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Press release

Trophy hunting of rare desert elephant bulls

08-25-2008 05:42 PM CET | Energy & Environment

Press release from: Elephant Human Relations Aid (EHRA)

Six elephant trophy permits were issued recently for the Kunene region conservancies and to date five out of the six elephants have been shot. As we firmly believe the population cannot sustain this take off we have decided to issue a press release to clarify our position on this matter.

Elephant-Human Relations Aid is a Namibian based Non-Governmental Organization, established in 2003 in the Southern Kunene Region, helping communal farmers in the region to deal with elephant-human conflict issues. We have been focusing on the main conflict area, which is the destruction of water-points and windmills by the resident herds of elephants. Since 2004 up until now we have constructed 60 protection walls around fragile water-infrastructures in the areas surrounding the Ugab and Huab River basins. This action has safeguarded the livelihoods of around 1200 people that live in areas traversed by desert elephants. In this period we have also completed +-500 patrol days in the field, establishing a photographic database and GPS movement study of every elephant that lives in, or traverses the area. This information is made readily available to the Ministry of Environment and Tourism on a regular basis. With the help of British Schools, we have spent over N$ 200 000 on upgrading A.Gariseb Primary School in the Sorris-Sorris area, where 220 children from the affected communities go to school.

As a result of some of Namibia’s good conservation practices, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), recently issued Namibia a number of permits for the sale and export of trophy elephant bulls. This permit requires that for any export of a CITES listed species, a non-detriment finding (NDF) should be made that the export will not be detrimental to the survival of that species, which in the CITES context means any “species, subspecies, or geographically separate population” (Article 1 of the Convention).

As the desert dwelling elephants of the Kunene region falls within this category, we would expect that the Namibian Ministry of Environment and Tourism (MET) would have conducted such a study, before issuing the hunting permits to the various conservancies involved. This has not been done on any level that can be regarded as scientific. The killing and export of such trophies is therefore in contravention of the international convention and law the government subscribes to.

Debates are raging about exactly how many of these elephants are actually roaming around in the desert, and how many of them can be regarded as “true desert elephants”. As to the numbers, EHRA have exact figures only for the Southwestern regions surrounding the Ugab and Huab basins. This area has six permanent breeding herds, with another four migrating temporarily into the area from the north and northeast. With an average of 6 breeding cows per herd, this leaves us with a minimum of 36 to a maximum 60 adult cows.
The number of young non-breeding males varies from 6 to 12. At the start of last year there were five large bulls (trophy size) counted in the area, and at the start of this year only 3. After the latest hunting, one was shot in the Huab; so only two bulls are now left. There is still one more outstanding permit around the Ugab area that has not been issued as a result of leadership problems in the Sorris-Sorris conservancy. Once this bull has been killed, there will be only one large bull left.

According to journals publish by the principal investigator for the Desert Elephant and Giraffe Trust, Dr. Keith Leggett, the Northwest (Hoanib and Hoarisib River basins) there is a total of 38 adult females and 16 adult males, with no clear indication on how many of them are trophy size. (Leggett, K.E.A. 2006, Home range and seasonal movement of elephants in the Kunene Region, Northwest Namibia). Although around 10 elephants had been collared in the Omusati area, between Etosha National park and the Northwest region, no exact data seems to be available on the numbers for the area.

An incomplete and inconclusive aerial survey done in 2007 by the MET of the Northwest came up with an estimate of 365 elephants in total. Only one herd was found in the Ugab/Huab area, and four bulls in the Huab River.

So exactly where the guestimate of up to 800 elephants originates is anybody’s guess. Definitely not from scientific research. Scientists works on all sorts of formulas and counting methods that often boggles the mind, and is left open for interpretation by those who have either a vested interest in higher or lower numbers. There also seems to be assumptions made on population growth rates, based on other African elephant populations, and researchers take previous accurate data, add these rates and come up with a hypothesis of where they should stand today. Well, in the Southwest we have recorded a negative growth rate, and an 80% calf mortality over the past 5 years. There are today less elephants in the Ugab/Huab basin than ten years ago. Why, we do not know.

If you look at the dramatic decline in numbers during the poaching era of the 70’s and 80’s, (Owen-Smith ( reported that in the Hoarusib there were 80 individuals in the 1960’s, and after the shooting only 3 individuals remained in the poaching era) it could mean that the genetic stock has already been dramatically depleted, and has not recovered yet. In 1977, Visagie reported 82 elephants in Southern Kunene (Visagie, 1977), so if there are lower numbers in the same area today, how can we claim that numbers have risen to the 1960 figures? (Owen-Smith, 1970, 600-800, Northern Kunene).

