Elephant in the Room – Sustainable Solutions for Overcrowded Lands in Southern Africa

Good news: there are too many elephants!

Bad news: there are too many elephants!

With so many environmental groups fighting to prevent poaching of these impressive beasts for their ivory tusks, it is ironic that there is over-population in the parks I recently visited in Botswana, Zimbabwe, and Zambia with Overseas Adventure Travel.

An estimated 120,000 elephants roam the vast, unfenced preserves under the protection of armed, patrolling rangers.

Balance of Elephant Sustainable Solutions

Elephants graze about 18 hours a day, each taking in about 400 pounds of grasses that the kudu, impala, sable, and other wildlife need to survive. They eat the leaves of the Mopane tree that giraffes and other creatures rely upon.

Dead zones are left in their wake where they have eaten everything down to a nub and killed trees by debarking them with their tusks. This rate of unsustainable devastation will leave animals starving if something is not done to curb damage caused by the growing population of elephants clustered in Southern Africa.

Michael Masukule, leader of a community adjacent to Kruger in South Africa, said, “They destroy our crops, occupy our drinking places, compete with our livestock for food, and are a danger to our people. Whatever decision you take, do not forget us people who encounter elephants every day.”

Villagers live in fear of the pachyderms that plunder their crops at night leaving them without enough food for winter. Elephants have killed people living on the edge of and inside national parks when they try to stop them from eating everything in sight.

On the flight from Chobe in Botswana to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe, we gazed upon a seemingly endless green carpet of Mopane forests pocked with the watering holes of thousands of elephants ranging here.

Elephants Observed by Linda Ballou

It was hard to believe that there is not enough space to go around, but 80 percent of Botswana is desert, and the vast herds of zebra, antelope, and elephants are mainly found in the remaining 20 percent that they share with humans.

Botswana currently has the largest elephant population. In the early 1960s, there were less than 10,000 pachyderms in this landlocked and generally dry country. By 1990 there were 50,000 elephants in the wetter, northern parts of the country, and in the following year, the Botswana Department of Wildlife Conservation and National Parks drafted an elephant management policy.

In that year (1991) it was established that the then-current elephant population of 55,000 was the maximum the country could sustain without the eventual loss of habitat so essential for species biodiversity.

Unsustainable Solutions With Economic Consequences

Suggested solutions to the problem included introducing birth control, but that has proven to be too expensive and impractical as the drug has to be re-injected every six months to be effective.

Culling the herds is talked about in whispers, but government officials are afraid that approach will alienate visitors and might even trigger economic sanctions from other countries who are not living at the effect of the elephants and do not understand the gravity of the situation.

Culling is particularly problematic because of the legendary intelligence and memory of the elephants. If they see humans killing off family members, they are likely to become aggressive and more dangerous to villagers and tourists alike. The entire family would have to be killed, including babies, at the same time to prevent this type of revenge. It’s not feasible.

Elephant Conservation-Based Solutions

There are, however, some smaller steps that can be taken to minimize the effects of elephants on local crops. Elephants are afraid of bees. The installation of hives of African bees at intervals surrounding a field has effectively deterred the elephants and given the villagers income from the honey they produce.

According to Shreya Dasgupta, who wrote on, “in 2002, researchers found that African elephants stay away from acacia trees with beehives. Later studies revealed that not only do the elephants run away from the sound of buzzing bees, they also emit low-frequency alarm calls to alert family members about the possible threat.  Similarly, elephants don’t like chilies. Capsaicin, the chemical in chilies that make them hot, is an irritant causing elephants to cough, sneeze, and eventually turn away from crops surrounded by a buffer of chilies.”

Other solutions considered are extending existing parks through more land acquisitions, moving more elephants from overpopulated to underpopulated parks, and opening corridors between parks to allow elephants to resume some of their old migration routes.

Elephant Community-Based Solutions

Enter KAZA TFCA – the Trans Frontier program that opens up migration routes crossing international borders. This initiative of the governments of Angola, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe was formulated in 2012.

It involves the land situated in the Okavango and Zambezi river basins where the borders of the five countries converge. This video shows how the five countries have come together to solve the problems of shrinking habitat and hideous poaching that crosses international borders.

Implementing the good intentions of this agreement has proven to be difficult. The elephants are not co-operating. They are remaining clustered in parks like Hwange in Zimbabwe where there are man-made watering holes to sustain them throughout the dry season.

“KAZA is a wonderful idea whose success will be determined in decades rather than years. This region is a very dry region with and has limited water resources. The elephant is a water-dependent species. Getting elephants to move (migrate) may very well be impossible as they follow the memories of the matriarch(s) who may have never learned a migratory pattern. Just because KAZA is implemented doesn’t mean the elephants can take advantage of it. They are at the mercy of the elements and their needs. Shutting down the man-made resources might stimulate elephant movement, but it will also cause tourism to suffer, one of the main reasons for the treaty being created.” Mat Dry, Safari Guide, author of This is Africa and owner of TIA Safaris.

This article is not designed to diminish or minimize the efforts of conservationists fighting to prevent the slaughter of elephants in the Congo by militants who sell the ivory to purchase ammunition, or in the Selous in Tanzania, a park that has been ravaged by poachers. That horrendous disregard for life must stop.

However, Africa is an enormous continent and what is true in the Congo and other parts of Africa is not the reality in other countries. Outsiders should understand that if culling becomes the only answer to this problem, it will not happen before all else fails. But, again, this situation is not sustainable for the other animals in the parks or for the humans living in and/or on the edge of the last great wild places in Africa.

View Sustainable Trips in South Africa


2 Responses
  1. Yuki Tsuchido

    It could be said that most of all tourists do not know the issue stated in the article, which is that the number of elephant has dramatically been increasing recently, and so the local people suffer. I actually went to Zambia and Botswana for Safari-trip 3 years ago, however and honestly, I did not recognize the problem. It is also a fact that there is less opportunity to let people acknowledge it.

    In the world, people tend to misundersand that eco-tourism is automatically equal to preservation of nature, flora, and fauna. However, there is another case, such an elephant-over-population, which threatens people life.

    In order to resolve the issue, people must acknowledge first, think, and act.
    For example, in the biggest lake located in western region of Japan, overpopulation of a kind of bird, Great Cormorant is getting serious issue. A biologist, a veterinarian, and a preservation organization started an action to resolve the issue with the theme of adjustment of number of individuals. They have research on its ecosystem, and snipe some to fix the situation. That is actually for coexistence since animals cannot even expect the future.

    People tend to think that human with technology always bad for ecosystem, on the other hand, people need to understand the truth and act for both human and nature with full of respect for our/their lives.

  2. Linda Ballou

    Thank you for your thoughtful response to my article. Humans have created imbalances in nature all over the planet. This is just one of them. Hopefully, humans will find a way to turn it around.