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Elephant Science Round Table Reach Consensus

Date: 2006-08-24

Thirteen of the world's leading elephant scientists reached agreement yesterday on a series of guidelines that they suggest could inform Government policy for elephant management in South Africa.

The Science Round Table met for a second time at the invitation of the Minister of Environmental Affairs & Tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk.

At the first Science Round Table held in January, the scientists agreed that there was no compelling evidence to suggest the need for immediate, large-scale reduction of elephant numbers in the Kruger National Park. However, elephant density, distribution and population structure might need to be managed in some protected areas, including the Kruger National Park, to meet biodiversity and other objectives. 
Yesterday, they told the Minister that:

1.African elephants are an important component of South Africa's biological diversity, both as a species in their own right, and as agents of change in the ecosystem.
2.Elephants in confined populations can, in the absence of interventions, cause changes to the composition, structure and functioning of ecosystems in which they occur.

3.Excluding extinctions, elephant-induced changes to the ecosystem are potentially reversible. 

4.The management of elephant influence on ecosystems takes place within the context of human society and its objectives.

5.Decisions on managing elephants are dependent on stated land use objectives, the techniques by which this can be practically achieved being situation-specific.

6.Elephants have a high level of social organisation and consciousness.

7.The state of knowledge regarding some important aspects of elephant management requires further research. 

While recognising that the Minister has to make policy decisions based on the best available scientific knowledge at the time, the scientists proposed the establishment of a multi-disciplinary, multi-stakeholder research advisory platform to oversee a 20 year research programme.

The programme would use the "adaptive management approach" (learning by doing) to ensure that the consequences of all management interventions are carefully monitored.  This would ensure that the short, medium and long term consequence of each are properly understood.

The Minister told the scientists that the concept of adaptive management would form a key pillar of the Draft Norms & Standards that would be published for public comment in the next few months.

"This will be a broad philosophical framework that provides guidance on the implementation of the National Environmental Management Act and the Biodiversity Act as they apply to elephants.  It will spell out a range of options for managing population densities where this is necessary.

Every proposed intervention will have to be motivated by the local managers in a Management Plan that is subjected to a process of local public consultation."
Adaptive management techniques allowed for bold initiatives to test various management options and gain valuable insights into the most appropriate long term implications taking into account values, ecology, economic, technical and broader policy considerations.

Minister Van Schalkwyk invited the scientists to develop a comprehensive research proposal and suggested that the initiative should be driven by the South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI).

The members of the panel agreed that the "research platform" should consist of six programmes:

1.Assessment of all current data.

2.Experimentation to establish the likely trajectory of elephant numbers, the relationship between elephant density and a range of ecological consequences in various ecosystems, and the consequences of various management options.

3.Predictive modelling that would help predict the outcome of given actions.

4.Social, political and economic research to explore stakeholder perceptions and attitudes, costs and benefits of various options and international considerations.

5.Capacity building, including human and technical resources.

6.Adaptive management or orchestration of a close interface between the practical day to day management of elephants in parks and the scientific research programmes.

SANBI Director, Professor Brian Huntely, who facilitated the round table discussion, said the panel would prepare a draft proposal for circulation within two to three months to the "elephant fraternity", including scientists, managers of parks, institutions and non governmental bodies.