Elephant Research Programme

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					               Elephants, ecosystems and people:
towards an integrative, collaborative South African research programme
      Developed by the members of the Ministerial Scientific Round-table on Elephants

                                  Proposal Version 4
                                  6 December 2006


Elephants are „keystone species‟, that is, their presence or absence has critical
consequences for the way ecosystems work and look, and their suitability for many
other species. Elephants occurred in virtually all South African ecosystems as recently
as three hundred years ago. After hunting reduced the elephant population to a few
hundred individuals by the end of the nineteenth century, their numbers in South
Africa have risen to about 20 000 as a result of successful conservation efforts, and
continue to grow at around 4 to 6% per annum. Since the South African elephant
populations are now confined to less than a twentieth of the land area, several effects
are becoming apparent: significant changes to vegetation structure and ecological
function of the elephant-containing areas, which may compromise other biodiversity
goals; slow drifts in ecosystem state where elephants have been excluded, which may
also compromise biodiversity; and increasing human-elephant conflict along the
border between protected areas and agricultural and settlement landscapes. At the
same time, elephants have become a key factor in the burgeoning nature-based
tourism industry.

Similar or greater local abundances of elephants are found in neighbouring countries,
and in other regions of Africa elephants are facing differing fates. As a result, the
IUCN's 2006 Red List of threatened species classifies African elephants as
„Vulnerable‟, and the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species restricts
international trade in elephant products. Due to their charismatic and iconic status,
there is passionate support for elephant protection in developed countries and among
parts of the conservation movement and animal rights groups in South Africa. This is
in conflict with other scientific and conservation circles, some hunting lobbies, the
managers of conservation areas where elephants are thought to be over-abundant, and
in adjacent communities whose livelihoods are threatened by elephants. There are
contested issues regarding the notion of „sustainable use‟ with respect to elephants, as
well as balancing biodiversity conservation overall in relation to the protection of
individual species.

The appropriate management of South Africa‟s elephant populations is the focus of a
national debate. It is a lightning-rod for a whole range of associated values-based
policy issues. In terms of the Biodiversity Act of 2004 and the National Biodiversity
Strategy and Action Plan, the ultimate responsibility for establishing national policy
in this regard is the Minister of Environment Affairs and Tourism. The Minister
convened a Scientific Roundtable (SRT) in January 2006 to advise him on policies
regarding elephant management. The SRT concluded that in key aspects, the available
scientific information was insufficient for fully-informed decision making on elephant

The Minister mandated the SRT to propose a research programme that would reduce
the uncertainty regarding the consequences of various elephant management
strategies. This document is the result of that process.

The key attributes of this proposal

The management of elephant populations and the formulation of biodiversity policy
must proceed, despite the ever-present scientific and political risks and uncertainties.
The sensible solution to this reality is a process called „adaptive management‟ which
is designed to reduce the uncertainty of decision making that comes from having an
imperfect knowledge under changing environmental and societal contexts. It is a
process of integrated planning, modelling, management, research and assessment in
repeated cycles of learning. Adaptive management would form the central pillar this
“research” programme in that it both sets the research agenda and integrates the
outcomes into decision making to meet societal aspirations for sound management of
elephants in a social and biodiversity context.

There is a long history of elephant research in Africa, including South Africa, and
much of this knowledge is already incorporated into elephant management practices.
The policymaking process can be further assisted through a systematic approach to
scientific assessment and communication of existing information. Nonetheless, we
lack scientifically-rigorous answers to some fundamental questions, and this requires
a directed approach to the generation of new knowledge as well.

Elephant research to date has typically been uni-disciplinary and focussed on
elephants alone, rather than on the ecosystem of which they are a part, the social
context in which they occur, or the full range of management techniques that could be
applied. Key hypotheses regarding elephants and their interaction with the rest of the
ecosystem and the biodiversity it contains have not been tested at temporal and spatial
scales appropriate to either management or the ecological processes involved, and
with a robust scientific design. It is worth noting that the typical three-year research
project represents a tiny fraction of the lifespan of an elephant (less, in fact, than the
average inter-calf interval of a single female) or of a large tree, and that the home
range of an elephant clan covers hundreds of square kilometres. Thus the spatial and
temporal dynamics are inadequately embraced within such limited time and space

In this document the SRT proposes a highly focussed, integrated collaborative
research programme targeted at resolving the fundamental questions posed by the
management of South Africa‟s elephants. It needs to be relevant at all spatial and
policy scales, ranging from that of the managers of small or large reserves (both
private and public), and to national and regional policy. It must cover elephant
management in all the ecosystem types in which they occur. The programme has
relevance to elephant management issues in southern, East, Central and West Africa,
and can learn from experiences in those regions, although their ecological and social
circumstances differ substantially from those that prevail in South Africa.

