Africa’s savannah elephants: small ‘fortress’ parks aren’t the answer –
they need room to roam
Celesté Maré, PhD candidate, Aarhus University and Robert A.R. Guldemond,
Researcher, Conservation Ecology Research Unit, University of Pretoria, The
January 25, 2024
Africa is home to about 410,000 savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana),
most of them living in southern Africa. Over 290,000 elephants (70%) are
spread across 103 protected areas which vary in size, connectivity and
In a recent research paper we explored how elephant populations across
southern Africa performed under different conservation approaches. This
work formed part of the Conservation Ecology Research Unit at the
University of Pretoria, where we focus on science-based, cost-effective
approaches to elephant management.
Our study was the most comprehensive analysis of growth for any large
mammal population globally and covered an area of 320,000km².
Overall, the results were positive. From 1995 to 2020, elephant numbers
across southern Africa grew at an average annual rate of 0.16%. This means
that there are the same number of elephants today as there were 25 years
ago. This is promising given that globally, savannah elephants are still
listed as endangered, meaning that their numbers declined by over 50%
within three generations.
Analysis of the World, From Experts
Our analysis led us to conclude that the best way to keep overall numbers
stable was to allow elephants to roam freely. Keeping elephants in small
“fortress” conservation parks may lead to spikes in elephant numbers, but
this does not mean the numbers will be stable (more or less the same over
Isolating Elephants or Allowing Them to Roam?
There are usually two approaches to creating protected areas. Conservation
“fortresses” are isolated habitat patches that keep animals in and people
out. An example is the 1,640km² Addo Elephant National Park in South Africa.
Our research found that elephants in these small conservation fortresses
seemed to flourish but could grow so much that translocation (moving
elephants out of a park) or birth control is eventually needed to reduce
numbers and to slow growth. Without anywhere for elephants to go, isolated
parks could become overcrowded, which might cause damage to the environment
and affect animal well-being. This isn’t sustainable.
A different approach is to establish clusters of protected areas where
well-protected core areas are connected to less-protected buffer areas
(such as subsistence farming areas, forestries and communal lands).
This connected approach allows people and wildlife to share resources in
the buffer areas, while creating a safe space for animals in the core
areas. Connectivity between core and buffer areas allows animals to move
into the protected areas when their surroundings become less favourable.
This means that, over time, there’s a much higher chance for elephant
populations to remain stable.
Our findings showed that elephants in large, well-protected core areas were
more stable – neither increasing nor decreasing significantly. These
populations enjoy strict protection and minimal human impact, while their
connectivity to buffer areas allows for natural movement. Links between
clusters of protected areas allow elephants to move into buffers when the
core populations gets too high and to return when their environments become
unsuitable, or when they face other threats, such as poaching.
What Conservation Approaches are Working?
The global biodiversity goal is to have 30% of the world’s landmass
protected by 2030. Yet, only 16% of the world’s land has been set aside for
conservation. Southern Africa is doing better with 20% of land designated
as protected. Maintaining these protected areas is very important for
conserving elephants and other wildlife species.
However, more attention should be given to how this is done. Maintaining
and expanding clusters of protected areas is the best solution for
conserving Africa’s savannah elephants and their landscapes. While core
areas provide safety to elephants and allow populations to remain stable,
buffer areas serve as overflow spaces that elephants can move to when cores
Conservation fortresses often exclude local people and may spark
resentment. But buffer areas that surround core protected areas can be
established in cooperation with local communities, who can then also
Buffer areas must be created responsibly to ensure that people’s safety and
livelihoods are not negatively affected.
Connecting protected areas is not only important for the survival of
African savannah elephants, but also for other animal and plant species.
Populations with more options for moving around are healthier and more
stable, which is important given an uncertain future from climate change.