Namibia, Elephant Hunting Pros And Cons

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    Namibia, Elephant Hunting Pros And Cons
    by Dr. Keith Legget

    There have recently been a large number of newspaper articles and a certain amount of controversy surrounding elephant hunting in the communal areas of northwest Namibia. A lot of confusing and erroneous information has been published and this paper has been written in order to contribute some science to the debate. It has been developed on the basis of data obtained by Dr Keith Leggett over a 10 year period (1999-2008) on a group of 56 elephants resident in the hyper-arid regions of western Namibia.

    The elephant hunting debate tends to be an emotional one, but should more correctly focus on what constitutes sustainable off-take for the relevant elephant population. Quantifying the sustainable off-take for any animal population is a difficult question that encompasses three different (and often contradictory) aspects:

    (a) biological sustainability - i.e., the proposed off-take will not decrease the overall population genetics, reproductive potential, distribution and densities of the targeted species;

    (b) economic sustainability - the price of any item is dependent on how much people are prepared to pay for it, so what population levels would meet this need? At a basic level, does the animal have more value dead or alive? If people will pay for the chance to hunt an animal, it obviously has value but, if too many animals are offered for sale through hunting permits, then the price per unit will decrease. Non-consumptive tourism must also be factored in here. How much is the animal worth alive to the photographic and safari tourism industries? If the animals have no intrinsic value (either cultural or economic) while alive, poaching and non-sustainable practices will prevail because the animals are perceived as having more value dead. When populations are large, the loss of an individual will have very little impact on the revenues returned from either consumptive or non-consumptive tourism.

    However, if the population is small, the impact of removing an individual will be proportionally much more significant. There are also international repercussions to be considered, in particular the image of the country abroad and its effect on the perceptions of potential tourists; and,

    (c) social sustainability - how many animals are people prepared to accept in their immediate vicinity before those animals start to impact adversely on their lives and livelihoods? In the modern era this is probably the most important national consideration for all animal populations outside protected areas.

    In the context of northwest Namibia (Kunene Region), there are approximately 760 elephants (MET survey 2000) between the Ugab River in the south and the Kunene River in the north. Of these, only about 160 elephants live to the west of the 100mm rainfall isohyet, and these are the true desert-dwelling elephants.

    The rest are in the area to the east of this, where rainfall is higher and vegetation more plentiful.

    Western Desert-Dwelling Elephants

    The reproductive rate of the western desert-dwelling elephants varies considerably and is dependent on environmental conditions. A previous researcher reported a reproduction rate of 1.8% during a drought period, while during the study period, 14 calves have been born (reproduction rate of ~2.5%). These reproductive rates are low compared to those elephant populations in higher rainfall areas that have reported growths of up to 5.6% (e.g., 3.3% in Etosha National Park). The issue of calf mortality has also been raised; I have observed the death of 3 calves (from 14 calves born) before 12 months of age. This constitutes a calf mortality rate of approximately 20%, which is relatively high as most elephant populations have reported calf mortality rates of less than 10% (except during drought conditions). I believe the reason for the low reproductive levels in the western regions is due to the effect of the arid environment and lack of nutritious vegetation on the females' ability to conceive. Of the 760 elephants in the entire Kunene Region, we can assume that ~380 are female (most mammal populations reproduce at approximately a 50/50 ratio).

    It is probable that more than 50% of the Kunene Region population is female. Males are less abundant due to a combination of factors, not the least is that the "in musth" bulls will drive away lesser males. While the number of bulls may be irrelevant until extremely low numbers are reached, the number of females is critical. At the current population levels and at a reproductive level of 1.8% (worst case), 13 new calves and, at 3.3% (best case), 25 new calves, will be born annually, approximately half of which will be male.

    I have been GPS collaring elephants in the area since 2002 and the data collected in that period shows an east/west and north/south movement of mainly the large males out of Etosha into the Omusati Region in the north and into the Kunene Region in the west. The male home range in the area varies from ~2500km2 to 15000km2. The family units have much smaller home ranges and tend to be resident in much smaller areas.

    Figure 1 shows the home ranges of 21 GPS collared elephants in northwest Namibia since 2002; currently only eight adult males have GPS collars. These GPS collared elephants are extremely valuable not only in terms of their scientific value but the GPS collars cost approximately $US7500 (including fitting) and should not be professionally hunted under any circumstances.

