Elephants, a way forward – Issues surrounding the conservation, management and welfare of Africa’s elephants.
28 June 2013


Issues surrounding the conservation, management and welfare of Africa’s elephants are complex.

We now know that elephant numbers in some populations have stabilised naturally, others are increasing, while some populations are being depleted by escalating poaching and ongoing habitat loss. Where elephants are confined by fences, damage to vegetation is real, especially in small protected areas and around water sources. Human-elephant conflict due to crop raiding in areas where elephantsrange onto land where people live is another management concern. It is around these hotspots of contention between humans and elephants where calls to reduce elephant numbers, curb growth rates and reduce impact on people and on natural vegetation, continue to dominate, or rather, complicate, local discussions.

Arguments about elephant management are often extremely polarised. For instance, management to reduce numbers or to confine elephants solicits responses from people concerned about the welfare of elephants. While some interpret these concerns as ‘animal righteousness’ and support culling and hunting to control numbers, animal welfare and associated values should be part and parcel of conservation management decisions, i.e. management cannot be considered in a vacuum. At the end of the day, a concern for the welfare of individual elephants, populations and their habitats should be seen as a realistic and not idealistic management objective. While people sometimes are at odds as to the method employed to limit elephant numbers or their impact on other species, the majority seek the same outcome, a harmonious environment where elephants are not viewed as a ‘problem’. All of these issues need to be addressed and this is where scientific research has a key role to play.

For the past 50 years many scientists have made a concerted effort to contribute to the scientific knowledge that may facilitate the well-being of elephants through appropriate conservation and management measures. This booklet is a further contribution to this effort. It should inform whoever is interested in elephants. The booklet is based onknowledge that Rudi van Aarde and his students, have gained through scientific research on elephants in southern Africa over a period of some 20 years. It has an element of advocacy and calls for the development of ecological networks to conserve elephants and to serve as frameworks for their management.

IFAW has partnered with the Conservation Ecology Research Unit (CERU) of the University of Pretoria on a research programme aimed at understanding the dynamics of elephant populations in southern Africa. IFAW’s interest in the conservation management of elephants in the region spans almost 20 years. Through dedicated support for research and practical solutions, IFAW aims to promote ethical and scientifically sound policy solutions to conservation management predicaments involving elephants.

IFAW trusts that its support of Elephants – a Way Forward will continue this important debate ensuring that all decision making on behalf of elephants is done with their best welfare at heart. – Jason Bell, IFAW, Director Elephant Programme, Director IFAW Southern Africa


About half a million elephants live in Africa’s savannahs. Is this too few, or too many? Before the previous onslaught for ivory half a century ago, we may have had 1.3 million elephants roaming the continent! To regain our losses might not be sensible, or practical. The reason is simple – African savannahs are no longer what they used to be.

Elephants that once might have roamed across most of the continent now mostly live in formally protected areas. In total, these areas probably account for only a third of their former range. Since the previous onslaught on elephants for their ivory, we have set aside more land for conservation and hence may be in a position to support more elephants.

Does this mean that we can regain some of our losses? The answer to this must be no, given that elephants in some 70 per cent of their range across southern Africa now share the land with more people than ever before. The answer also could be that we already have regained our losses and now have more elephants than what the available land can cope with. We simply do not know if this is the case, but we do know that elephants do well on protected land. We hence should not be concerned about regaining earlier numerical losses, but should rather focus on maintaining what we have. Our emphasis should be on recovering and stabilising the ecological processes that can limit elephant numbers and provide for their needs without detracting from the needs of the other species with which they share the land. The needs of elephants are relatively simple – fodder close to water and distant from people, trees under which to shelter from the heat of the day and the cold of the night, as well as enough land to move around on as seasons and resources demand. To provide for these needs we need appropriate space.

In recent years elephant numbers have stabilised in several protected areas. These include areas not exposed to excessive poaching, areas not fenced, and areas that allow for the dispersal of elephants. However, in parts of southern Africa numbers continue to increase where fences hinder movements and where water provisioning releases elephants from ecological limitations. Fences and water also alter space use patterns and this drives the impact elephants have on vegetation and other species. This type of impact continues to fuel calls to reduce elephant numbers, but often is a mere reflection of a dysfunctional ecological system, mostly due to our activities. In such cases emphasis could be on healing the system rather than on blaming elephant numbers.

