Eco-tourism great for elephants AND people.



Date Published

New research shows that elephant numbers increase when more
ecotourists visit the areas with elephant populations. This is in
stark contrast to trophy hunting which can have devastating effects on
elephant herds.

Monitoring the elephants of Mapungubwe

Ensuring the long-term survival of elephants is not simply a matter of
setting aside protected conservation areas and working to keep them
ecologically sustainable. It also requires elephant populations to
coexist harmoniously with the people in adjacent communities.

The impact which socioeconomic factors have on elephant numbers has
been revealed in a report by a team of scientists from the Amarula
Elephant Research Programme at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, led by
Dr Jeanetta Selier, which surveys the effects on 1200 elephants
residing in the Greater Mapungubwe Transfrontier Conservation Area

Situated on the confluence of the Limpopo and Shashe Rivers, the
GMTFCA covers a 3650 square kilometre mosaic of land straddling the
borders of South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe comprised of national
parks, private game reserves, human settlements, hunting concessions,
plots used for subsistence agriculture and commercial farms.

Although their movement is partially restricted by fences, the
region’s elephants migrate across the international borders and they
are frequently encountered outside of protected areas.

Ecotourism raises elephant numbers

By applying statistical methods to elephant numbers determined during
aerial surveys conducted from 2000 to 2012, the researchers were able
to evaluate how various ecological and socioeconomic factors
influenced the distribution of elephants in the GMTFCA during that

As might be expected, those parts of the GMTFCA which experienced an
increase in the extent of farm land and the density of the human
population were associated with dropping elephant numbers. Conversely,
in regions which saw more visits from ecotourists, the density of the
elephant population tended to rise.

In the words of the researchers, “elephant numbers were higher where
the proportion of total land surface under cultivation was the lowest;
where population density was the lowest and where tourist numbers had
increased over the years”.

They emphasise the fact that this positive impact of ecotourism can
potentially be used to the advantage of local inhabitants by helping
to address the “big African challenge on how to more adequately reward
locals for sharing the same landscape with elephants”.

According to Enrico Di Minin, one of Selier’s co-authors, “local
communities often pay the costs of elephant conservation without
tangible benefits. Making sure the benefits generated from
nature-based tourism, such as ecotourism safaris, are shared with
communities who co-exist with elephants remains crucial to ensure the
long-term persistence of this iconic species”.

The threat of trophy hunting

While growing ecotourism thus has the potential of bolstering the
well-being of both elephants and humans in this area, the same cannot
be said of hunting safaris.

In an earlier study, Selier and her colleagues assessed the
sustainability of elephant trophy hunting in the GMTFCA.

They found that the hunting of trophy bulls (typically male animals
older than 35) “resulted in movement of elephants out of the areas in
which hunting occurred” and negatively impacted on the social
structure and dynamics of the herds.

Because the dominant breeding males in a population tend to be older
individuals, aged from around 40 to 50 years, removing too many of
them by hunting has detrimental effects on the population.

The ominous conclusion was that “at current rates of hunting, under
average ecological conditions, trophy bulls will disappear from the
population in less than 10 years”, and Selier warned that “the current
[hunting] quotas are neither sustainable nor responsible, and this
needs to change quickly, before it’s too late.”

Unlike Zimbabwe and South Africa, Botswana has since banned trophy hunting.


In the new paper, Selier and her colleagues recommend a number of
measures for the survival of elephant populations in human-dominated
landscapes straddling international borders such as the GMTFCA.

Along with efforts to share the benefits of ecotourism with local
communities, these include joint management and “the development of
coordinated legislation and policies to improve land-use planning, the
development of multi-use zones around protected areas, and
conservation corridors to link current protected areas between range

Co-author Rob Slotow explains that “with the increasing demand for
land for human settlement and agriculture, coordinated legislation and
policies across national boundaries are needed to improve long term
land use planning”.

Selier adds that their results “highlight that an increase in human
population, coupled with the need to produce more food, will affect
elephant numbers even more negatively in the future” and cautions that
“if this happens in southern Africa, where elephant populations are
currently doing much better compared to the rest of the continent,
then the picture is grim”.