Last week, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released an update to its Red List assessment of African elephant, concluding that the species suffered a significant population reduction between the 1970s and 2016. But the IUCN acknowledged that the decline is not uniform across the elephant’s range, and that elephant populations are most secure in the southern African countries where they are hunted.
For the first time based on consensus in the genetic research, the IUCN divided the species into two distinct subspecies: the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), which it listed as Critically Endangered, and the savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana), which it listed as Endangered. In prior assessments, African elephants were treated as a single species and listed in the lower threat category of Vulnerable.
The revised assessment used data from the 2016 African Elephant Status Report, which estimated a continent-wide population of approximately 415,000 elephants. The authors developed a model based on these data and concluded that elephant populations have declined over the last 30 to 50 years. According to the model, forest elephant populations fell by 80% over a 31-year period, and savanna elephant populations fell by 65% since the 1970s. The authors blame the demand for illicit ivory and the escalating pressure on wildlife habitat as primary drivers of this decline. But it is important to understand that the assessment analyzed the past trend in elephant populations through 2016, and during a period of historically high poaching. Poaching, while still a major threat, has leveled off in many areas of Africa. Furthermore, the use of these long-term historical trends is not necessarily useful for modern conservation solutions or in the context of management issues. Over the same time period, much of Africa has developed out of poverty and the continued growth of human populations poses a challenge to habitat conservation in the immediate future.
Critically, the assessment also determined that elephants are not declining in every part of their range and are even increasing in some places. According to Dr. Dave Balfour, one of the authors of this assessment and member of the IUCN African Elephant Specialist Group, “it is important to keep in mind that at a site level, some subpopulations are thriving. For this reason, considerable caution and local knowledge are required when translating these results into policy.”
As an NGO member organization of the IUCN, Safari Club International Foundation (SCIF) contributed funding for the 2016 IUCN Elephant Status Report, which still serves as the most accurate source of population information. SCIF has supported wildlife conservation efforts, including anti-poaching operations, in a dozen African countries, for decades, and has hosted the annual African Wildlife Consultative Forum (AWCF) since 2002. Exploring and sharing successful methods of elephant management and the development of regional and national plans have always been priority topics discussed at the AWCF by African wildlife managers.
“The IUCN has shown what we at SCIF have been saying for many years: There are elephant populations that are stable and thriving,” says Laird Hamberlin, CEO of Safari Club International and Safari Club International Foundation (SCI and SCIF). “The countries and communities that have implemented successful conservation programs for elephant and other species should be recognized and supported. That includes countries that fund conservation through hunting income.”
Ignoring Dr. Balfour’s call for balanced and informed actions, the general media and anti-hunters immediately broadcasted that the IUCN declared African elephants on the verge of disappearing. Anti-hunting groups are using the Red List assessment as grounds for an immediate halt to elephant hunting and bans on all trophy imports. These activists simply ignore the Red List’s findings that elephants are doing well in the countries where they are hunted.
The Red List assessment specifically points out that, despite the overall declining trend, successful conservation efforts exist, particularly in countries with sport-hunting and community-based conservation programs. These include Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, South Africa, Namibia and others in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region. Anti-poaching measures on the ground, with more supportive legislation and land use planning that fosters human-wildlife coexistence, have been key to successful elephant conservation. For example, savanna elephant numbers have been stable or growing for decades in areas like the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA). Three of the five countries making up this area (Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe) have long included safari hunting of elephant in their community-based conservation programs. In fact, elephant hunting specifically represents the majority of revenue from sustainable-use tourism to both Namibia and Zimbabwe’s communal areas. Namibia’s elephant numbers have grown steadily, with community-based natural resource management programs proving highly successful. Zimbabwe, where CAMPFIRE communities receive income from elephant safaris, also has thriving elephant populations. A fourth KAZA country, Botswana, recently decided to reopen safari hunting after a five-year closure because elephant numbers skyrocketed, expanded outside the elephant’s normal range, and threatened the livelihoods of rural Botswanans.
“Botswana has an estimated 130,000 elephants and the population is growing, not declining,” says Director of Wildlife and National Parks, Kabelo Senyatso. “We use the IUCN Red List as a tool when implementing our conservation programs. We lifted the hunting moratorium on elephant in order to generate sustainable income for our communities, not to control the elephant numbers.”
