A key factor in saving elephants from extinction has been discovered. Conservation measures have successfully stopped declines in the savanna elephant population across southern Africa – but the pattern varies locally, say scientists.
They uncovered evidence that suggests the long-term solution to elephant survival requires not only that areas are protected, but that they are also connected to allow populations to stabilize naturally. The international research team collected survey estimates and calculated growth rates for more than 100 elephant populations in southern Africa between 1995 and 2020, accounting for an estimated 70 percent of the global savanna elephant population.
“This is the most comprehensive analysis of growth rates for any large mammal population in the world. He described the overall results of the survey, published in the journal Science Advances, as positive. said study co-author Dr. Rob Guldemond.
“There are the same number of elephants now as there were 25 years ago, a rare conservation win at a time when the planet is rapidly losing biodiversity. However, the pattern is not consistent across regions,” said Dr. Guldemond, director of the Conservation Ecological Research Unit (CERU) at the University of Pretoria in South Africa.
“Some areas – such as south Tanzania, eastern Zambia, and northern Zimbabwe – experienced severe declines due to illegal ivory poaching. In contrast, populations in other regions like north Botswana are booming,” he added.
“Unchecked growth isn’t necessarily a good thing. Rapidly increasing populations can outgrow and damage their local environment and prove hard to manage – introducing a threat to their long-term stability,” said study co-author Professor Stuart Pimm, of Duke University in the US.
As well as documenting local growth rates, the researchers also looked at the features of the local populations to identify what makes them stable – neither growing nor declining. Elephant populations in well-protected but isolated parks – sometimes called fortress conservation – grow rapidly in the absence of threats, but are considered unsustainable in the long term.
Experts say those elephants will likely need future conservation interventions – such as relocation or birth control – which are both costly and intensive. The researchers found that the most stable elephant populations occur in large, core areas that are surrounded by buffer zones. They said the core areas are defined by their strong levels of environmental protection and minimal human impact, whereas the buffers allow some activities – such as sustainable farming, forestry, or trophy hunting. The research team explained that, unlike the insular fortresses, core areas are connected to other parks, allowing herds to move naturally.
“What’s crucial is that you need a mix of areas with more stable core populations linked to more variable buffer areas. These buffers absorb immigrants when core populations get too high, but also provide escape routes when elephants face poor environmental conditions or other threats such as poaching,” said lead author Dr. Ryan Huang, a postdoctoral researcher at CERU.
He says connecting protected areas means elephants can freely move in and out, allowing a natural equilibrium to occur without human intervention, and sparing conservationists from using their limited resources to maintain balance.
“Calling for connecting parks isn’t something new. Many have done so. But surprisingly, there has not been a lot of published evidence of its effectiveness so far. This study helps quantify why this works,” added Dr Huang.
“Connecting protected areas is essential for the survival of African savanna elephants and many other animal and plant species,” said co-author Celesté Maré, a doctoral student at Aarhus University in Denmark.
“Populations with more options for moving around are healthier and more stable, which is important given an uncertain future from climate change,” she added.
Produced in association with SWNS Talker
“What’s the latest with Florida Man?”
Get news, handpicked just for you, in your box.