Review Article

The management dilemma: Removing elephants to save large trees

Michelle D. Henley, Robin M. Cook
Koedoe | Vol 61, No 1 | a1564 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/koedoe.v61i1.1564 | © 2019 Michelle D. Henley, Robin M. Cook | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 20 December 2018 | Published: 15 August 2019

About the author(s)

Michelle D. Henley, Applied Behavioural Ecology and Ecosystem Research Unit, School of Environmental Sciences, University of South Africa, Pretoria, South Africa; and, Elephants Alive, Hoedspruit, South Africa
Robin M. Cook, Elephants Alive, Hoedspruit, South Africa


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Abstract

The loss of large trees (> 5 m in height) in Africa’s protected areas is often attributed to the impact by savanna elephants (Loxodonta africana). Concerns have been raised over large tree mortality levels in protected areas such as South Africa’s Kruger National Park (KNP) and in the past, the need to manage its elephant population in order to preserve large trees and biodiversity as a whole. Our review aims to synthesise and discuss the complexities of managing elephants’ effects on the landscape to ensure the survival of large trees, as well as the application purposes of the various lethal and non-lethal elephant mitigation strategies. We further critically evaluate past management strategies, which have solely focused on controlling elephant numbers to protect large trees. Past mitigation strategies focused on managing elephant impact by directly reducing elephant numbers. However, maintaining elephant numbers at a pre-determined carrying capacity level did not prevent the loss of large trees. Research on large tree survival in African savannas has continually exposed the complexity of the situation, as large tree survival is influenced at various demographic stages. In some cases, a coalescence of historical factors may have resulted in what could be perceived as an aesthetically appealing savanna for managers and tourists alike. Furthermore, the past high density of surface water within the KNP homogenised elephant impact on large trees by increasing the encounter rate between elephants and large trees. Our review evaluates how current mitigation strategies have shifted from purely managing elephant numbers to managing elephant distribution across impact gradients, thereby promoting heterogeneity within the system. Additionally, we discuss each mitigation strategy’s occurrence at various landscape scales and its advantages and disadvantages when used to manage impact of elephant on large trees.

Conservation implications: A variety of options exist to manage the effects that elephants have on large trees. These options range from large-scale landscape manipulation solutions to small-scale individual tree protection methods. Interactions between elephants and large trees are complex, however, and conservation managers need to consider the advantages and disadvantages of each mitigation strategy to protect large trees.


Keywords

elephant impact; conceptual model; Kruger National Park; Loxodonta africana; mitigation strategies; spatial and temporal distribution

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