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Elephant Corridors are an Untested Possibility

13 November 2006

Response Letter to the Saturday Star, November 2006: Elephant corridors seem to be “flavour of the month” currently, mainly due to Prof. Rudi van Aarde’s position and his frequent pushing of this point in the respective media.

Elephant corridors are, however, still only a theoretical or potential management option and are as yet completely untested in practice. Nowhere has a successful elephant corridor yet been created. While I am sure that we all would like to see such corridors connecting wildlife areas, there are doubts as to their feasibility when it comes to elephants.

It may be possible to “create” a corridor, but will the elephants use it? I believe that this is unlikely (especially in the short term) for the following reasons:

1.Elephant home ranges: Our research in Kruger National Park (KNP) has shown that KNP elephants live in home ranges to which they show a very high degree of attachment. Even the stresses/traumas of culling would not induce them to leave (Whyte 1993). Furthermore, during the droughts of the early 1990s when rain had fallen in neighboring home ranges, elephants would not leave their own home ranges to take advantage of the better conditions “next door” (Whyte 1993). So if a corridor should be established, it may possibly be used by only the elephants whose home range is adjacent to it. This would not solve the elephant problem in KNP.

2.Human densities versus elephant habitat: It has been shown (Hoare & du Toit 1999) that where people and elephants co-exist, elephants will leave the area once the human density exceeds about 15 persons per km2. People probably exceed this density in many parts of any such proposed corridor. For a corridor to have any chance of success, human densities will have to be far less than this and probably (initially anyway) would require a complete absence of people in the corridor. To achieve this, people would have to be moved.

3.Moving people for establishment of elephant corridors: South Africa has a sad history of moving people for political and other (e.g. conservation) reasons - creation of KNP is one such example. This can no longer be done without agreement (through proper consultation), and compensation. Incentives would need to be provided, and land must be acquired to resettle the affected people. Where is such land available? There is little unclaimed or unoccupied land left in SA.

4.How wide must such a corridor be?: To allow elephants to move along such a corridor would require that it was wide enough so as to eliminate (or significantly reduce) any possible sources of disturbance. How wide is this?

5.Who funds the creation and maintenance of such corridors?: Dr Jeremy Anderson has pointed out that funding is already limited for conservation in SA, and the acquisition and maintenance of such corridors would further stretch a budget that already has many pressing needs to cover.

6.The impact of roads and railway lines on potential corridors: There are many roads and national highways between the national parks and other reserves which pose a real challenge for the establishment of such corridors. While tunnels and/or “walk-overs” are an expensive possibility, there is no guarantee that elephants would be willing to use them, as they are not used to them and may be too afraid.

7.Elephant “Streaking”: “Streaking” is a term coined by Dr Iain Douglas-Hamilton for a movement pattern by elephants between two nearby protected areas (PAs). Radio-collaring has shown that in Kenya elephants will do a high speed dash from one PA to another overnight while people are sleeping (to avoid contact and conflict). In a situation like this a corridor might work, but in our case people have settled in recent times on the land between the two proposed corridor PAs (KNP and Blyde). If elephants remember that there is another sanctuary beyond the settlements, then they will “streak” to get there, not so in the Blyde/Kruger case, as there is no such institutional memory. This, however, would not be true in all cases.

8.Blyde as potential habitat for elephants: While the Lowveld parts of the Blyde reserve may offer some suitable habitat for elephants, it is unlikely that elephants would be able to permanently colonize the area above the escarpment. The winter cold and poor quality of the habitat would prohibit this. It is also debatable as to whether elephants would be desirable above the escarpment as some plant species (Cussonia and Protea spp) would be very vulnerable. This part of Blyde is also world famous for its scenic beauty and for the hiking trails that provide access to this resource. Elephants would pose a significant threat to the safety of people using these trails, so the question arises – do we want elephants in Blyde?

9.Viability of Blyde as a solution for KNP elephant population: The elephant population of the Lowveld stood at close to 15,000 in 2005 with an estimated conservative 6% increase (± 900 this year). This number alone far exceeds the number of elephants that would be considered desirable for the Blyde population and thus Blyde cannot offer a solution to KNP’s elephant challenge and should not be considered as a solution (or even a part of the solution) to the management of KNP’s elephant population.

WHYTE, I.J. 1993. The movement patterns of elephants in the Kruger National Park in response to culling and environmental stimuli. Pachyderm 16: 72-80.
HOARE, R.E. & DU TOIT, J.T. 1999. Co-existence between people and elephants in African savannas. Conservation Biology 13: 633-639.

Dr David Mabunda is the Chief Executive of South African National Parks (SANParks).