Africa's Elephant Explosion

The “ivory trail” is getting easier to follow.

By Craig Boddington

I just returned from an elephant hunt in Zimbabwe’s Lower Zambezi Valley. It wasn’t my hunt; I accompanied friends Bill Jones and PH Ivan Carter on an auction hunt that Jones purchased at Dallas Safari Club’s convention. The Lower Zambezi is big and wild and rugged, with almost no human habitation. It’s thus a classic elephant safari. Because of the thick bush, tracking is the only way to hunt.

We took a very nice bull on the tenth day. This is par for the course on an average elephant safari: time to follow some tracks, lose some tracks, pass up a few bulls, make a reasonable guess as to the kind of elephant we should not pass. What seemed unusual to me was that, in the course of those ten days, we saw twenty-five bulls. That is a lot of bulls—especially in the Zambezi Valley. Part of it was the time of year; we were early, in April, when the game was undisturbed. Part of it, though, is that, in the countries where they are hunted today, elephant numbers are increasing and elephant hunting is getting better.

The Low Point

This is a phenomenon that I did not predict. I took my first elephant back in 1985, in Zimbabwe, with Peter Johnstone at his old Matetsi concession. This was a very big-bodied old bull, but almost tuskless. I took him on a non-trophy bull permit that some areas offered at the time. The reason was simple: A non-trophy permit was all I could afford, and I wanted the experience of hunting elephant while I still could.

In the 1980s, commercial poaching of elephant for ivory reached an all-time high. Elephant numbers were plummeting almost all over the continent. Kenya closed elephant hunting in 1973, then all hunting in 1977 (and remains closed). Botswana had closed elephant hunting a few years earlier, and Zambia had just closed elephant hunting. C.A.R.’s herds had collapsed from poaching pressure, and elephant came “off license.” Sudan’s long bush war had made hunting untenable, likewise Angola. The handwriting, it seemed, was on the wall.

The experience of my first elephant was magnificent. Three years later, I hunted in Mozambique with Roger Whittall and we managed to take a good bull. This was in a brief window just before the international ban on commercial trade in ivory went into effect, and mine was the last Mozambique ivory legally imported into the United States. For many years I believed these would be the only elephant tusks I would possess.

In the 1980s they—and we—did a great job alerting the world of the plight of the “endangered” African elephant. In some countries, the situation was even worse than we thought. Elephant populations were severely reduced in some areas of Kenya, C.A.R., Sudan, and Zambia. In other areas, things weren’t quite that bad. The word “endangered” inflamed public sentiment, and perhaps ultimately resulted in the trade ban, which has been a very good thing. But a better description might have been “locally threatened.” In 1988, believed to be the low point, there were probably 600,000 wild elephants in Africa, which is not an “endangered” population.

Large-scale commercial poaching is largely a thing of the past today. Unfortunately there is still poaching, some for meat, some for ivory, the degree depending largely on the amount of protection—game wardens, game rangers, anti-poaching patrols, enforceable game laws—that exist in a given area. So elephants are still “locally threatened” in some areas. In other areas they have increased dramatically in the last twenty years, to the point of serious overpopulation in some countries.

Counting Elephants

It is almost impossible to accurately count elephants across the vastness of Africa. In some areas we have no real idea what the numbers might be. Maybe fewer than are believed, maybe more. With hostilities ceased in Angola, pioneering outfitters are looking around—and are finding surprising numbers of elephant. Mozambique has always had lots of elephant, and still does, but there is no exact number. Pockets have been found in Sudan. Elephant are almost gone from the savannas of C.A.R. and Chad, but they are increasing in the forests to the south.

Current estimates of elephant populations continent-wide run all over the map.

Pessimistic numbers accept increases in southern Africa, but believe populations in the north continue to fall. So the lowest estimate I have seen is the same 600,000 estimated in 1988—which is no more an “endangered” population now than it was twenty years ago, although “locally threatened” remains valid. The highest estimate I have seen is 1.3 million. The real number is probably somewhere between these extremes.

What is known, more or less, is the number of elephants that roam certain countries. Botswana’s most recent count, now just two years old, is 133,000. Zimbabwe is less precise, estimating between 70,000 and 100,000. These two countries, Botswana very arid, Zimbabwe with limited habitat, are definitely overpopulated, probably by a factor of at least two. Tanzania has a growing herd now estimated at 125,000. Numbers are much smaller in South Africa and Namibia, but available habitat is also much more limited. South Africa’s elephants are definitely overpopulated in the Kruger National Park ecosystem; Namibia has too many elephants in Etosha, and perhaps in the Caprivi Strip.

