The thirteen scientists at the second Elephant Science Round Table 2006, reached agreement on a set of guidelines that should help government draw up a policy for managing elephants in South Africa.
The 13 scientists have proposed that a 20-year research programme be initiated.
This will be driven by Sanbi and will have core funding provided by the department of environmental affairs and tourism. It will bring together a wide variety of stakeholders from many disciplines. The programme would use the concept of adaptive management or 'learning by doing' to guide elephant management.
The six planned research programmes, including an assessment of all current data; experimentation to determine how elephant numbers will change under different conditions and the ecological consequences of this; predictive modelling; social, political and economic research amongst stakeholders and cost/benefit analysis, including international considerations; capacity building; and close interaction on the ground between practical day-to-day management of elephants in parks and scientific research programmes.
Speaking on the development of the proposed research programme, round table expert Prof Rob Slotow, director of the Amarula Elephant Research Programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, commented, "Many scientists putting their heads together will come up with better answers than any individual would.
Further, by working together on the problems, integration and resultant economies of scale mean that we can do more with less." For Slotow, one of the key issues in the elephant management debate is whether the birth rate of elephants will decrease and the mortality rate will increase as the elephant population grows and it become more difficult for them to find food.
He has devised a project that would test this, involving enclosing elephants at different densities within large fenced areas, and studying what effect they have on the habitat and biodiversity. "Other scientists may come up with better alternatives, and that is the advantage of all the scientists putting their heads together in a national programme."
The planned research programme could also potentially include culling, for example if the elephant management plan previously devised by Kruger were implemented. This involved dividing the park into a series of zones. In areas of high biodiversity importance elephants would be culled, and in other areas less or no culling would take place.
The round table scientists are currently working a draft of a comprehensive research proposal. According to Brian Huntley, Sanbi director and facilitator of the round table, this should be circulated within the next two or three months to the 'elephant fraternity' including scientists, managers of parks, institutions and non-governmental bodies.The full statement of scientific consensus from the Second Elephant Science Round Table read as follows:
1. African elephants are an important component of South Africa's biological diversity, both as a species in their own right, and as agents of change in the ecosystem. Due to this role, the absence of elephants from ecosystems that evolved under their influence is potentially deleterious, as is their overabundance. Elephant impacts need to be managed as components of the ecosystem.
2. The management of elephant influence on ecosystems takes place within the context of human society and its objectives. Social, environmental, economic and political values, must be brought to bear on decision making.
3. Decisions on managing elephants are dependent on stated land use objectives, the techniques by which this can be practically achieved being situation-specific. Influencing factors are the size of the area involved; conservation value of the elephant population; biodiversity, social and economic values of the area. A single, uniform set of rules for elephant management is not desirable, but a differentiated and evolving best practice guideline for various circumstances is achievable.
4. Elephants in confined populations can, in the absence of interventions, cause changes to the composition, structure and functioning of ecosystems in which they occur. These changes may be unacceptable. It is possible that sustained high elephant impact will cause the local extinction of sensitive species in the affected areas, and if those constitute the major populations for the species, could lead to their endangerment or extinction.
5. Excluding extinctions, elephant-induced changes to the ecosystem are potentially reversible. The time period for which elephant influences are apparent may exceed a human generation (30 years), for example if it requires the regrowth of large trees or the regeneration of lost soil.
6. Elephants have a high level of social organisation and consciousness. Behavioural consequences or objectives of management intervention should be well considered. Their management therefore requires particularly high ethical standards. Science can contribute an understanding of behaviour and measures of stress to the formulation of these standards.
7. The state of knowledge regarding some important aspects of elephant management requires further research. In particular, the likely trajectory of elephant numbers, the relationship between elephant density and a range of ecological consequences in various ecosystems, and the viability under various circumstances of elephant density control using contraception and habitat manipulation need further research.
An active adaptive management approach, including a targeted research programme, is indicated as a strategy for combining timely action with learning.
By Melissa Wray