What management options do we have to heal such systems? Can we stem the impact that elephants have on other species? Is the land that we have set aside for conservation enough to sustain elephants indefinitely? Can elephants take care of themselves, their numbers and their habitat? If not, what can we do to assist them? To address these questions we need to know what causes the perceived elephant problems. Yet, even if we find all the answers, the future of elephants across southern Africa may not be secure, especially with the recent escalation in poaching. Political instability, poor governance, lack of societal values, land degradation and the renewed syndicate-based poaching could derail well-founded conservation measures. Assuring the future well-being of elephants, therefore, is complicated, but science has a role to play in unravelling some of these complex issues.

Scientists, true to their nature, will continue to debate their findings as more information is gathered. Debates will continue to improve our understanding and should not be construed as conflict between scientists or between scientists and society. In addition, the complexity of the situation should neither justify indecision, nor result in support for decisions based on experience and opinion alone. A decision supported by validated information remains the best way forward. This booklet is not a management plan for elephants, or a recipe for dealing with elephant problems. It is an amalgamation of scientific knowledge and experience that calls for the provisioning of space for elephants in order to meet their conservation needs.

What do we mean by space for elephants? In ecologicalterms space is not only about area or size, but also about the land that provides for the variety and distribution of resources that a species needs to persist. These include the variability in living conditions, the distribution of and distances between essential resources, the connectivity between ideal habitat and the configuration of ideal and marginal habitat.


What we know comes from dedicated, long-term and innovative research.

Early research on elephants focused on illustrating their impact on vegetation. Some of these research projects justified culling as a measure to limit elephant numbers. Later on, research on the behavioural ecology of elephants highlighted the intricacies of the social system of free-ranging elephants and found some support for anecdotes of their intellectual abilities.

Long-term studies in East Africa probably yielded most of what we know about the behaviour and life history of savannah elephants. Material from large-scale culls across parts of East and southern Africa between 1960 and 1994 provided detailed information on the population and breeding biology of elephants. At that time the counting of elephants throughout most of the continent, mainly through aerial surveys, also commenced and thereafter became a routine research tool and remains one to this day. Research proliferated, and from 1960 to 2012, the number of research publications on elephants increased exponentially, illustrating not only an increase in research activity but also an increase in the number of scientists participating in such research.

While research questions have changed little over time, research techniques have changed a lot. In addition, technical development has boosted our ability to understand elephants. Scientists now rely on relatively sophisticated technologies, modelling exercises and analytical routines to reduce immense volumes of information into sensible inferences. Modelling exercises improve scientific understanding, but models and their outcomes are only simplifications of reality. These models inevitably include uncertainties, and scientists cannot allow for the uncertainties that occur beyond their simplified realities. They therefore continue to design studies to reduce such uncertainties. Scientists understand this, but others may interpret uncertainty as a shortcoming.

Elephants, evidence and ecology

Ecology as a science plays a pivotal role in society and could advance debate, inform public opinion, assist political decisions and guide the development of conservation and management actions. Scientists have written extensively about Africa’s elephants, much more than on any other African mammal, other than the chimpanzee. Why then write more? Literature accessible to the layperson is mostly in the form of newspapers, wildlife magazines, dedicated internet sources, and books on elephants or African wildlife in general. Some of these are written by scientists and others by journalists and/or keen conservationists. Most of the information provided through these mediums, however, has not been exposed to scientific scrutiny as is typical for information published in scientific journals. This booklet also is not peer reviewed but an interpretation of information that has been published in peer-reviewed journals.

We know where elephants live Southern African savannahs support nearly 39 per cent of the known range of elephants in Africa. About two thirds of all savannah elephants live here, most of them in protected areas that account for about a third of the land area of the sub-region. But elephants also live beyond the boundaries of protected areas. In fact, nearly 70 per cent of their estimated range stretches beyond formally protected zones, and at least a third of southern Africa’s elephants may live on land that is not protected. This includes areas in northern Namibia and northern Botswana, a few places in Zambia, and parts of Zimbabwe, Angola and Mozambique. Some elephants thus exist entirely without the benefits of protected areas, while the ranges of others include, but also extend beyond the boundaries of these areas.

About three quarters of the subcontinent’s elephants live in Botswana (130 000 elephants), Tanzania (110 000) and Zimbabwe (80 000 – 100 000), while countries such as Namibia, South Africa and Mozambique each house fewer than 30 000 elephants. Malawi has few elephants (maybe less than 2 000) and estimates for Angola are anyone’s guess. However, elephants generally disrespect border controls and populations stretch across international boundaries, especially where protected areas abut national borders. Consequently some elephants freely move between countries – Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa definitely share some of their elephants!

Southern African country profiles:

For elephants things differ from country to country. In alphabetical order:


Information on elephants in Angola is limited to surveys across the southern parts that suggest that relatively large-scale recolonisation from Botswana and Namibia may explain steep increases in population size. Our recent satellite tracking studies and those of Elephants Without Borders (EWB) support the notion, though cross boundary movements were also prevalent during the early 1990s. Angolan populations were severely depleted during the decades of civil strife and war, possibly to finance military operations.