The proposed programme enhances existing research rather than replacing it.
Individual researchers and independent programmes investigating elephants will be
encouraged to continue. The research programme proposed here will attempt to create

a national umbrella, to achieve greater coordination and synergies. Such coordination
will ensure integration of investigations by different agencies, scientists, or teams into
a coherent national strategy to reduce key risks and uncertainties underlying elephant
conservation and management.

The proposed research programme is embedded in a philosophy of active adaptive
management, i.e. guiding policy with the best available information, and treating
management interventions as learning opportunities through treating interventions as
guiding the system in a desired, specific, predicted direction. It will consist of four
main elements: periodically-repeated scientific assessment to transfer knowledge
between the science, and policy domains; modelling to attain reliable predictions of
complex systems; new investigations from planned and unplanned experiments,
including social, political and economic research; and the building of capacity in
decision-makers, managers and researchers, as well as in institutions and technology.
To achieve these objectives the programme needs to be adequately resourced and
must be supported by all the major stakeholders. It must be sustained for an initial
period of five years, followed by review, and on the basis of demonstrated progress,
those elements that require longer-term research should be continued.

The programme can serve as a flagship project of science, technology and
management cooperation within South Africa, Africa and the rest of the world.
Because of the unique opportunities it offers, there is high potential to attract national
and international contributions, both in cash and kind. A substantial, sustained and
well-designed programme will create a sound platform for individual and institutional
capacity building.

Vision, goal and key questions

In the absence of an explicit and shared national vision regarding the management of
elephants in South Africa, we offer the following as a proposed vision:

Elephant populations that promote broader biodiversity and social goals and are
socially, politically, economically and ecologically sustainable.

Within this broader framework, the goal of this research programme is:

To provide information that reduces risk and uncertainty in the management
and conservation of elephant-containing ecosystems and facilitates progressive
improvement in policies and practices

The programme will be focused on answering key questions posed by the adaptive
management framework in which it is embedded. As a starting point to this cycle of
questions-actions-observations and new questions, we adopt the questions posed by
the Minister for Environmental Affairs and Tourism to the SRT on Elephant

      For given environments and circumstances, what range of elephant impacts
       allows the land use objectives (which include conservation and tourism within

         protected areas, and human habitation, agriculture and natural resource
         harvesting in adjacent areas) to be met in both the short and long term?
        What acceptable, practical, affordable and effective management options exist
         to mitigate elephant impacts?

The second question should be expanded to include the consequences of the
applications of these techniques, especially in light of the recognition of complexities
of elephant social structures.

Organisation, process and governance

The programme we propose has many stakeholders, involves many institutions, and
has several sources of funding (of which the new funding requested from DEAT is a
minor part). It needs an organisation structure that can deal with this complexity in a
way that is responsive to societal needs, but not cumbersome. The „organisational
model‟, which combines elements of structure with elements of process, is illustrated

       Other elephant    Minister EA&T
          forums                                                         Private elephant   Civil society:
                                                                              owners           NGOs

                        Steering committee
                                                              Civil society:      Research and       Provincial
                                                                  CBOs              academia        Con agencies

                coordinator                   Technical committee                         International
                                                                                       Elephant research

                                        capacity building

    adaptive                                 assessment
   management                                  modelling
                                project 1     project 2      project n

Two bodies are proposed for the guidance of the programme: a steering committee to
ensure that the programme is focussed on user needs, and a technical committee to
ensure that the programme is executed in a rigorous and coordinated way. The
steering committee should comprise less than ten people, representing key stakeholder
groups. It should be chaired by a nominee of the Department of Environment Affairs
and Tourism, and report annually to the Minister. The members should include one
researcher of high standing who is not a beneficiary of the programme; one
representative of SANParks, one representative of private elephant owners; one
provincial protected area representative from within the elephant distribution range;
one representative of a conservation NGO; one representative of a CBO in an
elephant-adjoining area and the chair of the technical committee (the programme

coordinator attends as secretary). Their role is to approve the programme of work and
budget allocations, and act as „clients‟ for the outputs. They would meet twice in the
first year and annually thereafter, or as needed.