This points to an urgent need for a proper, and transparent census of the Kunene regions desert dwelling elephants, and understanding that this is a costly endeavor, EHRA offers to co-fund such a census, or do it independently.
Coupled with this should be a genetic assessment of the whole population, where we can also assist in gathering the data needed.

Up until such studies have been done CITES should revoke all trading permits, and the Government should stop issuing “problem animal” and trophy permits. From Sept 2006 to Sept 2007, 12 large bulls have been shot in the Kunene Region as “problem animals”. These are not bulls that have been positively identified as problems, but permits issued to merely placate pressure on the MET from surrounding communities. This off take, added to the trophy hunts, could have catastrophic affects on the desert elephant population.

According to Dr. B. Fox, the recently retired Conservation Scientist for the MET, Northwest Region, working on an optimistic figure of 800 elephants left, the off take has already exceeded 4 to 7 times the sustainable figure in one year, without the addition of trophy animals.

This eradication of large bulls has left a breeding ratio of one large bull to 30 cows in the Ugab/Huab, whereas the ideal ratio is around 1:10.
Likely as a result of previous poaching, the desert dwelling elephants behave much more anti-socially than their savanna counterparts. In fact Dr. Leggett has recorded three distinctly different genetic groups in just 7 different herds in the Northwest. (Leggett, 2006). Making the distribution and communication amongst the scattered herds much more difficult.

Elephants, very much like humans are totally dependant on memory and communication to assist them in becoming a mature elephant. All their actions are learned from their family unit and their environment (i.e. reactions to humans).
This eventually builds up to what we can call an elephant culture.
What makes the desert elephant so unique is this culture, which determines their relationship with their environment (there is by the way, no evidence that they differ physiologically from other elephants).

They have known what other elephants all around Africa seem to have forgotten - to live in balance with their environment. Although major poaching in the 70’s and 80’s has decimated elephant populations all through Africa, we must not forget that in the slave trade period millions of adult elephants have been killed all round. The biggest consequence in my personal opinion, is that the current problem we have with elephants destroying their own environment, is not only a result of current land use issues, but as a result of a loss of culture through the eradication of the behavioral memory bank of the elephants. Why would an adult bull in Kenya push over an average of twenty trees a day and in ten years I have only seen it happen three times in the desert?
They learn to do that. Perhaps there was no slave trade related hunting in the desert, so a small pool of elephants with ancient knowledge survived.

So similar I think to the human loss of ‘ecological intelligence’. We have a lot to learn from them. The point is that mature elephants play an important social role well beyond breeding age, in transferring knowledge to the youngsters. Although within a herd, older cows mostly transfer that knowledge, the bulls are the ones that wander the furthest, and discover new resources. This knowledge is brought back to the herds. It was after all the big bull Voortrekker that first came down to the Ugab River. Only after a thorough assessment he went to fetch two herds.

Younger post-adolescent bulls, already out of the influence of the Matriarchs, cause most problems at water points. These young delinquents are disciplined and taught by the older bulls, which also prevents them from breeding until they are responsible adults.

Eradicating the bulls could lead to a social breakdown, and a massive loss of knowledge. This knowledge is needed to alleviate the pressure on resources. Lack thereof would leave the elephants vulnerable to change for example how to survive droughts (very few elephants died in the 82’ drought that killed thousands of animals).
Misuse of resources will only lead to more conflict with humans, more pressure on Government and more elephants being shot. This domino effect can head them to extinction faster than we can ever believe.

It always surprises me that so many conservation scientists can look at these complex and intelligent creatures and think they can be treated like cattle, or just a “resource” to be utilized without studying or realizing the implications.

We must assume that the Namibian government has done a cost-benefit analysis of such a radical decision. How otherwise to justify the effect it could have on tourism and public opinion in this country?

The benefits are easy. The hunter is prepared to pay around N$ 280 000 (US$ 40 000) to kill the elephant (note: not hunt, you can walk to easily 10m from a large bull).
From this, the conservancies earn around N$ 80 000 ( US$ 11 800, one permit per two conservancies, so N$ 40 000 each). The professional hunter/outfitter pockets a nice N$ 200 000 ( US$ 28 600). Government earns N$ 25 for the permit. ( US$ 3.60 )

If the trophy money and meat is distributed evenly amongst all members of the community, each individual stands to earn N$ 40 per person. ( US$ 5.70)
On top of this about 1kg of elephant meat per person. (As a result of the Hunter not telling the community in time about the last elephant shot in the Huab, the meat was rotten by the time they received it).

