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To cull or not to cull?

24 June 2021

Compiled by Nobuhle T Mabhikwa- Chikuni-Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association

By any standards Zimbabwe has a proud history of successful elephant conservation. Elephant populations in most African countries were reduced to very low numbers by the late 19th Century. In 1897 approximately 100,000 tons of ivory were exported from Africa. In 1900 it was feared that elephant might become extinct south of the Zambezi River[1]. Using historical account of elephant numbers, backwards extrapolations based on population growth, and known levels of elephant kills it is unlikely that Zimbabwe held more about 4,000 elephants in 1900[2]. More than one hundred years later, in 2014, this number had increased twenty-fold to nearly 83,000 elephants despite attempts to limit elephant population growth between 1960 and 1989 by culling 45,000 elephants in tsetse control areas and state protected areas[3]. The primary rationale for limiting elephant numbers in protected areas was to reduce their impact on woodland habitats and the loss of plant and animal species as result of elephant-induced habitat change. Elephant impacts on woodlands and associated biodiversity is still a concern today. The internet is awash with articles on the possible culling of the elephant herds in Zimbabwe in an effort to manage the Zimbabwean elephant population[4][5][6][7].  Zimbabwe is considering culling the herd of elephant population for the first time. Could this be the reversal of the successful elephant conservation or the beginning of another successful conservation lag for Zimbabwe?

There is no doubt that the elephant population in Zimbabwe is now too much and way beyond the state’s carrying capacity of 50 000. Zimbabwe has a population of 100 000 elephant in habitats that can support about half that number. Of the continental population of 450 000 elephants, Zimbabwe currently hosts the 2nd largest elephant population in Africa after Botswana. This overpopulation has resulted in the increased habitat destruction and habitat loss, changes in vegetation structure and an increase in Human and Wildlife Conflict (HWC). No species, other than man, can modify habitats as rapidly and extensively as elephants. As dominant herbivores, elephant damage has a cascading effect through the ecosystem, affecting many sympatric plants and animals. Commonly, ecosystems are simplified with a loss of species and an impoverishment of the soil/water relationships, which is accentuated in ecologically sensitive sites.  Failure to manage the population might result in the local extinction of some vegetation and animal species. Cases of HWC are now increasingly being reported especially in communities near protected areas. In the past five years, in Zimbabwe nearly 500 lives have been lost while 582 cattle were lost to wildlife attacks. Thousands of hectares of crops have been destroyed. Over the same period, 153 people were injured by wildlife[8]. It is important to also note the increasing number of elephants destroyed/lost due to Problem Animal Control actions which have risen from an estimated 33 in 2016 to 92 in 2018 a possible sign of an increasing elephant population and an indication of more in the near future[9].  Communities on the ground however have a different perspective on the elephant problem. While nationally HWC conflict has increased, some CAMPFIRE communities such as Mbire share that they have noticed a decrease in the elephant population in their areas and that worries them. Could this be because the elephants have moved away from those communities because of human population growth?

While the population is now more than the carrying capacity, is culling the first option to consider? Culling is defined as the selective process of removing animals, either for breeding or for controlling overcrowded populations[10]. Culling is an immediate solution that will help with the over population. However, culling  will result in long lasting effects on elephants and may have a negative impact on the majestic species in the long run.   Research has shown that culling of elephants has long lasting effects on those that survive and/or are left behind.  It leaves an impact on their social structure that can go on for decades. Conserving elephant population is more than just a numbers game, it is also essential that complex social function is maintained as this is a crucial aspect of elephant biology and population integrity.

Hunting is a conservation tool that will be used to manage the population but at the same time generate revenue that can be used to compensate the victims of HWC and help improve infrastructure and service delivery for the communities that live near protected areas. ZELA strongly believes communities should benefit from the natural resources in their areas.  Therefore, other options that are humane and can generate income need to be adopted to help with the management of elephants’ population. Other options should include the legal and transparent sale of the elephants to other countries.

The African Savanna Elephant (Loxodonta Africana) found in Zimbabwe is currently listed as endangered on the IUCN Red List of threatened Species[11]. All African elephants are included in Appendix I of CITES, except for the populations of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe, which are included in Appendix II. The normal CITES rules for Appendix I listed species is that commercial international trade in specimens taken from the wild is prohibited. For Appendix II listed species, the rules allow commercial international trade, subject to first obtaining the necessary permits. The population of the African elephant (Loxodonta africana) of Zimbabwe is included in Appendix II of CITES, following a decision taken in 1997 by the Conference of the Parties to CITES. This means that the Parties to CITES consider the African elephant population in Zimbabwe is not necessarily threatened with extinction but could become so if trade were not strictly regulated[12]. There is an annotation to the Appendix-II listing of Zimbabwe’s African elephant population that specifically allows for “trade in live animals to appropriate and acceptable destinations”. The words “appropriate and acceptable destinations” are defined in Resolution Conf. 11.20 of the Conference of the Parties to CITES. Therefore, international commercial and non-commercial trade in certain specimens of African elephants from Zimbabwe (including live animals) is allowed by the Convention if specified conditions are followed.[13].

So why cull when we can trade and use other methods such as translocation. We did not inherit the earth from our fathers but borrowed it from our children. I detest the thought that  if we do not adopt progressive ways the next  generations down the line might only get to see elephants on TVs and books. I implore the authorities to explore other options before they cull the massive elephant herd that Zimbabwe has.


  • There is need for the Authorities to undertake a census to determine the actual numbers and the concentration of the elephant herds.
  • More research needs to be undertaken on other methods to deal with the elephant populations.
  • There is need for stakeholder convening to develop another elephant management plan and assess the success and challenges of the previous one that ran from 2015 to 2020.
  • Time to advocate for another once off sale of the Ivory stockpiles to fund the research and conservation of the elephants in Zimbabwe.
  • Development of CBNRM policy that has provisions on the use of elephants in CAMPFIRE communities for community development.
  • Adoption of other nonlethal methods of elephant population management

[1] The African elephant: conservation and CITES. Robin Sharp . 1997

[2] The African elephant: conservation and CITES. Robin Sharp . 1997

[3] https://cites.org/sites/default/files/eng/cop/18/inf/E-CoP18-Inf-032.pdf

[4] https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2021/5/5/zimbabwe-mulls-first-mass-elephant-killing-in-decades

[5] https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2021/6/5/zimbabwe-elephant-culling-plan-stirs-debate

[6] https://www.reuters.com/article/environment-zimbabwe-elephants-dc-idUSL2715147720070327

[7] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-05-05/zimbabwe-mulls-mass-elephant-killing-first-time-since-1988

[8] https://www.zimparks.org.zw/2021/04/08/6211/

[9] https://cites.org/sites/default/files/eng/cop/18/inf/E-CoP18-Inf-032.pdf

[10] https://news.mongabay.com/2014/05/culling-elephants-leaves-an-impact-on-their-social-structure-decades-later/

[11] https://www.iucn.org/news/species/202103/african-elephant-species-now-endangered-and-critically-endangered-iucn-red-list

[12] https://cites.org/eng/zw_elephants 

[13] https://cites.org/eng/zw_elephants

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