African elephant populations stabilising in southern homelands - study

An African elephant grazing in the Pilanesberg National Park near Rustenberg. File Picture: Ian Landsberg / Independent Newspapers

An African elephant grazing in the Pilanesberg National Park near Rustenberg. File Picture: Ian Landsberg / Independent Newspapers

Published Jan 10, 2024


A comprehensive analysis of growth rates in African elephant populations showed a remarkable stabilisation in their Southern African homelands.

The study, considered the most extensive of its kind, not only showcases the positive trend but also underscores the significance of well-connected protected areas in sustaining these iconic creatures.

The analysis, published in the Science Advances Journal on 05 January, spanned from 1995-2020 and covered over 290,000 savannah elephants (70% of the total in Africa), indicated an overall growth rate of 0.16% per year over the past 25 years. Researchers attributed this positive trend to successful conservation efforts in the region.

Speaking to the Guardian, Dr Robert Guldemond at the University of Pretoria, part of the research team said: “For decades, news from southern Africa was dominated by waves of poaching and other threats, but there’s been a lot of good work done that has basically turned the tide and that story has never really been told.”

The study emphasises that protected areas, which are interconnected with other landscapes, play a pivotal role in maintaining stable elephant populations. Unlike isolated "fortress" parks, interconnected areas allow elephants to migrate, disperse, and adapt to changing conditions naturally.

Dr Ryan Huang, also at the University of Pretoria, said: “This is a good news story for a lot of elephants. We’re changing from just halting declines and to trying to achieve long term stability.”

Corridors connecting highly protected core areas to less protected buffer areas enable elephants to disperse when needed. This natural flow aids in population stability, responding to changes such as increased poaching or environmental factors. Careful planning is required to minimise human-elephant conflicts in buffer areas.

In contrast, isolated parks that strictly keep animals in and people out may lead to unsustainable population booms, potentially resulting in mass deaths or culling. The study highlights the need to reconnect fragmented landscapes to ensure long-term stability.

Prof Stuart Pimm at Duke University, also part of the research team said that “we need to protect elephants, but we also need to connect them. We have fragmented the world and we need to stitch it back together again.”

While celebrating the positive trend, the researchers acknowledge that careful planning is crucial to minimise conflicts between elephants and local communities, especially in buffer areas where more people reside. The study advocates for improved connectivity across landscapes and ongoing efforts to protect both wildlife and human interests.

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