Wildlife Management in Botswana

Ron Thomson

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Jun 27, 2009
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Wildlife Management in Botswana


To my knowledge there has been no pro-active wildlife management conducted in Botswana - ever. Cordon sanitaire fences were erected many years ago to separate Botswana’s commercial cattle industry from the infectious disease reservoir in its wildlife - particularly foot-and-mouth disease - and a game fence was erected along the southern part of the international boundary with Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park for the same reason.

These fences brought huge criticism from the international public when it became known they had caused the deaths of large numbers of wild animals. From a veterinary point of view, however, the fences were deemed necessary to protect the country’s lucrative beef exports to Europe.

The biggest wildlife management issue in Botswana is its huge elephant population – which has had serious ramifications on wildlife habitats and wildlife populations. As early as 1960 scientists first warned the Botswana government that elephants were causing irreparable damage to the Chobe National Park habitats.

Nobody knows what the elephant population was in 1960 but the official 2000 elephant count was 120 604 - which was more than double the number recorded in 1990. Using 120 000 as a baseline, and the fact that the elephant population is at least doubling its numbers every ten years, it can be calculated that there must be 180 000 elephants in Botswana today. It can also be calculated – by halving the population numbers every ten years and moving backwards in time – that the 1960 elephant population was then only 7 500.

Seven thousand five hundred was not, however, the sustainable elephant carrying capacity of the then still healthy habitats in 1960 - because there was, then, already irreparable elephant habitat damage happening. The sustainable number was probably only 5 000. We can therefore say, with a high degree of confidence, that Botswana is currently 3 600% overstocked with elephants. The habitat will not, at this point in time, however, sustainably carry even 5000 elephants because, since 1960, the habitat has been trashed by a progressively a more excessive elephant population ever year.

My assessment is that 95% of the trees and other plants comprising the Chobe riverine forest, have been eliminated over the last 46 years. I further estimate that 99% of the Combretum/Acacia woodland that once grew on the broad and rich alluvial soils immediately behind the riverine forest strip, is gone. Damage of varying degrees has also been caused to the mixed teak forest habitats that extend away from the Chobe River for a distance of 25 kilometres. The Chobe River is the only permanent water in the national park.

Severe elephant-induced habitat destruction can be found in Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve, at Savuti, at Linyanti, on many of the islands in the Okavango Delta, and on the Kwando River. The habitats of nearby Namibia’s Mahango, Caprivi-West and Kaudom Game Reserves have been similarly devastated – and the habitats of Botswana’s far-to-the-east Tuli Block have been almost completely destroyed.

All this impacts on the wildlife of the region in a number of ways.

Progressive habitat damage causes the local extinction of large numbers of plants. Favourite elephant food items are the first to disappear followed by those that may not be preferred foods but which are consumed because there is nothing else for the elephants to eat. The plants that elephants eat are also eaten by other animals - which then contribute to the problem. The elephants are more successful competitors, however, so they cause many of these other animal species to go into decline – which has a ripple effect right through the ecosystem. It also adversely affects the top predators because their prey bases are reduced.

A host of other plant species become locally extinct because they can only survive in the micro-climatic conditions that exists in the shade of top canopy trees. When the big trees are killed-off by elephants therefore, these under-story plants die out.

There is a myriad of animal species that are especially adapted to particular habitats. Some animals live ONLY in the top canopies of the bigger trees. Some live ONLY in the under-stories of forests and woodlands, or on the forest floors. When the macro-plants in forest and woodland habitats are destroyed, therefore, all these animals die out, too, because their specialised habitats disappear.

Obvious species in this category are those arboreal creatures that live in the canopies of large trees – and which move through their forest and woodland habitats rarely ever visiting the ground. Certain snakes, chameleons and bush babies are some of the species that face early local extinction when tree canopies become discontinuous because of elephant action. The smaller animals that are adversely affected are too numerous to mention.