Elephants in Botswana mainly roam across some 80 000 square kilometres of the northern parts of the country. Few fences other than those along international boundaries hinder movement and the populations appear to be structured into subunits with differing demography and spatial use patterns. Numerically the population has been stable at around 130 000 individuals for nearly a decade. Dispersal into neighbouring countries continues but genetic studies imply no breeding herd related gene flow between Botswana and neighbouring Zimbabwe and some gene flow between Botswana and southern Zambia. Bulls roam freely across the region. Spatial use patterns are influenced by the presence of people and conflict between elephants and people is a major concern. Management is limited to well-structured and effective anti-poaching campaigns and the provisioning of water across the hinterland. Elephants are valued for their contribution to society and to a flourishing tourism industry. Research is well founded, long-term, sanctioned by local authorities, and funded through foreign resources that support EWB. The government is a leading supporter of transfrontier conservation initiatives.


In Namibia elephants mainly occur in the northern parts of the country where about 20 500 individuals roam freely beyond protected areas. Some 3 300 elephants are confined to the fenced Etosha National Park. Other elephants are partially confined, notably the ~2 700 individuals in the Khaudum Game Reserve. Dispersal into neighbouring countries mainly involves elephants living in and crossing the Caprivi region when roaming into neighbouring Angola. Rural communities suffer from conflict, especially where elephants are lured to limited water sources. Many of these communities embrace conservation and benefit financially from NGO-driven incentives. Water provisioning features highly in management dominated by a utilitarian philosophy. Political support for transfrontier conservation initiatives is in place and may benefit local elephant populations. Research is mainly conducted and supported by foreign institutions.


Malawi is a relatively small and densely populated country with only a few protected areas that collectively house no more than 2 000 elephants. Human-elephant conflict around some protected areas is intense, though few elephants stray onto these areas. International donors support research, rescue operations to translocate elephants from rural areas to protected areas, and efforts to stabilise or recover populations, and the government sanctions such incentives. Research and monitoring activities are intermittent and suggest that some confined populations are recovering faster than others.


In Mozambique most elephants (~22 500) live in the northern province where they are free to roam between protected areas and adjoining community and concession lands. Some 7 000 elephants live in other parts of the country. Most populations have been severely depleted, but since 2000 some are recovering at relatively slow rates. Renewed poaching is a major concern, especially towards the north and along the Tanzanian border. Populations along international borders share space with South Africa, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania. People inhabit protected areas and conflict with elephants is relatively high; it also occurs in zones surrounding parks. Conservation management focuses on reactive approaches to poaching, and attempts to reduce conflict feature high on the political agenda. The government subscribes to activities to protect elephants and facilitates the recovery of depleted populations through its participation in transfrontier conservation incentives. Most research on elephants in the country is financed through international donations. Monitoring of elephants is intermittent and usually conducted by foreign consultants.

South Africa

Most (~23 000 in 2012) of South Africa’s elephants live in the Kruger National Park. Populations other than in the Addo Elephant National Park and the Tembe Elephant Park comprise 54 populations that are fenced in and confined to small provincial reserves and private properties. New populations continue to be founded on privately owned game reserves. Incidences of conflict and poaching are low. Conservation infrastructure is well developed and research capacity enormous compared to other southern African countries. National and international agencies fund research activities. Transfrontier conservation incentives are also well established, and SANParks officially supports management incentives that focus on spatial manipulation to reduce impact, rather than the ‘command-and-control’ approach of the apartheid era. Elephant management in provincial parks and on privately owned land favours contraception to inhibit population growth.


Some 26 000 elephants are reported to live across 72 per cent of Zambia’s protected areas. The largest continuous and free-ranging population of about 19 000 individuals occurs in the Luangwa Valley where incidences of conflict and poaching are common and disturbing. Most elephants in Zambia live in national parks and the surrounding game management areas that collectively account for nearly 30 per cent of the area of the country. Conservation management is largely directed at reducing conflicts, and few populations are exposed to fences and water provisioning. Zambia shares populations with neighbouring Malawi, Angola, Botswana, Namibia and Zimbabwe. In general, population monitoring is at low intensity and intermittent frequency. Political debate on elephants focuses on conflict, anti-poaching campaigns and legitimising ivory sales, and Zambia’s sanctioning of transfrontier conservation incentives stands elephants in good stead.


