They’re a huge drawcard, but ellies cause jumbo problems
Vanishing trees and a threat to vultures are among the problems posed by swelling elephant populations
Majestic elephants remain a powerful tourist attraction for SA game reserves, but behind the scenes – and cooped up behind fences – some jumbo problems are emerging.
Recent research in the KwaZulu-Natal game reserves suggests that the rapid growth in elephant numbers has resulted in regular breakouts from some parks, the disappearance of many tall trees and an emerging threat to other increasingly endangered species such as vultures.
Apart from a small population that managed to survive near the Mozambique border, elephants were all but extinct in KZN by the 1870s because of hunting and human land development.
From the early 1980s several groups of young elephants from the Kruger National Park were translocated to KZN to restock the depleted parks, partly as a tourist attraction and partly to restore the natural ecological processes performed by these mega herbivores and “ecosystem engineers”.
However, populations in 16 KZN elephant reserves have been growing at an average of 8.4% per year, although this rate is starting to decline because of recent contraception projects.
Speaking at the annual Conservation Symposium outside Howick this week, Ezemvelo researcher Siphesihle Mbongwa shared some results from two decades of monitoring the vegetation in the 90,000ha Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve (where the elephant population now stands at about 800).
Mbongwa said elephants were reintroduced to the park in 1981, partly in the hope that they would reduce bush encroachment in grassier savannah areas.
He said several plots were later demarcated in the park to monitor how vegetation was affected by elephants and other factors.
Now, following nearly 20 years of monitoring these plots, results suggest that the park’s vegetation structure is changing noticeably.
For example, the density of several tree species taller than 4m had declined. The total number of Acacia nigrescens and Celtis Africana trees (both species favoured by feeding elephants) had decreased in the monitoring plots, while the number of several tree and shrub species avoided by elephants had increased.
Overall, said Mbongwa, the vegetation structure in the monitoring plots had changed over time to a shrub-dominated landscape, with fewer trees taller than 4m.
“Elephants did not help combat bush encroachment, as was motivated for their original introduction and management objectives. Uncontrolled elephant population can have a remarkable effect in fenced reserves,” he concluded.
Fellow Ezemvelo ecologist Ian Rushworth said this could have significant implications for the future of endangered vulture species in KZN and other parts of KZN since these birds nest in tall trees and are now largely restricted to conservation parks containing elephants.
Rushworth noted that several vulture species in Africa have suffered a 70% decline throughout Africa over the past 30 years.
Vulture populations in KZN were small, declining and already at risk of extinction, and 94% of the breeding population was now confined to parks that also contain elephants.
Elephant populations, on the other hand, had increased rapidly in fenced-off parks and nearly 67% of elephant parks were now stocked above the “preferred density” level defined in park management plans.
“The three tree-nesting vulture species that occur in KZN all use medium to large trees for nesting ... It is essential that the role of protected areas and extensive wildlife systems for vultures is adequately taken into account when managing elephant populations,” he urged.
Ezemvelo district ecologist Rickert van der Westhuizen told the research symposium that since the reintroduction of elephants into the Ithala game reserve in northern KZN, the jumbo population had grown to about 180. Since 2015 there had been regular “excursions” (breakouts) by groups of up to 100 at a time, mainly in summer.
Hiring helicopters to shoo the animals back into the park was expensive, with flying costs of about R8,000 per hour. The most recent breakout had cost about R60,000.
This had raised the question of whether it was necessary to start culling the increasing elephant population in Ithala, a last-resort option under the Norms and Standards for Elephant Management in South Africa published in 2008.
Van der Westhuizen said other options to manage elephant numbers included controlled hunting or range manipulation (such as reducing artificial water points), but neither of these options was considered practical for Ithala.
This left three possible options: increasing the size of the park, contraception or translocation to other areas.
“At this point in time we don’t have to consider culling,” he concluded, as a contraception project for all breeding females began in 2014 and the number of calves born this year had decreased significantly.
He said 24 elephants were translocated earlier this year to a Mozambican game reserve and there were plans to translocate another 80 from Ithala over the next five years.
There were also plans to expand the park northwards, with fencing costs estimated at about R9m.
Dr Jeanetta Selier of the South African National Biodiversity Institute said that at a national level, more than 77% of state and private elephant parks have fewer than 100 elephants each, and most of these have to be highly managed to prevent habitat degradation and breakouts.
Selier said the challenges raised by increasing elephant populations raised some “sticky” questions around whether elephants should be “put on a pedestal so that you can just look at them”, or whether to consider more consumptive uses.