by Deborah Hadfield
Elephants are big, beautiful but bad neighbours. In southern Africa, local people know how dangerous they can be.
Award-winning author Sue Tidwell, who wrote the book Cries of the Savannah, says they need to be managed because they can be destructive. She says: “They eat so much, and they cause a lot of damage to water systems and all kinds of things like that. So you have to take a different approach depending on what part of the continent you’re on.”
Danene van der Westhuyzen of ARU Safaris in Namibia says people in her country would want fewer elephants instead of more if there were ont value to be had from hunting them. She says: “Communities live with wildlife on a daily basis. People have to walk to schools for kilometres in the morning while it’s still pitch black. They always have a risk of walking into an elephant or a lion.”
She says local people put their lives on the line. She says: “They’ve got small areas of acreage of crops that they grow. If an elephant tramples on that or a person, they’ve lost everything they have.”
One solution, says the International Fund for Animal Welfare, IFAW, is to allow the animals to ‘migrate’. It has come up with a plan, Room to Roam. The animal rights group wants to create extended elephant corridors in Africa that allow the animals room to move freely, not just across adjacent borders but across the length and breadth of nearly half the continent. Hunters and conservationists say it’s not practical. Elephants don’t migrate more than a few miles from their home range and, if they do, they don’t follow set migration paths set for them by animal rights groups.
Rob Lurie of the Zimbabwe Professional Hunter and Guides Association says it’s impossible to create a corridor.
He says: “There are people in between everywhere in Africa who can’t live with the elephants. Those that do live with the elephants do it on the premise that we can hunt them. We can create some sort of a balance where they get protein from it and compensation for the damage that’s done to crops.”
He describes a village which has elephants moving through it as children walk to school. He says: “It’s not what they want. It’s a compromise. It’s done when we have hunting safaris, because people can see value in the elephants and work around them. But the corridor model that’s being looked at just can’t work.”
In many areas, there are too many elephants, and they are driving out other species. In other areas, there are too few. Africa once had an estimated 10 million of the animals. Now that number is around half a million which, says IUCN, makes them endangered. IFAW claims climate change means elephants in some areas of Africa could be threatened with extinction.
Dries Van Coller of the Professional Hunters Association of South Africa says it’s a misconception that there are too many elephants. He says: “There’s a difference between managing elephants as a species and managing elephants as a population.
“A lot of people look at the species and they think that the elephant as a species is endangered, where it’s not. If we have a look at populations in southern Africa are really exploding.”
He says it is populations in the north of Africa which haven’t been protected that are in demise. He says: “We see organisations such as the Humane Society International coming forward and saying elephants are endangered now in South Africa. They’ve come up with a project to actually put our elephants onto contraception.”
He says it’s contradiction. He says: “Our populations grow every year astronomically. We don’t have space for elephants.”
Conservations say an elephant corridor is not the solution as the animals seldom travel further than 100km and they can’t read maps. Rob Lurie doesn’t believe they’ll follow a ‘corridor’. He says elephants have their home range.
He says: “They’ll typically hang around in that area. We’re talking about asking these ones to move. It’s not practical.”
Bruce’s Martin of Lake Albert Safaris is legendary famous for re-establishing the Kob antelope in Uganda, which paid for by hunting.
He says when elephants are moved the terrain closes up and the populations suffer. He doesn’t support the idea of the corridor as he fears the disruption will impact the animals.
Conservationists are also concerned that other projects by animal rights organisations have failed because, although they looked good on paper, they weren’t workable.
One plan to catch poachers with a camp was quickly abandoned. Guy Whittall of Roger Whitall Safaris says there was no consultation, and the camp was put in the wrong place. He says: “It was just a bunch of money thrown into something. And you’ll see with the evidence that it’s just it’s a shack that was put up. The ants have eaten away at the timber. Nothing was finished. Nothing was followed up with. It was just an allocation of money, and nothing happened.”
Conservations fears that, even if IFAW can overcome the issues of protecting people, the corridor doesn’t offer the long-term benefits that regulated hunting tourism does for paying for wildlife.
Rob Lurie questions what the benefits are from the corridor. He says: “When you’re in a hunting area and you’re invested in the area, you’re protecting it for long term to continue with it. But a lot of these organisations we see come in and don’t do what they say they’re going to do long term.”
He says the proposal may be a temporary thing to please donors. He says: “It’s not long term. And that’s our concern: when does the money run out from that? It’s often donor money and it’s temporary. It’s emotional money that’s here but, in two- or three-years’ time, is it going to be there? And it costs money to protect these areas, to protect the environment.
“The hunting business model is sustainable.”
Sue says it’s important to understand what it’s like for the people of Africa.
She says: “We have to take into consideration what it’s like for them to live it with these animals that we adore from afar. In some areas elephants are devastatingly overpopulated.”
She says elephants are destroying habitat not only for themselves but for other wildlife that are decreasing because there is not enough for them to forage.
Conservationists say the Room to Roam plan is flawed because it prioritises elephants over people. It will make human-wildlife conflicts worse not better.