These are the five countries that U.S. Fish and Wildlife, subject to quota and with proper permits, allow Americans to import sport-hunted elephant trophies from. You see, thanks to sportsmen’s groups and tireless individuals like John Jackson of Conservation Force, when the ivory ban was enacted it carried an exemption—meaning allowance for export—for “sport-hunted elephant trophies for personal use.” In areas that are overpopulated or have a sustainable yield, this reflects the unquestionable benefit of a well-regulated hunting program to the overall population.

Increasing Numbers

Put more simply, elephants are destructive feeders. Over time, too many elephants will reduce an area to a lunar landscape—and if you are an African subsistence farmer and you have elephants raiding your crops, just how many are too many? The direct economic value of elephant hunting from license fees and local employment is largely responsible for the continued increase of elephant numbers in the hunting countries. As proof of this, there are few places in Africa other than the hunting countries where elephants are increasing!

Elephant hunting is again open in Mozambique. Zambia has reopened limited elephant hunting in a few areas. Elephant hunting remains open in southern Cameroon. Americans are not allowed to import sport-hunted ivory from these countries, but the citizens of many countries can, and perhaps in time we will.

So the picture is much brighter than it was twenty years ago. As elephant numbers continue to increase, I think it will get better. We will never again reach a time when the Holy Grail of hundred-pound tusks is sensible goal. We can’t fight genetics, and the areas where elephant are hunted today only rarely grew tusks of great size. But, within that context, I do believe the average size of trophy ivory will gradually increase. It takes a long time, at least forty years (if not fifty) for a bull elephant to approach his maximum tusk weight. The southern herds are generally young, and are increasing at perhaps four percent per year. The off-take in Zimbabwe is less than one percent; in Botswana it doesn’t approach one-half of one percent. Over time, more elephant bulls will grow older and reach their potential in ivory growth.

Affordable Elephant Hunts

So elephant hunting can only improve in years to come. The only downside is that hunting an elephant bull is expensive. Hunting concessions are expensive, as are logistics in the remote areas where elephants roam. These costs are passed to hunters. License and trophy fees are also very high. To some extent this is done to maximize the economic value of the limited quota. Also, I suspect, this is done because, even though we Americans cannot legally sell our sport-hunted ivory and thus realize it, ivory does have considerable value.

I wish this incredible experience was more affordable, but the economics are such that I doubt prices will drop. There is, however, some opportunity to experience elephant hunting at very reasonable cost. Zimbabwe offers a liberal quota for “tuskless elephants,” both bulls and cows that have never grown ivory. Because their elephants are overpopulated, many areas have a pronounced and undesirable genetic tendency to produce tuskless elephant. A few seriously overpopulated areas allow the taking of tusked females, and with limited habitat and a large agrarian human population, there are occasional opportunities to take “PAC” (Problem Animal Control) elephants.

In most cases, tusked cows and PAC elephants cannot be exported; the ivory goes to the game department. The skin and other trophies of tuskless elephant taken on quota can be exported. The cost for these hunts is extremely reasonable, often less than a buffalo safari. Those who wish to add elephant hunting to their memories shouldn’t knock them. Elephant hunting is all about the experience, and the experience of a tuskless hunt is actually equal to the experience of hunting a big tusker. It is sort of a trophy hunt in reverse—but tuskless elephants are almost always in herds, and in my view hunting a tuskless elephant is the most dangerous hunt that Africa offers. On that safari with Bill Jones we took two tuskless animals before we found his bull—and both of those hunts were a lot more exciting than the taking of his fine bull.

In a surprising turnabout of fate, I’ve spent a lot of time on the ivory trail the past few years while working on a DVD about elephant hunting. Partners Ivan Carter, Tim Danklef, Dave Fulson, and I hunted and filmed elephant in Botswana, Namibia, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe. I know a great deal more about both elephant and the hunting of elephant than I did just three years ago. They are magnificent creatures, and when you are close to these great beasts it is an awesome experience. I don’t honestly know how much more elephant hunting I will do—but I do know that the old-timers were correct when they described elephant as the greatest game, and hunting them as the most captivating of all pursuits. That pursuit is not over; in years to come it will only get better, and those who wish to will have a chance to experience the ivory trail.

NOTES FROM AFIELD: Africa's Elephant Explosion | Revolvers That No One Should Be Without | Own a Piece of History