Africa’s elephant population has been dangerously declining but not in Zimbabwe.
Authorities in the southern African country estimate that the number of its mammoth mammals currently stands at slightly more than 100 000 — up from 84 000 in 2014, when the last census was conducted — for a carrying capacity of about 45 000.
The surplus has prompted government in recent weeks to mull the mass killing of elephants — something the country last did in 1988 — as a population-control option in order to protect other wildlife, as well as the country’s vegetation.
“We are overpopulated when it comes to elephants in this country,” Tinashe Farawo, spokesperson of the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZimParks) told Al Jazeera.
Authorities maintain the growing elephant population poses a risk to other animals through habitat destruction, and has also led to an increase in the incidents of dangerous human-wildlife interaction, with dozens of deaths reported in recent years.
“We have vultures that breed in trees. The vultures are no longer breeding in Hwange (National Park); they have moved to other places because elephants have the habit of knocking down trees,” Farawo said.
He noted that the plan was still in its “formative stages” and a final decision was yet to be made, but stressed that culling was permitted by Zimbabwean laws.
But the Centre for Natural Resource Governance (CNRG), an environmental and human rights watchdog in Zimbabwe documenting poaching, opposed the plan.
“Culling will eventually lead to extinction of these elephants,” CNRS spokesperson Simiso Mlevu told Al Jazeera.
“This is just the beginning,” she said. “Very soon, we will be forced to travel to other countries just to see an elephant.”
Earlier this year, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the African forest elephant as “critically endangered” and the African savanna elephant as “endangered”, citing a surge in poaching and loss of habitat for the declining numbers.
According to the Swiss-based group’s latest assessment, the number of African forest elephants dropped by more than 86% over a period of 31 years.
Meanwhile, the population of African savanna elephants fell by at least 60% over the past half a century.
Zimbabwe has the continent’s second-largest elephant population after Botswana, which boasts about a third of Africa’s 415 000 remaining elephants.
Besides culling, another option considered by Zimbabwean authorities is to move elephants from areas with a high population. But it is hampered by lack of funds, Farawo said.
“It’s an expensive process and right now we have no money,” he added.
“In 2018, we moved 100 elephants and the exercise cost us US$400 000.”
Farawo said ZimParks, a government body, required at least US$25 million annually for its operations. But the body had not received any funding from Zimbabwe’s cash-strapped government since 2001.
Farawo said his organisation needed revenue to conserve elephants, but its finances took a big hit in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic severely affected the country’s tourism industry.
In late April, Zimbabwe said it was planning to sell hunting licences to kill 500 elephants to generate revenue. Trophy hunters are expected to pay between US$10 000 and US$70 000 depending on elephant size.
The 500-elephant hunting quota, which is separate from the culling plan, is allowed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), according to Farawo, who added that “elephants must pay for their upkeep”.
“The elephants also have to take care of themselves, so we must be allowed to trade in order for that to happen,” he said.
“[This] means that money must be generated, revenue coming off the elephants. Right now, tourism is dead, so people aren’t coming to see the elephants.”
But CNRG spokesperson Mlevu said culling would affect tourism — a position shared by John Robertson, a prominent Zimbabwean economist.
“It inflicts serious damage on wildlife,” Robertson told Al Jazeera. “Losing wildlife also reduces the prospects of tourism, which the country heavily relies on.”
Audrey Delsink, wildlife director of Humane Society International/Africa, said killing elephants had “a traumatic effect on the remaining population”.
She said it was for that reason that authorities in South Africa were using contraception as a population-control option.
Noting that 76% of elephant populations in Africa cross borders, Delsink told Al Jazeera: “Management actions taken at an incorrect scale can have massive consequences and ripple effects that extend far beyond the targeted zone, area or population.
“Therefore, Zimbabwean management choices could have devastating consequences for transient elephants. The situation in Zimbabwe appears to be not so much about elephant numbers per se, but rather about funding the management authority — the elephants are simply a means to this end.”