The Mysterious Case of the Vanishing Elephants

Tourism is a tough sector. Competing global markets with a smorgasbord of products makes for stiff competition. It is also a fickle business; the slight hint of civil unrest can sink that country’s prospects overnight. Intensive marketing is the name of the game and developing a strong brand is key. When it comes to selling Africa that brand must appeal to the sensitivities of a pampered Western clientele’s world. In that “Lion King” universe of Simba and Pumba, the endless, untamed wilderness is free of humans and the human touch -nature is left to manage itself.

 

175 000 people, 130 000 cattle, 50 000 goats, 9 000 agricultural fields, 130 000 elephants per national park (Chobe 11 000 km²) and a game reserve (Moremi 5 000 km²) are all components of a 130 000 km² constituency. These are the semi-arid Ngamiland and Chobe districts of northern Botswana. Within this region lies the Okavango Delta, one of the world’s largest inland deltas and a UNESCO World Heritage site. Thousands of remote islands encircled by endless palm-and-papyrus-fringed waterways teem with prolific wildlife and countless bird species. It is easy to see how the Delta has attracted the rapt attention of foreign photographic safari companies. This is high-end market territory with daily rates reaching as high as USD 2 500 per person.

 

The Okavango Delta is unique in its own right, but the photographic safari companies yearned for an extra competitive edge over rival regional destinations. Eliminating a thriving safari hunting industry, with scant regard to the implications for both people and wildlife, was just the ticket. A president who valued wildlife and profits above the interests of his people was just the person to implement it. In 2014 president Ian Khama banned safari hunting. Brand Botswana was now a hunting-free destination; no blood thirsty killers welcome here.

 

And so, photographic camps multiplied across the Okavango Delta and along the Chobe River where mollycoddled clients could indulge in the Africa of their imagination. It was the perfect backdrop for making award-winning movies about the trials and tribulations of cutely named animals, a lucrative marketing avenue to reinforce the Eden illusion. Meanwhile, in the areas where safari hunting once thrived and which were unsuitable for photographic operations, the waterholes that were previously pumped and maintained by the safari hunting companies dried up. Wildlife species that were able to migrate to alternative water sources did so, while those that couldn’t, perished. The hunting concessions were left barren, a land use option denied. Jobs promised by the photographic companies to the unemployed hunting companies’ staff never materialized.

 

With the demise of safari hunting, Brand Botswana could now promote itself as a safe haven into which elephants could escape from the persecution of safari hunting in the neighboring countries of Zimbabwe and Namibia. An endearing elephant orphanage à la Kenya’s Sheldrick model was established, no doubt to prey on the ignorance and wallets of the general public.

 

All was going well for the new “bloodless” Brand Botswana, except for one pesky problem – that of exploding elephant numbers. Growing concern among scientists and ecologists about the impact of elephants on biodiversity, as well as habitat destruction, could not easily be dismissed by marketing spin-doctors. It would be unconscionable to admit that there were simply too many elephants for the habitat to support. “Carrying capacity” is a swearword in the preservationist world.

 

The Botswana Environment Statistics Wildlife Digest 2014 reported that the results of an elephant census carried out by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) in 2003 showed the number to be around 109 500. In 2004 it was 151 000 and in 2012, 207 500.

 

In a 2008 paper written as a submission for her doctorate degree (under the supervision of Professor Rudi van Aarde who unashamedly admits to being funded by the animal rights group the International Fund for Animal Welfare, IFAW) Jessica Junker contends that between 200 000 and 400 000 may have lived in Botswana at the beginning of the 19th century. One has to wonder how 1 000-year-old baobabs could have survived the onslaught of that many elephants. Accepting a 2008 figure of 156 000 elephants, she goes on to surmise that numbers had stabilized.

 

A 2010 aerial survey carried out by Elephants Without Borders (EWB) covering some 73 478 km² showed that the country’s elephant population in 2010 was estimated to be 128 000. The next survey in 2014 was part of the Great Elephant Census, which was an attempt to establish elephant numbers across Africa, and 129 939 was the estimated population in an extended range of 98 425 km². The 2018 census covered an even larger area of 103 662 km² and revealed a population of 130 000. These figures certainly seem to reveal a stabilizing elephant population even as the species’ range expanded. If Botswana was indeed providing refuge from safari hunting in Zimbabwe and Namibia that alone would surely have affected the elephant numbers?

 

So, what is the magic number that shows a stabilizing elephant population in Botswana? Is it Junker’s figure of 156 000 in 2008, EWB’s 2018 number of 130 000, or should it be closer to Junker’s claim of 400 000 at the beginning of the 19th century?

 

The 2016 IUCN African Elephant Report showed concern:

“Although a new total of 129,939 ± 12,501 from the Great Elephant Census in 2014 (Chase et al., 2015) has been included in the AED, this result raises questions with respect to the 2010 and 2012 surveys. It indicates no significant change since 2010 although a population that shows no evidence of serious poaching, excessive natural mortality or high levels of net emigration would be expected to show some increase. Compared to the 2012 survey results, the 2014 estimate would indicate a marked decline that is unlikely in the absence of any other indicators.”

 

The 2018 numbers would undoubtedly have been even more disconcerting.

 

It is generally accepted that under normal conditions, a 5% per annum elephant population increase is not unusual. There is nothing to suggest that conditions had been abnormal but even if a figure of 2% is used, the projection would show a population increase from 128 000 in 2010 to around 150 000 in 2018.

 

The 2018 EWB report may well have been peer-reviewed by a number of impressive professionals, but things just don’t seem to add up.

 

Perhaps if Elephant Without Borders released the raw data from the 2010, 2014 and 2018 censuses for neutral experts to assess, the controversy could be put to bed. But this is not going to happen. If the figures and conclusions drawn from these Botswana surveys prove to be unreliable it will cast into doubt the integrity of entire continent-wide Great Elephant Census project. And that would be something.

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