Scientists write letter to Botswana president about elephants

Elephants in Botswana - Okavango

By Africa Geographic - 

The following letter (see below) has been sent to Dr. Mokgweetsi Eric Keabetswe Masisi, President of Botswana, with regard to elephant management in Botswana.

The letter offers evidence of options for managing elephants and reducing conflict between them and the people who share their range, and that conflict is not unavoidable and unresolvable.

“Botswana has a unique opportunity to extend existing efforts for coexistence with elephants,” state the authors, “while simultaneously promoting ecosystem conservation and sustainable rural livelihoods…for the benefit of all.”

The letter is signed by a number of scientists and campaigners.

Read the letter below:

Your Excellency, President Dr. Masisi

We are writing in response to ongoing debate over elephant management in Botswana. In particular, we wish to discuss the diverging opinions over options for managing elephants and reducing conflict between them and the people who share their range. We are in full agreement with your Government that equitable solutions must be found so that rural livelihoods are maintained and improved while elephant populations and their ecosystems are conserved.

However, we are concerned that much of the rhetoric is giving the impression that conflict is both unavoidable and unresolvable. Viewing conflict as the only inevitable outcome when elephants and people share land encourages a confrontational approach that is likely to exacerbate problems for both. We recognise how difficult it must be to cope with political pressure surrounding human-elephant conflict. At the same time, we believe that science offers important insights that can help managers improve human livelihoods through coexistence with elephants.

In several instances, we have seen the media portray Botswana as having “too many elephants”. The current population of some 130,000 elephants is said to be growing, or even “exploding”, although evidence from surveys shows that numbers have not increased significantly since at least 2006 and it is likely that densities (numbers per unit area) have remained fairly steady since the late 1990s, at a level dictated by their food and water supplies. A hypothetical figure of 54,000 (equivalent to 0.33/km2) has been pronounced as the correct number for Botswana’s ecological “carrying capacity”, with elephants said to be out of balance with plant communities. Such speculative statements confuse and inflame the public, damaging elephant, ecosystem and human interests.

Botswana’s long experience of drought or flood years, and the great changes in the water levels in the Okavango Delta, Lake Ngami and the Boteti River, makes clear the degree to which semi-arid savanna ecosystems vary over time, defying the concept of a stable balance. Ecological changes occur both on a broad geographic scale covering whole landscapes, and over time scales that span decades.

Elephants were almost exterminated across much of Africa by hunters in the obsession for ivory that occurred in the 18th and 19th centuries, and rinderpest killed many species of antelopes in the late 1800s. With few animals to disturb the adult trees or their seedlings, woodlands spread across wide areas. When the elephants and impalas returned again later in the 20th century, the woodlands near water sources were cut back and restored to their previous condition.

Moving forward, we believe that allowing elephants to naturally and safely disperse within northern Botswana and across the KAZA Transfrontier Conservation Area provides the best management solution to the current situation. Wildlife corridors that facilitate elephant movements, through areas that are being settled by people, already exist. Elephants know where these corridors are and will readily use them as long as they remain open and protected. Encouraging elephant movements would reduce pressure on any one area rather than concentrating their activities, and would protect human interests from elephant impacts. It also allows ecosystems to benefit from the ecological and economic good that elephants provide.

Effective maintenance of corridors is already underway in Ngamiland, through zoning by the Tawana Land Board, combined deterrence (with chillies, beehives and electric fences) to protect crops, and improvements in rural livelihoods in partnerships with farmers.

Botswana has a unique opportunity to extend existing efforts for coexistence with elephants, while simultaneously promoting ecosystem conservation and sustainable rural livelihoods across KAZA for the benefit of all. We hope your country will seize this opportunity to build on the evidence-based approach and demonstrate the benefits of sharing landscapes between people and wildlife across Africa.


(initial signatories in alphabetical order)

Victoria Boult, Research Scientist, University of Reading
Vicki Fishlock, Resident Scientist, Amboseli Trust for Elephants
Phyllis Lee, Emeritus Professor, University of Stirling
WK Lindsay, Collaborating Researcher, Amboseli Trust for Elephants (corresponding author)
Cynthia Moss, Director, Amboseli Trust for Elephants
Joyce Poole, Director, Elephant Voices
Ian Redmond, Elephant biologist and Ambassador to the Convention on Migratory Species (CMS)
Rudi van Aarde, Emeritus Professor of Zoology and Chair: Conservation Ecology Research Unit, University of Pretoria



Elephants in the room

Maxwell Gomera, Neville Ash - 

Balance: Elephants are found in 37 African countries, including Kenya. But the herds and their habitats are threatened and people remain divided over how to protect them. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)

Balance: Elephants are found in 37 African countries, including Kenya. But the herds and their habitats are threatened and people remain divided over how to protect them. (Goran Tomasevic/Reuters)


World Elephant Day was held on August 12 to bring attention to the plight of the Asian and African pachyderm.

