Research on seven main areas in southern Africa where elephants occur has prompted Rudi van Aarde to offer a new alternative for elephant management – connecting all the southern African elephant populations together through the creation of megaparks. Professor of conservation ecology at the University of Pretoria, van Aarde presented his theory at the ninth Sasol SciFest in March. He gave the Cecily Niven Memorial Lecture, entitled, “A conservation alternative for African elephants: the mega-parks and metapopulation metaphor”.
By creating not only transfrontier conservation areas, but also a regional conservation plan that encompasses several countries, elephant populations can be linked up. This would join those populations that are shrinking with those that are growing, allowing the animals to move and even out the entire population over a greater area. “If the populations were all interconnected, the fascinating thing is that on average across the region, you would have stability in numbers, while in a given place numbers would go up and down.”
Van Aarde and his colleagues are working on a five-year contract that would link the seven elephant clusters together. This plan will also look at the future of the people living in the proposed megapark areas. He pointed out that most of the elephants in southern Africa, the majority of which are in Botswana and Zimbabwe, actually exist outside of conservation areas. He suggests fencing people in and elephants out, rather than the other way around. Van Aarde says that fewer people will be affected than one might think, as increasingly people are leaving the rural areas for urban or peri-urban settings.
By creating massive areas for the elephants to roam, intensive management practises like culling, contraception and translocation would become unnecessary. Researchers are looking at elephant populations in Etosha/Damaraland in Namibia, Chobe in Botswana, Kafue in Zambia, Luangwa valley in Zambia and Malawi, Zambezi valley between Zimbabwe and Zambia, the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park area and the Maputo corridor. Endangered species like wild dogs and rhino are managed on a meta-population basis, where animals are moved around (by man) between conservation areas to create new sub-populations in suitable habitats without creating genetic inbreeding.