The technical committee should draw its members from the Principal Investigators in
the programme such that they represent the main programme elements and selected
members from the broader research community. It should elect a chair who would
report to the Steering Committee. The programme coordinator acts as secretary. The
role of the Technical committee is to prepare the programme of work, coordinate its
execution, and arrange for the reporting, review and dissemination of results. They
should meet once every six months, just before the steering committee meeting on
alternate meetings.

A full-time programme coordinator will be appointed, answerable to the steering
committee, responsible for handling organisation, communication and financial
accounting within the programme.

Programme of work

We propose an action-oriented research programme, a necessary element in an
adaptive management system. Adaptive management forms the framework for the
research programme in that it sets both the research agenda and integrates the
outcomes into decision-making, to meet the aspiration for sound management of
elephants within a social and biodiversity context. The Protected Areas Act and the
Biodiversity Act both mandate participatory and adaptive approaches.

The programme will provide new, improved means of integrating research into
decision making in complex social/ecological problems. It should provide an
international benchmark in the field of conflict resolution in dynamic systems.

                                                   Monitoring of
  Set policies                                    consequences

The elements of the proposed research programme are as follows:

Scientific assessments of elephant-ecosystem-society interactions:

An assessment is a process that translates existing scientific information into a form
usable by policy-makers. Assessments are characterised by extensive, transparent
review by both experts and stakeholders. Assessments encourage the authors to
provide expert judgements when the data are sparse or equivocal (as long as they are
clearly identified as opinions) but puts checks and balances in place to ensure that all
reasonable viewpoints are fairly reflected. Assessments include explicit evaluation of
the uncertainties on key issues.

We propose an assessment of the state of knowledge regarding elephant-ecosystem-
society interactions as the first activity initiated by the research programme. It will be
completed in the first year, in order to 1) immediately mine the extensive existing
information that has not yet contributed to policy; 2) establish an information baseline
against which to judge the success of the programme, and 3) identify the critical
research gaps that the programme must address. We further propose periodic re-
assessments (perhaps 5 years apart), to judge progress, redirect the research effort and
feed information to the policy community.

The first assessment will build on the data collations and reviews created by the
„Luiperdskloof‟ process, as well as the work in progress and comprehensive database
created by the African Elephant Specialist Group of the IUCN Species Survival
Commission. The output will be a book-length, published document, in the public
domain. In addition to the main assessment aimed at decision-makers, there are
typically other products, such as syntheses specifically for managers, who require
detailed and practical information at local scale; and the wider public, who require
jargon-free, brief and well-illustrated material. The process involves identifying
chapter authors and review editors, followed by sequential writing sessions and
review loops.

Box 1: An example chapter outline of the first assessment

Summary for Decision makers
Elephants in South Africa: history and distribution
Elephant biology, ecology, sociality and behaviour
Effects of elephants on ecosystems and biodiversity
Human-elephant conflict
Elephant management (including measures to both enhance and limit populations, and
interactions with other management issues)
Ethical considerations in elephant management
Elephant economics
Laws, regulations and international treaties relating to elephants
Decision-making systems for elephant management

Predictions and scenarios:

Quantitative, testable predictive capacity is a necessary outcome of the programme. It
can take the form of numerical models, but also more qualitative scenario-based tools.
„Models‟, whether they are numerical or simply conceptual, are essential to integrate
across the complexity of elephant population dynamics, tree-shrub-grass dynamics
and other biodiversity and social elements, all within a spatially and temporally
varying environment. They allow the testing of complex hypotheses without the
inevitable delay (and possible destructiveness) of real-life tests. They also form a
basis for consensus predictions about the outcome of given actions. The objective is to
have information about long-term outcomes of various elephant management
scenarios – and particularly about the presence or absence of thresholds of irreversible
change – before actually crossing the threshold.

