The scientific evidence is clear — elephants are affecting biodiversity in
the Kruger National Park
Jeremy Midgley, Op-Ed / The Daily Maverick
July 31, 2022
for photos & audio of article.
There is no doubt that present African elephant populations and
distributions are a fraction of what they were a few hundred years ago.
Therefore, given this decline, any suggestions that elephant populations
are too high in areas where they are still extant, such as the Kruger
National Park (KNP), need to be carefully and scientifically argued.
In an article in Daily Maverick, the journalist Don Pinnock has now
presented a perspective suggesting that it is a myth that there are too
many elephants in the Kruger National Park. In its place he has promoted
the Goldilocks myth… elephant numbers are just right. He avoided any
references to the large amount of research showing that high elephant
densities reduce trees and biodiversity. Pinnock should have at least
presented the data for both sides of the argument.
He declared that we will never know what historical elephant numbers were
and that science is unable to specify elephant carrying capacities. But
there are chances to reconstruct the past using scientific tools —
including archaeology, isotopes, pollen and modelling. Setting carrying
capacities for elephants and biodiversity is tough, but within scientific
However, we know from studies of over-grazing that the limit to the
long-term survival of all of biodiversity is long before the last blade of
grass is eaten and before the population growth of the herbivores involved
is in decline. This over-browsed/grazed state is neither the carrying
capacity for elephants nor biodiversity.
Pinnock’s response seems to have been motivated by an article I
co-authored. To set the record straight, I have been interested in both the
positive and negative impacts of elephants, as far as trees are concerned.
For instance, we showed that elephants are crucial in the dispersal of
several savanna plant species. The importance of fruits being eaten by
elephants is not due to the acid in elephant stomachs, as suggested by
Pinnock, but due to their being chewed by elephants.
In other words, elephants cannot be substituted by other animals to
effectively crack the fruits of marula, lala palm, torchwoods and other
large-seeded hard fruits. The question then is not whether to have
elephants, but how many.
Elephant bulls push over trees, not for feeding, but as part of male
behaviour. We have also shown that elephants and fire can together damage
and kill stems much larger than either could do alone; elephants damage the
bark to let the fire in.
We showed that elephants are presently rendering common widespread tree
species, such as the lala palm, sterile in KNP. This is because elephants
break the stems which keep these plants too small and too short to produce
flowers and fruits, and this occurs on a vast geographic scale.
These tree species are still present as short resprouters, but in an
evolutionary sense, if they continue to remain sterile, they are not there…
they are the living dead. Being kept in a short, sterile state will have
consequences for animals that depend on their flowers (eg pollinators),
fruits (eg dispersers, seed-eaters) and on large stems (eg for nests) and
for the evolution and dispersal of these plant species themselves.
The point here is that the situation for trees and biodiversity dependent
on the reproductive products of these trees is worse than it seems.
Pinnock cited research showing that elephant populations did not increase
during droughts. Did he mean they did not decrease? The paper he cited, and
others clearly show that elephant distributions are dependent on water.
Since managers have increased water availability to elephants, this likely
implies there are more elephants now than ever historically.
Pinnock cited a paper that showed that heterogeneity of KNP, as measured by
Landsat, has not decreased over the last 30 years and therefore it cannot
be argued that elephants are trashing KNP. This is surprising because much
research has shown high rates of elephant damage to trees.
Landsat is a rather coarse scale (30m x 30m scale) and so it remains to be
seen whether trees broken by elephants but still present in the landscape,
will be detectable at this scale.
What then should elephant densities be? One perspective is to attempt to
determine what precolonial elephant densities were. To begin to answer this
question, we considered a broad spectrum of archaeological and ecological
We argued that archaeological evidence of mass elephant kills, widespread
elephant hunting technology including large spears, bows and pits as well
as elephant poison use and trading and the presence of ivory artefacts
together suggest an important role for people in limiting elephant
We also used a tree perspective, such as considering the population ecology
of long-lived baobabs. They are declining in KNP (few births, many deaths,
documented elephant damage) and often now only occur on steep slopes that
are inaccessible to elephants. The lack of baobab recruits, the presence of
only large old individuals and individuals on steep slopes could be
evidence that there were fewer elephants historically, and that this
allowed baobabs to be more widespread and to recruit.
Our paper is a beginning to synthesise diverse information on precolonial
elephant densities and suggests that they were not as high as presently at
KNP. Pinnock simply dismissed our effort as being dependent “on personal
opinion formed through experiences, anecdotes, numbers, rates of growth,
limited visual impressions and hearsay”.
Elephants are important and sentient animals. This makes any discussion
about their management difficult and thus the debate about elephant numbers
in KNP should be based on the best data available, not heated discussions.
Pinnock’s use of descriptions such as “shrill complaints”, “rippled with
elephants”, “mountains of meat” does not help to keep the temperature down.
Prof Jeremy Midgley is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Biological
Sciences at the University of Cape Town.