the Botswana government, in trying to manage the elephant balancing act.

Human-elephant seesaw (copyright Gail Thomson)

I encourage you  to read the original article by accessing the link above – there are some great photographs and lots of good sense. Here we offer a few extracts from a really thoughtful article.

“Elephants are amazing animals. Besides being the largest land animal on our planet, they have relatively complex societies and appear to have individual personalities. Watching elephants in their natural habitat is a joy for those of us who can do so at our leisure, from a safe distance or with a knowledgeable guide. For those who face the real danger of meeting an elephant on foot at night while walking home, elephants can be terrifying.

“It is no wonder that the idea of hunting elephants is a sensitive one, and that the people who spend much of their time observing these ponderous, loveable beasts want to do everything in their power to protect them. There is also little wonder that people living with elephants want them to be more controlled – to stay away from their crop fields and houses. Yet, as with many things, how you see an elephant is a matter of perspective and managing this species must take vastly different perspectives into account, along with the relevant science.”

Gail refers to a recent study by Allen et al. titled Importance of old bulls: leaders and followers in collective movements of allmale groups in African savannah elephants published here:

“In terms of their function in elephant society, then, it is reasonable to say that older females (matriarchs or soon-to-be matriarchs) are more important than older males, although it is certainly not advisable to remove all older males from the population. The scientific evidence showing that older male elephants have a role to play is important, and should certainly be incorporated in elephant management plans – no subpopulation of elephants should be left without mature elephant bulls.

“Yet Allen et al. do not stick to their scientific findings in the concluding remarks of their paper, as they state: ‘We argue mature bulls occupy a similar role in male elephant society as old female matriarchs in breeding herds and require equal protection” (emphasis mine). They further argue that the quota of 400 male elephants set by Botswana for 2020 “would not be sustainable”. With that, they stepped out of elephant biology and into the human realm of policy.

“While the results of good biological research such as those summarised above must be incorporated into animal management, the views of animal researchers must be considered alongside the views of other stakeholders. The conclusions regarding elephant hunting (but not the results or other conclusions based on their data) of Allen et al. are clearly personal views, and should be considered as such. Furthermore, biological science is not the only scientific discipline that should inform animal management policies.

“After reading the article by Allen et al. on male elephants near the Boteti River, I looked for an article on people living near the same river to get the other side of the story. Interestingly, both studies included one author (a different person in each one) from the non-governmental organisation Elephants for Africa, which is working to reduce human-elephant conflict in this area, and clearly understands both the elephant and human dimensions of this situation.

“The researchers wanted to know how the presence of elephants impacted the people living along the Boteti River. They went deeper than the usual tallying up of elephant damages (e.g. destroying crops or breaking fences) and also asked their 61 respondents about the impact of elephants on their personal security and freedom, physical and mental health, and relations with their families and the government.

“They found that 72% of their respondents felt unsafe around elephants and that the presence of the elephants limited their freedom of movement, especially at night. Even more worryingly, 90% reported that the damages caused by elephants to crops threatened their food security. Food is expensive in Botswana relative to the earning power of rural people, so not having a good yield from their crops means that these subsistence farmers may not have enough to eat, as their sources of cash income are limited.

“Nearly two-thirds (63%) of interviewees said that their access to water was hampered by the presence of elephants at the Boteti River. While limiting their access to food and water was a clear physical health concern, a quarter of the interviewees also reported an intense fear of elephants – thus affecting their mental health.

“I hope we can all agree that no one wants human-wildlife conflict to escalate to the point of no return. If so, some compromises between the different human-interest groups must be made. Within strictly protected National Parks, elephants and other animals should be allowed to continue their lives as unimpeded by human activities as possible (tourism can, and does, cause some issues but this should be minimised by managing the humans, rather than the animals). Outside the Parks, we need to be more flexible.

“The existence of wildlife in human farmlands relies directly on the level of tolerance farmers have for it. Our efforts should therefore focus on maximising tolerance, which is achieved primarily through listening carefully to the concerns raised by the people in question and genuinely making an effort to address these. As a rule of thumb, we should aim to reduce the costs people experience and increase the benefits they derive from the presence of wildlife.

“Achieving either or both of these goals may require the sacrifice of a few individual animals – e.g. killing or translocating particular individuals that habitually cause conflict (reducing the cost), or allowing a few older males to be hunted by foreigners and thereby generate income and meat for the affected community (increasing the benefit).

“Elephant behaviour and society are complicated things that will no doubt continue to attract the attention and fascination of many scientists. Yet understanding and mitigating human-elephant conflict is more complicated still. Countries that must find the delicate balance between the rights of their citizens and their responsibility for conserving biodiversity should be supported, particularly by providing sound scientific evidence on both the elephant and human dimensions of the problem.

“Scientific findings should not be used as a club to beat countries into making policy changes, and scientists must realise that their perspectives on elephants are not the only ones that matter. Constructive engagement between policymakers, affected communities and scientists cannot happen if we ignore each other’s perspectives and real concerns. While the international media is partly to blame for making a difficult situation worse, each party can choose to either stoke the fires of conflict or douse the flames by trying to understand the other side’s point of view. Perhaps the proverbial question should not be “how do you eat an elephant?” but “how do you see an elephant?”

Dr John Ledger is a past Director of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, now a consultant, writer and teacher on the environment, energy and wildlife; he is a columnist for the African Hunting Gazette. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.