Modelling must begin at the start of the programme, not towards its end, because it is
a key tool for identifying the information gaps and designing the experiments. We
envisage a linked set of models, co-developed and shared by the research community,
rather than one mega-model. Much more confidence can be placed in models if
several different models, independently derived, come to the same conclusion.
Furthermore, the models need to be applied to a range of different circumstances and
ecosystems, which may vary in the quality of data and the nature of
elephant/ecosystem interactions. Both of these reasons promote a suite of models at
different levels of complexity and scales, rather than one all-purpose model. A way of
thinking about a modelling framework is suggested below:

                               simple models

           Conceptual, analytical
           and scenario models           Spatial models
               (very simple models             (GIS)
                 to test concepts)

point models                                                 spatial models

               Linked elephant-            Spatial agent-
                  ecosystem-               based social-
                 management              ecological system
                    models                    models

                                complex models


The investigations will be based on the outputs from the assessment and adaptive
management element, which will identify key uncertainties and contextualise them.
These details given below for this element are not exhaustive, nor necessarily
recommended at this stage, but serve simply as illustrations of the kind of thinking

       A. „Natural Experiments‟. Elephants occur under different circumstances in
       different distinct populations within South Africa. These contrasting situations
       offer the opportunity to investigate aspects of elephant biology under different
       and independent (in the experimental sense) conditions. Combining the
       observations from studies in different places (a technique known as meta-
       analysis) provides a means for increasing the validity and generality of results.
       Meta-analysis requires compatible data be collected under different
       circumstances, along with necessary background information about climate,
       soil, vegetation, management regimes etc.

       B. Directed Experiments. Some key questions may require much more
       controlled experimental investigation, wherein the specific conditions not
       provided by the „natural experiments‟ are established and controlled.
       Elephants are a particularly difficult animal to study in a traditional

experimental manner because of their large size, large area requirements and
longevity. Bold and innovative approaches will be needed (Box 2). Because of
the interventionist nature of experimentation, all such experiments will have to
be approved by an independent Ethics panel.

Box 2: An example of a ‘directed experiment’ involving elephants

We only have a general idea of the mechanisms by which elephant populations
are regulated, and do not know ahead of time at what density this may occur,
or the level of environmental transformation associated with it. A directed
experiment could deliver these insights more quickly, and with a smaller
impact, than allowing the natural experiment to play itself out over the entire
area of the elephant habitat. This notional experiment could be done in a
number of ways: (i) create fenced enclosures with different densities of
elephants; (ii) create barriers to movement using fencing; or (iii) manipulate
the local density of elephants, for example by translocation from one part of
the area to another.

C. Learning opportunistically from management interventions. Managers may
be required to intervene in their reserves in terms of their reserve management
plan, as specified by the Protected Areas Act. These interventions offer
opportunities for studying the responses of the system (Box 3). Although
interventions may not be replicated independently within a reserve, by
investigating responses across repeats of the same type of intervention across
reserves, a generalised understanding can be generated. Systematic studies
also need to be initiated into the effectiveness, practicality and cost efficiency
of management interventions, ranging from contraception to capture methods
to fencing. A particular issue is the degree of stress they impose on the
elephant populations. Behavioural assessments and non-invasive physiological
techniques allow the objective measurement of stress, which can form a basis
for the setting of norms and standards.

Box 3: Example of a management action treated as an experiment

The KNP is a system of linear rivers with less permanent water in between. A
matrix of artificial waterholes has been created across this landscape, which
has spread the impact of elephants on the vegetation into areas that may not
previously have experienced such impact. Some waterholes are scheduled to
be closed. The effect of water provision on elephant population parameters,
range selection and consequent impact on vegetation can be tested by carefully
selecting the waterholes to be closed and then monitoring elephant population,
movement and impact parameters over time.

