The Price of Habitat: In Southern Africa, Increasing Conflict between Elephants and Humans Is Raising Painful Questions about Cohabitation on a Crowded Planet

Article excerpt

An excruciating conflict is under way in southern Africa - not a war between rival tribes, but a territorial conflict between two species: Homo sapiens, which is rapidly expanding its claims on the land, and Loxodonta africana, the African elephant, which needs large expanses of land by nature, and which can become dangerous when crowded.

The trouble stems from the fact that both humans and elephants are capable of running roughshod over the earth. People destroy 850,000 hectares of forest - an area half the size of Israel or Kuwait - in southern Africa every year, much of it for agricultural expansion into the elephants' habitat. Elephants, in turn, sometimes trample farm crops and kill people who have moved into close proximity. In the band of wildlife-rich but economically poor countries that stretches across the southern part of the continent from Angola to Mozambique, ecologists are asking how elephants and people - and other competing populations - can successfully exist in the same environment. Many are now convinced that the only way they can manage that is to find ways to use local wildlife - elephants included - as a sustainable economic resource. Just how to do that has become a matter of intense debate and painful decisions.

In this debate, two camps have become vociferous. One has taken a stand for strict preservation of habitat - setting aside and protecting tracts of land and allowing nature to take its course. The other takes the view that human development has already passed the point where such preservation can suffice. It holds that because human activity has already altered many natural ecosystems to the extent that they are no longer capable of self-regulating, we can only protect nature from here on by managing it ourselves - by taking active measures to counter the effects of such no-longer-natural phenomena as the crowding of elephant populations into parks too small to support them.

Strict preservation of habitat is the most simple way, and sometimes the only way, of effectively saving species, especially endemic species - those adapted to life within a particular biological niche. But setting aside enough habitat to preserve a large population of nomadic animals such as elephants, which move over migratory routes covering hundreds of kilometers, and every day consume more than a quarter ton of solid food each, is almost impossible. Most wildlife sanctuaries are simply not large enough to support elephant populations, and farmers or villagers living on the periphery are highly vulnerable to what happens when the giant animals don't stay inside their boundaries. In 1995, for example, villagers living near Zambia's Bangweulu Swamp wildlife preserve nearly starved after elephants from the park began trampling farmers and destroying crops.

On the other hand, the view that it's too late not to use human intervention is based on observations that once-stable elephant populations are being dangerously destabilized - in some places decimated, in others increased to the point that they begin destroying their own habitats.

In the past, the elephants' gargantuan eating habits have played a key role in sub-Saharan ecology, helping both to control their own population and to sustain the diversity of other wildlife. In the savanna, elephants dig water holes, which other species use as well. In wooded areas, they push over trees and shrubs while browsing for food (they subsist largely on saplings, bark, and leaves in the rainy season), but this also helps to regenerate the same vegetation they destroy. Many acacia trees, for example, will not regenerate in the shade of mature trees. When the old acacias are destroyed, new trees get started. Meanwhile, the downed vegetation helps promote fires, which convert woodland to grassland (creating habitat for such grazing animals as zebras), and the elephants migrate away in search of more forage.

This ecological dynamic helped to control population by making elephants work extremely hard to survive - subjecting them to a regimen that not all could survive. …