Building an elephant economy

Russell Taylor
Russell Taylor
Anna Songhurst
Anna Songhurst
Robin Naidoo
Robin Naidoo

Delegates to a symposium on ‘The State of KAZA’ (the Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area) met at the beginning of November in Victoria Falls to discuss progress five years after the signing of the treaty that brought the conservation area into existence. The transfrontier conservation area spans five states: Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Five counties with the largest concentration of elephants in Africa.

Elephants move across great ranges, often covering 70 kilometres in a day. In the past they roamed freely in what is now the KAZA landscape. But the establishment of national borders and veterinary controls to contain foot and mouth disease has resulted in the erection of 10,000 kilometres of fencing in the area, according to Dr Russell Taylor of WWF.

Taylor told delegates that Zimbabwe’s Sebungwe district elephant population has collapsed by 75%. Such declines are linked to habitat encroachment by farming and infrastructure, such as roads. Once human population density surpasses 15 people per square kilometre, he stated, elephant populations decline.

KAZA still boasts the largest concentration of elephants in Africa, around a quarter of a million. But they are under threat, not only from poaching, but due to habitat loss and the increasing inability to move freely to find food and water. Potential solutions to these problems were presented at the symposium.

Analysis of the areas used by elephants and their migratory routes is very important, suggested Anna Songurst of Ecoexist. She described research in Botswana, using the knowledge and experience of local communities, to define areas where elephants move and to develop elephant corridors free from agriculture. At the same time, areas of good soil away from corridors were identified for agricultural development.

Robin Naidoo of WWF described the mapping of elephant migratory routes, using elephants fitted with radio collars to track their movements. Ecological areas with more or less resistance to migration were analysed in a model using circuit theory, to see where the highest connectivity between areas was established.

Defining elephant corridors is one key to the co-existence of humans and elephants. Economics is another. Graham McCulloch of Ecoexist pointed out that although safari companies are thriving in the Okavango Delta, the people in the area are some of the poorest in the region. They receive little benefits from the elephants, which raid their crops and damage their water points. What is needed, says Ecoexist, is an Elephant Economy.

First: protect the elephants. Many wildlife species will cease to exist and contribute to the economy if the poaching crisis is not effectively dealt with, argued Taylor. As well as legal enforcement, community participation is vital. If communities have rights over wildlife, and derive an economic benefit from it, they will actively protect it.

Income from wildlife can be derived from photographic tourism and from trophy hunting. In both cases, presenters demonstrated that partnerships between private sector investors and local communities – given rights over wildlife and the land – bring economic development, conservation benefits, and improved incomes to farmers struggling on the margins.

Dave Glynn, from Africa Albida Tourism, told delegates “The tourist boards the plane primarily to see elephants.” If elephants are well protected and can move more freely, then the tourists will keep coming, and KAZA’s elephant population will continue to thrive as a key part of the southern African economy.

Steve Felton
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