D. Social, political and economic research. There is no escaping the fact that
decisions regarding elephant management are strongly influenced by the value
systems of the people making the decisions, and the stakeholders who can
influence the process. At present, we only have assertions from the various
stakeholder representatives about what these values are, how widely-held they

       are, and what compromises are possible. This element will explore, for the
       first time, stakeholder perceptions and attitudes, as well as the costs and
       benefits of various options and international political considerations. Rigorous
       information will be solicited by survey techniques, across the range of
       opinions. A key output is simply identifying, describing and classifying the
       stakeholders. As one input to the decision process, direct and indirect costs
       and benefits of the various options to different constituencies at different
       levels need to be analysed. The elephant management issue has a range of
       international political impacts as well – through SADC regional positions,
       various sometimes conflicting conventions (notably the Convention on
       Biological Diversity, Convention on International Trade in Endangered
       Species, Convention on Migratory Species), and non-treaty political
       relationships between South Africa and African, European and North
       American countries.

Capacity building:

Three types of capacity need to be built: institutional, technological and human. The
key institutional capacity needed refers to the system of rules and mechanisms that
would allow rational and convergent decision-making regarding elephants, taking into
account the broader social and biodiversity context.

Human capacity needs to be built in three areas: policy, management and research. It
occurs within a context where historically disadvantaged individuals are
underrepresented in all three areas.

Recent and fundamentally-different legislation and regulations are driving a new
approach to accountable conservation management, which in turn requires new
thinking, planning and reporting systems. The Protected Areas Act requires
comprehensive management plans to be drawn up for both public and private land
parcels. Specific norms and standards for elephant management are being
promulgated by the DEAT. Incumbent and future managers, conservation strategists
and planners, as well as private consultants, will require training in meeting the new
requirements. Such training must include the development of negotiation skills,
conflict management and professionalism. Mentoring must be a fundamental
component of the programme, not just from the older, more experienced and usually
White specialists but also from the new generation of Black wildlife professionals
who may serve as role models. Initial experience highlights the value of using
elephant management as a flagship model for developing this capacity.

This programme will promote the formal training of post-graduates with the
appropriate skills and abilities to serve the changing needs. A critical element of
conservation management plans is an adequate understanding of the ecological,
social, and political systems in which parks and private reserves operate. Management
plans specify that rigorous monitoring must take place: this programme will
contribute to the training of staff to conduct such monitoring.

Finally, the programme will bring together role-players from different levels and
perspectives into a forum where experience, insights, innovations, and approaches can

be debated and shared. This will result in a less conflictual, more unified, consistent
and appropriate approach to elephant conservation policy and management across the
relevant stakeholders.


Given the urgency of the issue, commencement should be as soon as possible. 1
January 2007 is possible, given that planning funding has been secured.
                            0                1               2   3
   Steering comm
                                             report                                       Meeting
   Technical comm
                                    plan                                                  Output
   Meetings                                                                               Activity

   Model development                                                                      linkage

                                                                       Programme review
    Cost benefit analysis


    1st Elephant assessment
    2nd Elephant assessment
    Policy guidelines
    Public Communication

  Capacity building
                                Ongoing policy-making and management

Financing the elephant research programme

The iconic significance of the African elephant places it in a unique position in terms
of attracting the interest of the global public, researchers, conservationists and donors.

In considering the need for further investment in an elephant research programme, it
must be placed in the context of providing critical decision support to the management
of elephants and habitats that form a very significant component of our biodiversity
and tourism economy. One study of the contribution of Addo elephants to the
regional economy indicated that each individual elephant, in a population of 220
animals, attracted over R1 million per annum in tourism spend in the region. Similar
assessments of the value of elephants in Kruger National Park and other protected
areas would likely indicate similar major economic generation capacities.

In the context of South Africa‟s science and technology budget, of several billion
rands per annum, an allocation of R5 million via DEAT to a collaborative, integrative,
multi-disciplinary research programme would seem trivial. But the catalytic effect
that a targeted allocation of R5 million per year will have in bringing a focus of
collaboration to the existing rather dispersed and uncoordinated projects will far
exceed its direct cost, most especially in filling critical gaps in the programme which
currently prevents the development of a coherent decision support framework.

Currently funded research activities on elephant and the ecosystems they occupy in
South Africa exceeds R10 million, perhaps even R20 million – an order of magnitude
higher than for most other mammal species and several orders of magnitude above
other vertebrates.