Despite attacks from the international media and COVID tourism lockdowns, Botswana says this new IUCN assessment will not change their mind to reopen elephant hunting, which finally began on April 6. Sale of special permits raised USD $2 million for the country’s community development trust. SCI and SCIF have been leading supporters of Botswana’s efforts, awarding the President of Botswana, His Excellency Mokgweetsi Masisi, with the SCI 2019 International Legislator of the Year Award and working with Botswana representatives to plan and host the 2020 virtual and 2021 AWCF events.
“The IUCN correctly pointed to elephant conservation programs that rely on regulated hunting and, most importantly, rural community support to successfully recover and protect elephant populations,” said Joe Goergen, Conservation Manager and IUCN lead for SCIF. “The call to implement sweeping bans flies in the face of the IUCN’s assessment of successful elephant management and will punish many of the countries that have done the work to stabilize and grow elephant numbers, and their rural communities who depend on the revenues and meat from regulated elephant hunting.”
“The IUCN is right. There are two kinds of elephants; those that are struggling due to unmitigated poaching and dwindling habitat; and those where governments and landholders have set aside wild areas, implemented programs to incentivize communities to protect elephant, and invested in efforts to counter the commercial poaching rings that decimate elephant populations,” said Dr. Chris Comer, Director of Conservation at SCIF and an experienced wildlife biologist. “Overwhelmingly, the elephants that are doing well are located in Southern African countries, particularly in SADC countries, where elephant management includes both non-consumptive and consumptive use of the species.
“At SCIF, we agree that elephant populations have declined in some parts of Africa, particularly in West Africa,” continues Comer, “But it is unreasonable to expect that today’s populations can be returned to those of 1970. Today’s elephant populations face over 50 years of habitat development and greatly increased human populations. So, we need to focus on conserving the elephant populations that we have and the habitats that we can still maintain. That means incentivizing landholders, particularly rural communities, to protect the habitat needed to accommodate wide roaming herds of the world’s largest land mammal. And that means communities need to benefit from elephant.”
In the SADC countries that rely on regulated hunting to support their wildlife conservation efforts, the amount of habitat set aside in safari hunting areas is 1.5 to over 5 times larger than land set aside in strictly protected national parks. In fact, 1.4 million square kilometers of land is conserved for hunting in Africa. That is more than all formally protected areas on the continent combined, exceeding the total national park area by 22%, or an area over twice the size of Texas.
Setting aside land in hunting areas ultimately results in millions more acres of available habitat than in countries without hunting programs. Without the incentives from regulated hunting, that critically important elephant range will be lost to the other land uses that the IUCN warns is a major factor in the decline of elephant numbers.
In places where elephant populations are stable or growing, such as Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, human-wildlife conflicts increased in 2020. Rural communities have been forced to tolerate lost crops, damaged irrigation systems, bodily injury, loss of human life, and other destruction caused by elephants.
“Our people are suffering. For them elephants are not endangered. It is their loved ones and neighbors who are in danger while tending their fields or livestock,” says Charles Jonga, Director of Zimbabwe’s community-based conservation program known as CAMPFIRE. “Elephant are abundant in Zimbabwe’s CAMPFIRE areas, and we should be able to manage these animals in a manner that rewards communities for tolerating them while also ensuring that elephant numbers remain stable.”
“From our perspective on the ground in Botswana, we cannot understand the IUCN’s new ‘endangered’ status assessment,” says Siyoka Simasiku, Director of the Ngamiland Council of NGOs. “Here in our community areas of northern Botswana, we have too many elephants. We live with the conflict of elephants raiding our crops, destroying our fences, damaging our water supply, and pay for it in human lives. Elephants are not endangered here.”
The Red List assessment should not be hijacked for political use to shut down the very sustainable-use conservation programs that have ensured elephants continue to thrive throughout Southern Africa. Hunting has contributed to the recovery of biodiversity around the world, including the Southern white rhino, which has grown from 30 individuals in the 1900s to over 21,000 today. Other species include the black rhino, Hartmann’s mountain zebra, markhor and argali sheep.
“Elephant are not in danger of disappearing. Hopefully, the next assessment by the IUCN will fully reflect the work of Southern Africa in stabilizing and improving elephant numbers in that region of the continent,” says Dr. Comer. “Dr. Balfour is right in that we need site-level understanding of what has worked, and we need to find creative ways to conserve habitats and manage human-elephant conflicts. A cookie cutter approach is not going to work here. And most of all, proposed bans on elephant hunting or trophy imports will only harm this species by reducing conservation incentives.”