Recently President Mokgweetsi Masisi suspended a ban on elephant hunting in Botswana, home to the largest herd on the planet. The decision revealed deeply seated divides in attitudes and beliefs regarding the appropriate management strategies for the protection of wildlife.

Debates further exposed polarised approaches to the conservation and management of elephants. One approach suggests that elephants should be managed commercially — including through hunting — for consumptive and non-consumptive uses to protect the elephant populations, their environment and the farming economy.
Another approach suggests that nature should be left alone and allowed to regulate itself with minimal interference, especially without harvesting the population.

Both sides in the extreme of the debate are convinced that they have the answers and promote their views fervently. Consequently, we have lost sight of the fact that neither perspective is fully informed by science and we are under-investing in improving our knowledge of elephant management. Too much is left to subjective opinion. Until we stop relying on conventional wisdom and emotions, and begin to double-down on reliable research and on-the-ground experience to understand the finite ability of nature to sustain elephants, we risk losing wildlife habitats and thus elephants.

The shortcomings of current management science have been revealed repeatedly. In the 1990s, Zimbabwe asserted that its total maximum carrying capacity for elephants was about 40 000. Today the country hosts more than double that number. One park in northwestern Zimbabwe, Hwange National Park, has 40 000 elephants, which alone is more than the entire elephant herd of Kenya or of South Africa.

The fact that elephants have doubled in number, yet habitats seem intact, raises scepticism about Zimbabwe’s elephant population estimates and of the concept of carrying capacity. Similarly, Botswana to the west also asserts that its carrying capacity is about 55 000, but it hosts 130 000 elephants.

The Great Elephant Census, funded by the late Paul Allen’s Vulcan Foundation, is the first comprehensive aerial headcount of elephants. It surveyed African savannah elephants in 18 countries, generating more accurate data for managers to assess population status and growth and the effects of threats such as poaching and habitat loss. This is the kind of work that needs to be done on a more regular basis at the regional and national scales.

But, given that the extent of habitat deterioration remains poorly understood, such work must be extended to include habitat monitoring and the effects of increasing wildlife populations on the natural environment and on people’s livelihoods.

Furthermore, although exceeding perceived notions of carrying capacity does not always lead to the immediate collapse of habitats, but rather to their slow deterioration, it nonetheless can lead to rapid collapse. For example, in 2018, a project to rewild a Dutch marshland allowed populations of large herbivores, including red deer, Konik horses and Heck cattle, to grow unchecked. As thousands of animals starved to death soon after implementation, the project sparked a backlash with calls for a halt to the rewilding principle of allowing “natural processes” to determine herbivore populations

Tragedies like this are a product of the common misunderstanding that notions of carrying capacity relate to a fixed quantity, whereas in reality they fluctuate over time. The occurrence of such disasters could be forecasted and avoided with increased investments in scientific research. In the case of elephant habitats, the carrying capacity is limited not only by human destruction of habitats but also by the ways in which elephants transform their ecosystem — and the ecosystem on which all other species, including people, rely for their existence. Consider the enormous scale of 200 litres of water and 500kg of forage being consumed by a single adult elephant in the wild each day.

Yet critics of active management are persistently putting pressure on countries where elephants range freely to maintain large herds. In turn, some of these range states are pointing to the immense constraints and costs on the ground of maintaining elephant herds. These costs extend to loss of human life and livelihoods.

To be sure, there are meaningful contributions to scientific research already being made through government and nongovernment organisations as well as through innovative funding mechanisms such as the Community Conservation Fund for Africa and the Lion’s Share Fund, which enable tourists and firms to contribute to conservation.

We need the courage to pursue ideas that may seem unexpected, because they may turn out to hold the best solutions for the elephants and habitats we seek to protect. There is no one solution that works for all situations. Science offers us the tools to move closer to objective solutions, and away from conventional and subjective appeals.

The choices are tough.

Maxwell Gomera is a director of the biodiversity and ecosystem services branch at the United Nations Environment Programme. Neville Ash is the director of the UN Environment World Conservation Monitoring Centre

Maxwell Gomera

Maxwell Gomera

Maxwell Gomera is a director of the biodiversity and ecosystem services branch of UN Environment and a 2018 fellow of Aspen New Voices. He is an expert on public investments in agriculture and nature