South Africa has a unique and long history in successful cooperative science ventures,
and the extensive experience we have in this domain needs to be brought to bear in
reaching the goal of this programme.

It is therefore recommended that a baseline of R5 million per annum for the Elephant
Research Programme be included in the next DEAT MTEF proposals.

Outputs, outcomes and impacts

                     Long-term Goal (Vision): Elephant populations that promote broader biodiversity and social goals
                     and are socially, politically economically and ecologically-sustainable.

                             Immediate Goals:
                              To provide information that informs conservation policy and reduces risk and uncertainty
                              To facilitate the adoption of an adaptive management approach to the conservation of
                              elephants in linked social-ecological systems
                              To strengthen capacity in management, research and decision making in all sectors and levels
                              involved in the conservation and management of elephants

Output # 1:                             Output # 2:                           Output #3:                            Output #4:                              Output #5:
Current state of elephant –              Suite of predictive models on        Establishment of a forum to           Key questions regarding                 Programme coordination and
ecosystem science and                   elephants as components of            promote the adoption of active        elephant conservation and               management established and
knowledge, including related            linked social-ecological systems      adaptive management                   management investigated                 operating
societal perceptions and values,        developed and used in research        practices in elephant
assessed                                and adaptive management               conservation facilitated

Sample Activities:
 Full time coordinator appointed        Involve a range of interested        Convene workshops and seminars       Analysis of past and ongoing           Programme technical steering
 Lead and associate authors             scientists and managers in            to expose managers and decision       “natural experiments” involving         coordinating/ advisory committees
 recruited to complete assessments of    developing appropriate predictive     makers to concepts of adaptive        elephants in southern Africa.           appointed
 selected topics                         models that deal with the range of    management in the context of          Carry out directed experiments to      Funding strategy developed and
                                         key issues related to elephant        managing complex adaptive
 Meetings and workshops                                                                                             help resolve key uncertainties in       marketed
                                         management                            systems                               elephant ecosystem interactions
 convened as required to facilitate                                                                                                                          Programme and project grant
 assessments and build capacity to       Convene meetings and workshops       Facilitate interactive links         Use selected ongoing elephant          proposals developed and submitted
 conduct assessments                     as appropriate                        between researchers, managers and     and ecosystem management
                                                                               decision makers in the development                                            Annual review/evaluation of
 Initial assessments reviewed and       Support/facilitate the testing of                                          interventions (e.g. closing water       programme conducted
                                         models through active adaptive        of models (Output #2),                holes) to study elephant and
 returned to authors
                                                                               investigations (Output #4) and                                                Linkages and feedback between
                                         management where feasible and                                               ecosystem responses.
 2nd iteration of assessment reports                                          monitoring, of elephant                                                       research, management results, and
 reviewed by stakeholders
                                         appropriate                                                                 Involve and train graduate             policy strengthened
                                                                               management activities
                                         Build capacity in modeling and                                             students as part of the ongoing
 Assessment reports finalized by        the use of models by managers,        Build capacity in monitoring and     research programme                      Etc.
 authors and review panel                                                      the establishment of effective
                                         researchers and decision makers                                             Train resource managers and
 Summary chapters commissioned                                                feedback loops to strengthen
                                                                                                                     technicians in appropriate
 and final report published and                                                adaptive management
                                                                                                                     monitoring techniques as part of a n
                                                                                                                     adaptive management programme

Contact points

Chair of the SRT process:

Prof Brian Huntley (South African National Biodiversity Institute,

For comments on this document:

Dr RJ (Bob) Scholes (CSIR-Natural Resources and Environment,, +27 12 841 2045)

To register existing elephant-related research, and an interest in participating in the

Prof Rob Slotow (School of Biological and Conservation Sciences, University of
KwaZulu-Natal, Cell (preferred): 083-681-7136, )

Appendix: Participants of the SRT that drew up this proposal.

Dave Cumming
Iain Douglas Hamilton
Holly Dublin
Brian Gibson
John Hanks
Brian Huntley
Graham Kerley
Keith Lindsay
Hector Magome
Norman Owen-Smith
Bruce Page
Stuart Pimm
Kevin Rogers
Bob Scholes
Rob Slotow
Rudi van Aarde
Brian Walker
Ian Whyte