And the benefit of these same elephants alive? In the Ugab/Huab basins, where three of these permits have been issued, there are 8 tourism camps and lodges, all specializing in bringing tourists close to desert elephants. Amongst these lodges 263 people from the surrounding communities are employed. These people earn a total of N$ 3 787 200 per year ( US$ 541 029 ), directly from elephant-related tourism. This does not take into account that every one of these lodges/camps also has profit share agreements with the surrounding communities, earning on average 10% of the price paid for every tourist sleeping in a bed.

In highly populated areas like the Northeast Caprivi regions, trophy hunting far outweighs revenue earned by tourism, and utilization of wildlife as a resource gives a lot of benefits to the people living under constant pressure of wildlife. Without this strategy, disgruntled community members could resolve to poaching and revenge killing, and we could witness the death of many more elephants. This does not however apply for low-density areas with tourism as the main income base, and conflict issues, like water point protection is much easier to resolve.

And the cost of losing these bulls? From my previous statements, we have a fair idea of what it could mean for the elephant population. What it will cost in terms of tourism revenue lost we could never know. And when the last herds disappear from the area, and the lodges start closing down, how much revenue will be lost in an area where few other employment opportunities exist?

So the question still begs, why have these permits been issued if the cost so far outweighs the benefits? And who will be held accountable when the realization kicks in that this decision could be to the detriment of the 6.6 billion per year tourism industry?

I believe that the term “sustainable utilization” has become an overused catchphrase in conservation circles to hide political intent. Community members with political aspirations grossly over inflate the so-called “elephant-problem”, knowing full well that with enough pressure the government will eventually capitulate to their demands. Now the desert elephant has become a “resource” to be “utilized” as a political placebo. A resource that does not cost the government to directly have to dig into their coffers. Individuals within the communities that stand most to gain to delivering an elephant will automatically gain massive political kudos, so it stands to reason that they would pitch problems out of proportion.

Can the Namibian government justify turning a national asset into a political pawn to gain support? Or should more funds be made available for proper research and the development of more non-consumptive Community Based Natural Resource Management?

It is logical that people most affected by animal-human conflict should get benefits from having to live with this risk. The decision making on how those resources should be used should be in the hands of the people. A lot of groundbreaking work has been done by various NGO’s in Namibia to that effect, and should be built on.

However, if all this good intent is hijacked by political manipulation, we also have a duty to bring this to the attention of the public, as this resource belongs to us all. It is in the interest of a lot of people dealing with community based natural resource management to see it work, and therefore turn a blind eye to obvious abuses taking place. There are also numerous success stories in CBNRM that should not be overlooked, and in some areas game numbers have increased. Some conservancies in the far northwest actually chose not to shoot offered trophy elephants. But if CBNRM becomes an empty vessel, driven by political intent, the system needs urgent revision, and ostrich attitudes from large conservation NGO’s will only assist the practice of abuse.

With game numbers positively increasing in the far northwest of the Kunene region as a result of the work of organizations like IRDNC, in the southwest we have witnessed an unprecedented decline, bordering on slaughter. The quotas on all species far outstrip the available resource. And the professors of CBNRM are nowhere to be seen to witness this.

Tourism is the second largest industry in the country, and should be cultivated as one of the only options for revenue earnings for marginalized communities when it comes to keystone species like desert elephants, rhinos, giraffes and lions.
There are tried and tested ways to help communities cope with the conflict, water point protection walls just being one example.

Large amounts of international donor funding is made available to assist this process, and it would be a shame if this funding gets withdrawn as a result of this sort of misuse of these valuable resources for political intent.

Although I would not be a conservationist if I am not emotional about these issues, purely on an economical base, the issue of trophy animals and hunting of problem animals, does not make sense to the people actually living with the problem, or for the Namibian nation as a whole.

In a day and age when we witness the consequence of the terrible mistakes made by our fathers on a global scale, could we afford to repeat their sins? There are not seven generations left to bear this consequence.

Johannes Haasbroek
Operations Director
Elephant-Human Relations Aid
Ugab River, Anna tree nr. 512516811420
+264 64 402501

Elephant-Human Relations Aid is a Namibian based Non-Governmental Organization, established in 2003 in the Southern Kunene Region, helping communal farmers in the region to deal with elephant-human conflict issues. We have been focusing on the main conflict area, which is the destruction of water-points and windmills by the resident herds of elephants. Since 2004 up until now we have constructed 60 protection walls around fragile water-infrastructures in the areas surrounding the Ugab and Huab River basins. This action has safeguarded the livelihoods of around 1200 people that live in areas traversed by desert elephants. In this period we have also completed +-500 patrol days in the field, establishing a photographic database and GPS movement study of every elephant that lives in, or traverses the area.

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