Elephants and the conservation dilemma


*E-mail: jl15@york.ac.uk

The decision of whether to opt for a strict protection policy or to promote sustainable utilization on the basis of ‘use it or lose it’ is a central dilemma in conservation, and no-where is this debated more fiercely than over the African elephant. Strict protection implies that a species should be afforded the strongest possible controls over the quality of its habitat, hunting and trade. It should have a place to live and breed, national laws should prevent it from being hunted and international law should forbid trade to lessen the temptation for lucrative poaching. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) is an agreement between governments to control trade in plant and animal products to enhance their protection. A species on Appendix I of the agreement is regarded as threatened with extinction, and commercial international trade is prohibited. Clearly, there are costs associated with complete protection: maintenance of reserves, enforcement of national law and loss of trade. In the elephant’s case, these costs are substantial. Reserves have to be enormous to contain viable wild populations of a large animal described as a ‘bulldozer herbivore’ (Kortlandt, 1974), which precludes alternative land-use and requires the equivalent of small armies to police effectively. Economic returns are only possible through tourism and donations from conservation organizations.

Whilst complete protection may be the only option for some species, particularly those of restricted geographical distribution, highly vulnerable to habitat loss or extirpation of local populations, sustainable utilization could provide a viable alternative for more widespread plants and animals which have some degree of resilience to management interventions. The theory goes that if there are incentives to manage populations for financial gain, the ‘hidden hand of the market’ will maintain the species without major government intervention and drain on the public exchequer. The natural range of the elephant is throughout much of sub-Saharan Africa in a wide variety of habitats. If it can be legally hunted and products sold, its monetary value can be captured, thereby ensuring its continued existence as a source of revenue. Tourism will still be possible, but in addition, rich hunters will pay handsomely for the chance to shoot a bush leviathan; meat has a local market and ivory is valuable as a raw export or locally carved for sale at home or overseas. Under CITES it is possible to provide some degree of control over trade by listing a species under Appendix II through granting of export permits only if the species is not threatened in the wild. This should be enough to safeguard a system of market-based conservation. However, as is often the case, there is a gap between theory and practice.

Following extensive poaching of elephants in eastern and central Africa during the 1980s the species was assigned to Appendix I of CITES in 1989 and international trade halted. But many countries, particularly in southern Africa, subsequently argued that their elephant populations were well managed, and they had substantial stockpiles of ivory which could be sold to finance elephant conservation. In consequence, the trade ban was lifted in 1997 for certain countries, and under the present round of CITES agreements there is a dual status with elephant populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe listed under Appendix II, and all other populations throughout the rest of the continent included in Appendix I.

However, fears that legitimizing trade in elephant products will again increase poaching appear to have been realized. Large seizures of illegal ivory have been made in recent years, totalling 23,461 kg between August 2005 and August 2006, and these are thought to be only a small fraction of the total trade, which could have killed as many as 23,000 elephants for this 1-year period alone (Wasser et al., 2007). The origin of one shipment, seized in 2002 from Singapore, has been tracked using DNA and shown to be from Zambia, representing 3500–6000 elephants (Wasser et al., 2007). This analysis was made at a time when Zambia was applying to CITES for the sale of its ivory stocks, giving assurances that only 135 elephants had been illegally killed in the country during the last 10 years. Yet despite the massive poaching that appears to be going on, levels of attention are much lower than during the 1980s, and the question of the role of science in determining optimum elephant management strategies is as controversial as when the book ‘Ivory Crisis’ was published more than 25 years ago and subtitled in the introduction ‘What Crisis?’ (Parker & Amin, 1983).

This issue of the African Journal of Ecology is themed around elephants. Articles range from the evaluation of reproduction using long-term data from culling in the Kruger National Park (Freeman, Whyte & Brown, 2009) to the potential for beehives to prevent elephant damage to farms in Kenya (King et al., 2009). Other papers cover the importance of elephants for seed dispersal (Gonthier, 2009) and of certain trees for elephants (Morgan, 2009). Ranging behaviour of elephants is discussed in the southern African Cape (Roux & Bernard, 2009) and eastern African (Bonnington, Weaver & Fanning, 2009; Mpanduji, East & Hofer, 2009). Impact of elephants on vegetation is investigated in South Africa (Parker & Bernard, 2009), and the difficulties of counting elephants in forests reviewed (Vanleeuwe, 2009). There are still no answers to basic questions such as how many elephants there are in forests and if it possible for people to live in close proximity to such a large bulldozer herbivore, but research is moving forward as the papers in this issue demonstrate.