Some 80 000 to 100 000 elephants may live in Zimbabwe, half thereof in the north-western parts and on protected land that adjoins international borders and similarly protected areas. Elephants are not fenced in and are free to roam across the landscape, however there are reports that incidences of human-elephant conflict and poaching are increasing. All of Zimbabwe’s major elephant populations are located along the borders of neighbouring countries and movements are most likely taking place between them. Several NGOs play instrumental roles in safeguarding and monitoring elephant numbers in some areas.

We know where elephants would like to live Elephants that have a choice prefer habitats that range from sparsely wooded riverbeds in western deserts to densely wooded forests along the eastern extremes of the subcontinent. Most elephants, however, are particularly at home in savannahs. Here rain falls in the summer, and areas that suit elephants best are mostly close to water, mainly along the major rivers and temporarily rain-filled drainage lines that weave across much of the southern African region. Confinement by fences may limit the choices available to elephants, but even in such places elephants continue to find certain landscapes and habitats more attractive than others. Elephants typically prefer to live far away from people, where it is relatively green, but most importantly, where they are close to water. However, they will venture close to people when lured by green crops and water. Free-ranging elephants appear to avoid contact with rural people. On a daily basis, they achieve this by altering their drinking behaviour. For instance, along the Okavango River in northwestern Botswana, people are active in fields close to the river during the day, while elephants visit areas close to the river at night, thereby minimising the time that elephants and people are in close proximity. In other cases elephants may avoid areas close to settlements and vacate areas entirely when human densities reach a particular threshold. This threshold differs from place to place, probably as a function of the extent of land conversion rather than the actual number of people living there.

Interconnectedness: Elephants and water

Elephants need to drink to negate water loss, as is typical of large bodied animals living in relatively hot and dry environments. They also need water and use mud to remain cool during the heat of the day, especially during the summer months. Most elephants seldom roam beyond ten kilometres from water. They therefore use areas close to water more intensely than areas farther afield. This uneven use of land allows vegetation some distance from water supplies to escape destruction. This is not the case where watering points are evenly spread and at short distances from each other. This is the situation on most small estates. In such places the relatively short distances between water points reduce the home range areas of elephants, intensifying and condensing their impact on vegetation. Here water placement also allows elephants to occupy land that otherwise would have lain unused during normal rainfall years and that might provide fodder during dry spells when resources close to water would be exhausted. Consequent die-offs due to starvation during droughts are more intense in places where water is provided than where water is not supplied.

We know what happens when elephant numbers increase Elephants that are free to move may extend their ranges when numbers increase. Local densities (elephants per unit area) therefore may remain relatively constant. This happened in northern Botswana when elephants were free to move onto vacant land. However, densities increase with numbers where fencing, human populations or other factors limit the area elephants can occupy. This was the case in South Africa’s Kruger National Park when fences surrounded the boundaries of the park. Elephant distribution across the park became more even as numbers increased, but densities close to the rivers and some artificial water points remained higher than elsewhere in the park.

Based on our recent studies across southern Africa, we also know that population growth declines with increasing densities. Scientists refer to this phenomenon as density dependence, which may ultimately be caused by the depletion of food resources. Food availability and quality varies with rainfall and soil conditions and can also limit population growth, conceivably more so when elephant numbers (densities) are high than low. Food limitation could influence population growth by inducing increased calf mortality and decreased reproduction. Density dependence in population growth has been recorded for elephant populations in the Serengeti (Tanzania), the Hwange National Park (Zimbabwe), in parts of northern Botswana and in the Kruger National Park.

Unusual events can reduce elephant numbers. For instance, in the Tarangire National Park (Tanzania) an unusual drought in 1993/94 killed 20 per cent of calves. In Hwange National Park (Zimbabwe) periodic droughts kill five to nine per cent of all elephants, and up to 85 per cent of calves may die during severe and extended droughts. Perhaps the most extreme example of drought-related elephant die-off on record comes from Tsavo National Park in Kenya where some 6 000 elephants died during 1970 and 1971. Extreme events do not limit elephant populations over the long-term but accentuate the influence of density on population growth. From studies in East Africa we know that conception rates of elephants during La Niña drought events can be as low as zero, but as high as 58 per cent during wet spells associated with El Niño events when food quality is high. In southern Africa unusual dry and wet spells could explain large scale variation in the growth rates of established elephant populations.

We know that conditions during the first few years of an elephant’s life may drive population changes, probably due to the vulnerability of young elephants to drought and increased roaming distances of breeding herds when densities are high. We also know that first year survival drives population responses in dry savannahs while, in wetter savannahs, variation in birth rates generates population change.

Read the full report here: https://issuu.com/ifaw/docs/a_way_forward_ceru-ifaw