The numbers of many of those species of larger animals that CAN survive a high degree of habitat change are also, nevertheless, adversely affected. This means they may survive but they will only do so in small numbers and under conditions of great nutritional stress. A piece of ground can ONLY produce SO MUCH edible vegetation every year – and whatever that amount may be it MUST be shared by ALL those animals that eat it. Elephants are huge beasts that eat an incredible volume of vegetation every day! One does not have to be a rocket scientist, therefore, to understand what happens to a healthy ecosystem, that was designed to sustainably feed ONLY 5 000 elephants, when it is required to support 180 000.

Africa’s national parks were NOT created for the purpose of allowing the uncontrolled proliferation of elephants. They were set aside to maintain a healthy and balanced cross-section of every plant and of every animal that is endemic to the region in which each national park is located. This is NOT happening in Botswana. Instead, the excessive and still expanding elephant population is destroying the country’s all-important species diversity. The only way this bio-diversity can be protected is by managing those excessive populations of animals – whatever their species may be – when they start to threaten the delicate balance that needs to be maintained between the soil, the plants and the animals.

The elephant population of Botswana WILL crash if it is not drastically reduced in number soon. There is no doubt about this. There is also no doubt about the horrific impact the country’s elephants have already had on the habitats and on the country’s species diversity. In my opinion, therefore, the time is long overdue for the general public of Botswana to question the wisdom of its government’s approach to the country’s elephant management problem.

At the same time it must be said that the Botswana government has been consorting with a number of questionable animal rights bedfellows for a long time. It has also been listening to the advice given by a number of South African academicians who have been advising Botswana NOT to cull its elephants.

Professor ‘Jim Fish’, once employed by a leading South African University (now living in America), has conducted an extensive study of habitat destruction by elephants at Chobe. He claims there is no elephant “over-population problem” and says that what is happening in Botswana is “natural”. He claims the habitats will either recover following the crash of the elephant population – or the forests and woodlands will be converted permanently to savannah (treed grasslands). He also states that most of the species lost will return. He says he would be devastated if elephant culling ever took place at Chobe “because it would destroy a fascinating research programme.”

Fish displays his statistics on a screen emblazoned with the IFAW logo - the International Fund for Animal Welfare. I have not yet ascertained his full association with this major animal rights group.

What always amazes me is the fact that the animal rightists oppose culling because they say it is cruel. But what could be MORE cruel than supporting bad management that causes thousands of baby elephant to die miserable and lingering deaths from starvation, or being pulled to pieces by lions and hyenas, which happens over several years preceding an elephant population crash?

Earlier this year I shared a television platform with another South African professor, ‘Joe Soap’. In that programme I presented the case FOR the culling of elephants in Kruger National Park. He presented the case AGAINST culling. The important fact about that television show was not its content but that Soap replaced the Director of IFAW who had been publicly listed as my opponent. I was informed that Soap had been tasked by IFAW to represent its Director because the Director had been unwilling to confront me himself. I was also told that Soap “was charismatic and a good replacement because he was heavily sponsored by IFAW and because he did wildlife research on behalf of IFAW”. I had not known this before!

A single phone call to his university informed me that Professor Soap had been sponsored by IFAW, in 2005, to the tune of R 800 634; and that, by April of this year, he had already received his first IFAW 2006 installment of R 400 000. I did not ask about the value of any previous sponsorships.

Alarum bells began to ring!

Soap is continually telling South African society that elephant culling is not necessary anywhere in Africa. He claims there is ample space to accommodate however many elephants there may be in Africa - and more. He says no national park is overstocked with elephants and that the “so-called” habitat damage elephants cause is merely a small part of a much bigger ecological cycle. He promotes – as an alternative to elephant culling -“mega-parks”. This encompasses the idea that - for example - South Africa’s Kruger National Park, Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou and Hwange national parks, the Botswana elephant parks, the Namibian elephant parks, and Kafue National Park in Zambia, can all be linked with corridors that the elephant populations of all these parks ‘will’ use to link themselves in a single mega-population unit.

He never mentions the fact that adult elephants show great fidelity to their established home ranges out of which they are reluctant to move! It is only the young adults that move out of established game reserves and they do so to get out of the congested habitats ‘at home’ when social pressures become intolerable. When these animals move they seek permanent home ranges of their own - NOT illusionary “migration routes”. Elephants are NOT nomadic animals!

