The Botswana elephant debate is raging once more. Virus-like it emerges every few years and is associated with a great deal of huffing and puffing among lovers of the Southern African wilderness. Bellicose statements from one side about the need to let the bullets fly into tens of thousands of elephants are met with howls of outrage that such an action can even be considered. In past years, hostilities calm after a while and retreat, some would say, to lurk among the bottles of Tusker Lager in the bars of Maun and Selinda.

This time things are a bit different (isn’t that the case with most things these days?). The debate has been properly catalysed by the mysterious death of about 365 elephants in the northern part of the Okavango area. Why did they seemingly stop in their tracks and die? Poison, a catastrophic pathogen, starvation or some other unknown element? No doubt in time the truth will emerge. In the meantime, however, passions of Okavango lovers have been aroused once more. And so it should be. The African elephant is the talismanic figurehead of our continent — subtle, intelligent and empathetic. They are the primary reason why hordes of ecotourists come and fill the coffers of those countries fortunate to have thriving elephant populations.

The paradox is that countries such as SA and Botswana have become victims of their own conservation success. In many countries in Africa, relic populations of elephants are tragically dwindling to probable extinction. In Zimbabwe, SA and principally Botswana, burgeoning populations of elephants threaten their very own habitat. More than any animal except humans, elephants alter the world they live in. Sustainable elephant densities obviously differ from place to place. Arid areas generally support fewer animals than high-rainfall environments. The challenge is that as populations grow beyond the capacity of their environments’ ability to support them, these mega-herbivores start to simplify their habitat as they browse their preferred food to a point where it can be eradicated. Unfortunately, African elephants’ preferred food is often slow-growing trees.

A combination photo shows dead elephants in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.. Picture: REUTERS/Handout
A combination photo shows dead elephants in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.. Picture: REUTERS/Handout

The Okavango-Chobe system in Botswana, together with the Serengeti in Tanzania, is Africa’s most famous intact wilderness. The Serengeti boasts the greatest herd of plains game on the continent. The Okavango has its iconic elephant herds, which move seasonally through the vast mopane belt to arrive at reliable water sources in the north in the dry season. The inescapable fact is that there are far too many elephants in the Okavango and its surrounds. If the Botswana authorities wish to preserve the vegetation — in other words, the principal ecological environment as it has existed during historical times — action of some sort must be taken. The swamps, as the Okavango is affectionately known, was preserved by the Botswana authorities as a conservation area set aside to maintain its biodiversity. Elephants are simplifying that biodiversity.

However, those same animals are perhaps the main reason that high-end ecotourists flock to the Okavango and fill expensive lodges that provide vital foreign exchange for Botswana. One thing is certain, if a decision is taken to cull large numbers of elephants, as soon as it begins, that tourism will stop. Even the threat of that happening would be suicide for the Botswana tourism industry.

Tourism matters

It is 5 o’clock somewhere in northern Chief’s Island. Two couples share a comfortable Land Cruiser with a guide. Fine Cape wine in glass, they watch a breeding herd of elephants at a water lily-bedecked pool in the warmth of the late-afternoon sun. Baby elephants cavort with each other, disciplined now and then by watchful aunts. Noble creatures beyond the speaking of it. The guide murmurs all kinds of knowledge. No other vehicles about. This isn’t the Kenyan tourism model. It’s perhaps the perfect end to a sublime day and already return trips are being imagined. As they meander back to the lodge they comment on how many trees seem to have lost their bark, and notice areas where all the big trees are dead, those still standing are testimonials to a past era. Inevitably the question arises from behind the Land Cruiser driver — are there too many elephants? Most guides would answer that there are challenges at present, but fluctuations always happen in nature and ecological feedback loops ensure that corrections take place; breeding slows at high densities, and so on. The guides generally tell the gentle story. The industry depends on it.

Just imagine the discussions around the fire that night among the visitors from up north, were the guide to relay the opinion of an increasingly vociferous group of people that there is an excess of 100,000 elephants in the greater Okavango area. If that number of elephants are not removed now and the population maintained below 40,000 individual animals over the entirety of the range, the ecology would be fundamentally simplified. Visually, a near complete lack of big trees would be an aesthetic catastrophe.

Even more serious would be the lack of breeding and roosting sites for large species of birds such as vultures, eagles, smaller raptors, storks, herons and the like. Many small birds and all organisms that depend on mature woodland would also be critically affected. The ecosystem would adjust to the subtle interrelationship changes between all life forms, in ways too complex to easily compute. The Okavango will remain a wonderful place. Just altered.

A combination photo shows dead elephants in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.. Picture: REUTERS/Handout
A combination photo shows dead elephants in the Okavango Delta, Botswana.. Picture: REUTERS/Handout

Much like climate change, that ecological drift has already begun. One thing is for certain — if the big cull did take place the change would be much more radical, more immediate. Killing 100,000 elephants means euthanising about 100 a day for three years. A large herd every day. That is unthinkable in today’s world. It would be labelled a genocide by powerful animal rights groups. A killing field that would dominate the front pages of publications worldwide. All tourism would cease, quite rightly so. Who wants to go to a slaughterhouse? Hunters with tough constitutions would seek their prey, but they would ply their craft in an area awash with poachers who even now are increasing due to the paucity of ecotourism triggered by Covid-19. A vacuum is always filled. This vacuum would be filled by poachers. The Botswana wildlife authorities with the best will in the world and a sadly depleted fiscus would find it hard to compete. How long before cows and goats replaced the lechwe and buffalo?

Finding a solution

So what’s the answer to this seemingly impossible conundrum? Where does a reasonable and sustainable path lie? The International Union for Conservation of Nature and large international conservation NGOs may offer advice through good scientific practice, but ultimately it’s up to the government of Botswana and its people. Do they see the greatest herd of elephants in the world as a precious national asset? Are they willing to rapidly engage with neighbouring states such as Zimbabwe and Angola to create a system of transfrontier parks with clear and usable corridors linking large, properly protected wilderness areas? Are they prepared to grasp the nettle and pursue active animal management through controlled hunting and quiet culling? Is it time to gather a group of eminent and unbiased researchers and economists to do a rapid and thorough study (the results of which must be fully reported to primarily the people of Botswana and then disseminated to all parties globally)?

In summary, if we are to properly address the elephant in the room, conservationists and politicians must analyse how important elephants are to this continent. Botswana is the topic here, but it’s merely a part of a bigger story. Any continent needs large protected spaces through which clean rivers run unimpeded. Africa is so fortunate that it has a flagship species that can inhabit those lovely spaces and attract people, national and international, to come and gaze. It’s critical that citizens of Africa are involved, as they will have the tough decisions to make as their populations grow, about the enlargement or fragmentation of conserved areas and the defence against the attentions of illicit poachers. And the elephants within those areas? The sometimes uncomfortable fact is that elephants are finally merely a component of a functioning ecosystem and not its epicentre.

The same could be said for humankind. The idea that we are critical to a functioning planet has caused a lot of problems. I wonder who came up with that idea?

*Read is the chair of Everard Read and has many years’ worth of involvement in both international and local ecological endeavours

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