Elephant Carrying Capacity Is An Antiquated Concept
Jared Kukura
24th November 2019

The concept of carrying capacity gets thrown around a lot when countries and parks complain about having too many elephants. However, carrying capacity has no relevance in highly variable environments and is simply an excuse to exploit elephant populations.

Botswana’s president, Mokgweetsi Masisi, announced trophy hunting licenses will be given out in December in preparation for the upcoming elephant hunting season. Beginning April 2020, elephants will be hunted again in Botswana for the first time since 2014.

Masisi claims the move will reduce human-elephant conflict (HEC) and create more sustainable elephant populations. Botswana officials state the current population of 130,000 is more than double the country’s carrying capacity of 50,000 elephants.

Carrying capacity is the greatest number of individuals an environment can support with the available resources. The concept was borrowed from agriculture and livestock ranching where maximum utilization was the name of the game.

Despite evidence demonstrating carrying capacity has little value in describing herbivore-plant relationships in highly variable environments, many continue to promote it as a proper management tool. And some, like Botswana’s president, use it as a political tool to kill elephants.

Botswana officials claim their 260,000 sq. km of land can support 0.2 elephants per sq. km, or 50,000 elephants. Others suggest the carrying capacity is actually 0.4 elephants per sq. km and that makes a population of 130,000 reasonable.

David Cumming is one of the most cited experts when it comes to elephant carrying capacity. Look at any study on elephant carrying capacity and you will, most likely, see his name in the list of references. His studies helped popularize the idea elephants begin negatively impacting woodlands at 0.2 per sq. km and completely decimate woodlands at 0.5 per sq. km.

Cumming has also been a proponent of culling elephants to maintain biodiversity. He’s stated he successfully increased biodiversity by killing elephants in Zimbabwe, although only through personal observation. It’s important to note his personal observations lack scientific backing and contradict past experiments.

Allan Savory is notorious for slaughtering 40,000 elephants in Zimbabwe during the 1960s in efforts to reverse desertification. But he discovered elephants weren’t the problem and his cull did nothing to prevent desertification.

Kruger National Park (KNP) mirrored Savory’s failed experiment. After being reintroduced to the park, elephant populations grew to about 7,000 by the 1960s. KNP started culling elephants because biologists felt elephants were contributing to tree loss.

KNP stopped culling elephants in the 1990s after public opinion started shifting and CITES banned the ivory trade. However, the three decades of culling did not demonstrate any effectiveness in preventing tree loss.

Clearly, we still don’t understand how elephants interact with their environments and what adding or removing them will do. Some see those results as evidence our current accepted carrying capacity numbers are too high. Others will say the results point to the carrying capacity being much higher than accepted.

Cumming also argued against higher carrying capacities of 1-3 elephants per sq. km stating early written records from hunters and explorers do not corroborate those numbers. It is, again, his personal feeling much of Eastern and Southern Africa was primarily woodlands supporting small elephant densities for at least the last 500-1,000 years.

It’s interesting Cumming argues against historically higher elephant density numbers considering there were an estimated 26 million elephants only two centuries ago. The African elephant’s historic range covers much of Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). SSA incorporates just over 23 million sq. km of land. This means that even up until 1800, elephant densities must have averaged at least 1.0 elephants per sq. km.

If Cumming is arguing most of Eastern and Southern Africa did not support densities above 1.0 elephants per sq. km, he is also arguing other areas of the continent must have supported much, much greater densities.

There are so many studies seeking to prove or disprove elephant densities negatively or positively affecting habitats and biodiversity. The only thing clear is anyone arguing for maintaining lower elephant densities is grasping at straws for reasons to kill elephants.

Anytime someone claimed elephant densities were too high and slaughtered elephants, they didn’t get the results they were expecting. What Botswana is trying to do has nothing to do with wildlife management. It’s just another way for a few wealthy individuals to make money by exploiting elephants.

We must remember, there are not too many elephants.

Studies noted in this article are also shared in the forums section of the site. Check it out to see other studies on wildlife conservation or to start discussions on other topics!

Original article: https://wildthingsinitiative.com/elephant-carrying-capacity-is-an-antiquated-concept/