Botswana is home to a growing population of about 200 thousand elephants. Research (by Elephants without Borders) has shown that the elephants of northern Botswana have the largest home ranges (24,828 km2) recorded for African elephants. These large bulk feeders have a significant effect on their environment, both good and bad.
The Good part…
As a child I was fascinated by elephants pushing over trees. We have a home video where I’m about six years old and we’re bumbling along in the bush in an old kombie and my Mom asks me what I want to see …. “ALL I want to see is an elephant pushing down a tree!” declares 6 year-old me. We actually did! It was a baby elephant pushing over a baby tree but nonetheless I was fascinated by the pure bodily might of these incredible mammals.
An elephant’s style of feeding may seem destructive, but – in the right balance – it has a very important ecological function. Pulling down branches makes space for smaller animals to feed and enables them to eat fruit and seeds that they wouldn’t usually reach.
Elephants open up the Okavango’s woodland areas, preventing the whole environment from become climax vegetation and creating a mosaic of forest and savanna for a variety of species to exist. Without elephants there would be plenty of habitat for forest dwellers like kudu, bushbuck and giraffe but a limited area for plains game like wildebeest, zebra, buffalo and tsessebe. Like hippos, elephant also carve paths through the swamplands, opening them up to carry important nutrients to the lower reaches of the Delta. Elephants also dig water holes, making water available to smaller animals, essential during times of drought.
An elephant’s digestive system helps a lot of seeds (especially acacias) to germinate. These kernels have a hard seed coating and this process softens them to germinate and also spreads them around. Long lines of palm trees, seen in Botswana today, mark ancient elephant migration routes. Elephant dung also fertilizes floodwaters, which boosts fish populations.
Another very important role that elephants play in the Okavango is attracting people from all over the world to visit and invest in the area. This brings money into Botswana, creating jobs in the tourism industry and motivating the long-term protection of this special wildlife eden.
The not so good…
Today, elephants in Africa are in trouble with the most urgent threat being large-scale poaching to supply the illegal ivory trade.
According to research findings from the recent Great Elephant Census (the first continent-wide survey of Africa’s elephants), a renewed poaching outbreak has led to the deaths of an estimated 30,000 elephants per year in the last 10 years. Botswana, where elephants are safeguarded, has become a refuge:
“Elephants clearly have a cognitive ability to understand where they are threatened and where they are safe and in this case they are seeking sanctuary in Botswana where they are well protected,” (Dr Mike Chase from Elephants without Borders and Great Elephant census)
“During the past 20 years the elephant range in Botswana has expanded by 53%, causing increasing concern about the impact of elephants on biodiversity, the viability of other species and the livelihoods and safety of people living within the elephant range.” (Dr Mike Chase)
Although Botswana takes poaching very seriously and is by all accounts the safest country in Africa for elephants, it is also not immune to the challenges facing the rest of Africa. Elephants Without Borders discovered 21 fresh carcasses along Botswana’s border from their helicopter during the census, “their faces hacked away to remove the maximum amount of ivory.”
In short – elephants are INCREDIBLY important in maintaining a healthy balance in the Okavango’s ecosystem, yet due to the increasing amount of elephants moving into Botswana from other countries, they may also have a negative affect on the environment and other animals. Sadly, even in Botswana, elephants are not 100% safe.
This Blog Post was sponsored by Africa Odyssey with all words my own. Africa Odyssey are African travel experts who represent many of my favourite lodges in Botswana including Mombo, Jao and Vumbura Plains.