    My understanding of the new quotas is that 6 bulls will be shot in the Kunene Region (eastern and western sections) over a 2 year period. While the elephant population of the region is capable of sustaining this level of off-take at the present time, the question remains as to whether they are able to sustain this level of off-take in the longer term, and I suggest that they are probably not. However, the MET has stated that this is a one-off quota and, while this is always subject to political will, the quota will probably not be repeated for several years so the longer-term sustainability of such an off-take rate does not need to be considered at present.

    It has been argued that this quota will adversely affect the genetic variation and biological viability of elephants in the Kunene Region elephant populations. Quantifying the number of males necessary for the successful growth and genetic integrity of a population is very difficult.

    If you consider that 3 individuals from separate populations can carry up to 80% of the genetic diversity of the entire species, then there are more than enough individuals here to maintain sufficient genetic diversity. It has also been suggested that successful reproduction only needs one male elephant for 10 females (even higher ratios have been suggested by some studies), so the proposed off-take will not affect the population's genetic integrity or its reproductive potential. What may occur is a skewing in the population age structure where younger males are the only ones left to breed.

    This may not be of concern as they are still capable of breeding. There will simply not be the fierce competition (in terms of sheer numbers) for females that normally occurs in male elephant societies. This could have implications for the "best individual" passing his genes on to the next generation.

    However, I seriously doubt that there will be a decrease in tusk size and "fitness" in the short term (i.e., in the next 60 years or so) as the bigger tusked and stronger bulls which are likely to be targeted by hunters will have already passed those genes on to the next generations. Whether there will be any longer-term effect cannot be gaged at this time, however, this will depend largely on whether (and when) further quotas are granted for this area.

    Sustain the Off-Take

    While, biologically speaking, the population can sustain the off-take, I would like to see only specially selected elephants shot (i.e., those that are too old to reproduce). The debate about older males contributing to populations - whether and to what extent they might do so - has been discussed for years without resolution. Personally I believe that, where populations are under stress from poaching or overexploitation, the older males can and do play a vital breeding role. However, in healthy populations with a male hierarchical structure in place, where dominance is determined by physical mass, tusk size and aggression, the older bulls (55+ years) simply cannot compete with males in their prime (35-45 years). The argument about older males contributing to the "knowledge base" of the herds does have some basis in fact. However, from the GPS studies, it appears that the younger males have "wanderlust", often moving large distances in no fixed pattern. Once they establish areas where they know they are relatively safe and can find abundant food and water, they will settle into seasonal movements between known areas. Musthing adult males are also known to travel long distances and undertake almost constant movement in search for receptive females, but this does not seem to affect their seasonal ranges.

    Certainly this seems to be the case for the bulls in the western Kunene Region. They also tend to be loners or congregate only in small groups: they do not form bachelor herds. In fact, they spend more time with the family units, coming and going from and between them, than they do in groups with other males.

    At the moment, the rural people living in close association with the elephants are, and have been, extremely tolerant of elephants, so much so that the elephant population has rebounded from a low of approximately 270 elephants (Damaraland) in the early 1980s to today's levels. The numbers of elephants are currently at historically high levels, approximating those of the 1960s. To achieve this population rebound, a tremendous amount of support has been required from communities, NGOs and Government offices. While it is a difficult pill for many conservationists to swallow, it is probably better to keep the goodwill of the communities and Government than to risk marginalisation on this issue. If the local population once again turns to poaching either for profit or out of a genuine fear of elephants, this cannot be controlled and larger numbers of elephants will die than they would from trophy hunting.

    Critically, I feel, what has not been discussed in this debate is the issue of "problem elephant control".

    While I do not believe that professional hunting will have a serious affect on the current elephant population, the combination of elephant hunting and problem animal control may well have a serious impact on male populations, especially in areas where these populations are not augmented by elephants moving out of Etosha National Park. 12 elephants have been shot on problem animal control in the Kunene Region between September 2006 and September 2007 (B. Fox, One of the elephants shot had a GPS collar and I was able to trace his movements and show that the amount of time he spent in the area where he was shot was actually less than 14% of the total time he spent in the Kunene Region. In my opinion, this issue is the one that needs to be addressed more urgently than that of professional hunting.

    Keith Legget is of the Namibian & Giraffe Trust


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