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Feb 29, 2016

WESSA initiates project to advance Elephant monitoring in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park

WESSA has embarked on an elephant monitoring project in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP) in KwaZulu-Natal. This work will provide essential data to support and strengthen Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s management of elephant populations in the park as well as enhance a broader understanding of how best to manage elephant populations in closed systems.

Category: Press Release
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WESSA has embarked on an elephant monitoring project in the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP) in KwaZulu-Natal. This work will provide essential data to support and strengthen Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s management of elephant populations in the park as well as enhance a broader understanding of how best to manage elephant populations in closed systems.

Elephants are known as a keystone species because they have a disproportionate ability to alter their habitat and to dramatically affect other species in the ecosystems in which they live. Elephants require extensive ranges to maintain healthy populations and, as ecological engineers, they can be either a threat or an asset to biodiversity in a closed system. 

The HiP is one example of a medium-sized (96 000ha) reserve with a growing elephant population, which is fast approaching the reserve’s ecological carrying capacity of around 1 000 individuals. Park management have been implementing a contraception programme where adult cows are darted from a helicopter with a contraceptive as part of an Elephant Management Plan to control numbers. If this method proves effective it will provide an attractive alternative to culling or translocation.  

A key aim of the HiP Elephant Management Plan, drawn up by Park Ecologist Dr Dave Druce and others, is to “Maintain the elephant population in a state that does not jeopardise the conservation of biodiversity elements, priority biological assets or the maintenance of ecological processes within the Park”. 

In support of the contraception programme, accurate on-the-ground tracking and data collection is essential to inform elephant conservation and broader management strategies in HiP. Although 18 of the park’s adult cow elephants are fitted with tracking collars, it has been more than two years since the last field monitor was employed and data was collected.  Chris Galliers from WESSA’s Biodiversity Programme has now facilitated a resumption of the monitoring work to redress the data gap and ensure close observation of the contraceptive programme. This builds on WESSA’s 2014 funding support for a full aerial count of the HiP elephant and rhino populations. 

Some recently accessed funding has now allowed WESSA to appoint Timothy Kuiper as an elephant research monitor in HiP. Tim is working under Dr Druce where his monitoring activities include building up the individual elephant photograph database and field ID kits; collecting data on herd demographics and family structure; monitoring elephant movements from GPS collar data; and assisting on the ground with contraception operations.  The current project duration is for five months, but it is hoped that this work can be continued if additional funding is secured. The project is also collaborating with Dr Michelle Henley from Elephants Alive - a long term WESSA partner and member of the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group - to draw on her expertise as well as to ensure that there is shared learning with her work on elephant populations in the Lowveld. 

WESSA has been involved in elephant conservation issues for most of its 90-year existence. Elephants and their conservation were central to WESSAs successful campaigning for the establishment of the Kruger National Park in 1926, the Addo Elephant National Park in 1931 and the later expansion of Addo in 2002. This latest project supports the overall aim of WESSA’s Biodiversity Programme, which is to promote harmonious and integrated management between people and nature in conservation work. 

WESSA is excited and optimistic that this venture will add value to the work that Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife is doing to protect these magnificent creatures, that it will improve our understanding around the management of closed elephant populations in South Africa and enhance decision-making by reserve managers. 




Broadcasters please note that Chris Galliers – WESSA Senior Manager:  Wildlife & Conservation Initiatives is available for radio and television interviews. 

Images and captions:
Elephant Monitoring Project 1:  WESSA Elephant Monitoring Project Officer, Timothy Kuiper
Elephant Monitoring Project 2:  An African Elephant in Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park
Both images Chris Galliers/WESSA© 

Background to elephant conservation in South Africa:
The iconic African Elephant, a creature of peculiar form and unmatched strength, captivates the imagination. Although loved and respected by many, elephants have had a long and chequered history with people: from traditional hunting and centuries-old trade in ivory, to modern sport hunting and protection on reserves. Today the species is at the forefront of the global conservation agenda as it contends with a plethora of threats, not least ivory poaching (with around 30 000 killed per year in recent years).  While the recent surge in poaching has largely focused on Central and West Africa, Southern Africa (and South Africa in particular) faces its own set of conservation challenges. The majority, about 20 000, of South Africa’s elephants occur in the 2 million hectare Kruger National Park and adjacent private reserves, where they range relatively freely. The rest of the country’s elephants, around 9000, are scattered across significantly smaller government and private reserves where there movements are restricted by fences. Confinement by fences, artificial waterholes, and other human interventions mean that the elephant populations on these reserves often reach higher-than-usual densities. This results in pressure on vegetation and habitats and may have knock-on consequences for other species. However, the intensity of these effects and whether or not they pose a real problem are matters of significant debate, as discussed in this recent journal commentary. Those tasked with elephant management and conservation policy in South Africa face the conundrum of balancing the needs of biodiversity in general with those of elephants. In certain circumstances, particularly on smaller reserves, the control of elephant population numbers is a necessary management intervention. 

For more information contact:
Chris Galliers
WESSA Senior Manager:  Wildlife & Conservation Initiatives
Tel:  033 330 3931 ext 2127 ǀ Cell:  079 504 4296


Catherine Ritchie
WESSA Marketing & Communications Manager
Tel:  021 701 1397 ǀ Cell:  082 321 2794