He also never mentions the fact that the land between all these parks is occupied by large human populations. And he ignores the fact – or he is ignorant of it – that elephant breeding herds vacate habitats when the human population exceeds 15 people per square kilometre (40 people per square mile). Neither has he brought into his equation the fact that human rural populations in Africa are doubling their numbers ‘about’ every twenty years.

The human factor ALONE, therefore, mitigates against Mr. Soap’s mega-park theory!

The existing rural human populations have also already virtually destroyed the ecological bridges that are necessary to restock national parks whose habitats and biological diversity have been destroyed by too many elephants. And in the years ahead – with an increasing human population – the destruction of these bridges will be rendered complete. So MOST species that are lost during elephant population rise-and-fall cycles will never return. It is vital, therefore, that we hang on to what biological diversity we have by instituting responsible pro-active management programmes that ensure species DO NOT become locally extinct. THAT means the maintenance of animal populations within their sustainable habitat carrying capacity levels – and this is nowhere more important than with elephants.

Several of Fish’s and Soap’s peers in South Africa are unwilling to speak of the involvement of these scientists with IFAW. Many more do NOT approve. There is a general understanding within the academic community that whatever a scientist publishes has to pass inspection by his peers – which suggests that incorrect material will not pass muster. In reality, however, no academic is really accountable for any recommendation that he makes. Furthermore the comments he makes on television, or in the press, are certainly not censored – and it is these public utterances that do the most damage in the hearts-and-minds of the public!

In the end I wonder if what he says really matters to Soap – and his ilk? What he says in public is the kind of rhetoric that his sponsor wants to hear; and, as a reward, his sponsor keeps him well supplied with funding to research his pie-in-the-sky theories. He who pays the piper calls the tune!

Senior academics that consort with animal rights organisations in order to get research funding are dangerous to wildlife. They are dangerous because their academic standing makes it easy for them to persuade governments that they should NOT introduce pro-active wildlife management programmes - like culling - to their game reserves. The public ALSO listens to them because they are, after all, “professors” – and there is a general perception in society that professors “MUST know what they are talking about!” They are dangerous in another sense, too, because the animal rights organisations use the academic standing of these professors to promote their propaganda as scientific fact.

These scientists should understand that many people – including many of their peers – understand the truth contained in the old adage: “Birds of a feather flock together”. No matter how often or how loudly Professor Soap may protest that he is NOT an animal rightist but a scientist, therefore, many people simply do not believe him. He is certainly a fellow traveler of the animal rights brigade and he has already been tarred by the brush with which he so commonly consorts.

Thank God most of the scientists that I know come from an entirely different mould!

An animal rightist is someone who rejects one of the cornerstone principles of the World Conservation Strategy – that is, man must “use” the world’s living resources, both those that are domesticated AND those that are wild, in a wise and sustainable manner. Animal rightists work to frustrate the attainment of this objective and their fellow travelers help them to achieve their goals.

And these are the people who are advising the Botswana government how to manage its elephants!

The fact that some so-called respectable university professors are fellow-travelers of the animal right brigade is not an issue that society should take lightly. Animal rightists work against the better interests of mankind and they are dangerous to our wildlife. It is their active intention to convince society that all our wildlife management tools should be rendered “socially unacceptable”: to whit and inter alia – animal population reduction, culling, harvesting, trapping, angling and hunting. In agriculture it is their active intention, inter alia, to stop all domestic animal and poultry production, to abolish abattoirs, to stop commercial fishing, to stop pet ownership, and to stop man’s possession and use of live animals in all its forms. They will not be happy until society – to a man – converts to vegetarianism.

Those of us who believe in the sustainable utilisation of wildlife for the benefit of mankind, the pro-active management of wild animal populations for their own benefit, the maintenance of healthy habitats, and the preservation of our biological diversity, should not take this state of affairs lying down. It is time for these kinds of animal rights sponsorships to be investigated and exposed by a responsible, knowledgeable and impartial body of people in society. It is time for society-at-large to be alerted to the danger these people pose – to everybody.

For the sake of our wildlife – everywhere – we cannot allow animal rights organisations to have such open-book access to manipulate our wildlife heritage in this kind of destructive manner.

And someone needs to advise the Botswana government about all these realities!
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