25 August 2006
Thirteen of the world’s leading elephant scientists have advised the government to establish a major multi-disciplinary research programme on managing South Africa’s elephant population.
The Elephant Science Round Table met for a second time in Cape Town on Tuesday at the invitation of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk.
At their first meeting in January, the scientists agreed that there was no compelling evidence to suggest the need for immediate, large-scale reduction of elephant numbers in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
However, they said that elephant density, distribution and population structure might need to be managed in some of the country’s protected areas, including the Kruger National Park, to meet biodiversity and other objectives.
They also said that, although a large body of scientific knowledge already exists, further research should inform any interventions to manage the country’s elephant population.
On Tuesday, the scientists proposed the establishment of a multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder research advisory platform to oversee a 20-year elephant research programme in the country.
“The state of knowledge regarding some important aspects of elephant management requires further research,” the panel said.
This research programme should use an “adaptive management (learning by doing) approach” to ensure that the consequences of any elephant management interventions were carefully monitored, they added.
Draft norms and standards
Van Schalkwyk told the scientists that the concept of adaptive management would form a key pillar of the draft norms and standards that would be published for public comment within the next few months.
“This will be a broad philosophical framework that provides guidance on the implementation of the National Environmental Management Act and the Biodiversity Act as they apply to elephants,” the minister said. “It will spell out a range of options for managing population densities where this is necessary.”
He said every proposed intervention would have to be motivated by local managers in a management plan subjected to a process of local public consultation.
Van Schalkwyk also invited the scientists to develop a comprehensive elephant research proposal, and suggested that the initiative be driven by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (Sanbi).
The members of the panel agreed that the “research platform” should consist of six programmes, including studies of the relationship between elephant density and a range of ecological consequences in various ecosystems, and the consequences of various elephant management options.
Sanbi director Professor Brian Huntely, who facilitated Tuesday’s discussion, said the panel would prepare a draft proposal for circulation within two to three months to the “elephant fraternity”, including scientists, managers of parks, institutions and non-governmental bodies.
Agents of change
The panel said on Tuesday that African elephants were 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.
“Elephants in confined populations can, in the absence of interventions, cause changes to the composition, structure and functioning of ecosystems in which they occur,” the scientists said.
They added that – excluding extinctions – elephant-induced changes to an ecosystem were potentially reversible.
The scientists also noted that any management of elephant influence on an ecosystem took place within the context of human society and its objectives.
Decisions on managing elephants were dependent on land use and other objectives, and the techniques by which this could be practically achieved were situation-specific.