Botswana bull facing camera

The Right Elephant


Bull elephant in brush Zambezi Valley
Getting close is the excitement of elephant hunting. This bull has a way to go before he’s a right elephant.

In the 1970s and ’80s, when a massive wave of commercial poaching swept so much of Africa, the African elephant became a hot topic. The answer from the international community was to ban the commercial sale of elephant ivory. But the elephant was never endangered and the ban itself became a point of controversy. More recently, poaching has been on the rise again. Now the common understanding is that the poaching is carried out by international criminal syndicates with sophisticated methods and means.

We know that elephants are still plentiful in the major hunting areas. In fact, it has been known for years that there is a serious overpopulation of elephants in Zimbabwe and Botswana, where the herds wreak ecological damage that may go to the point of catastrophe. Tanzania, Namibia, South Africa and Mozambique also have substantial elephant populations.

I suggest that there is a greater conservation imperative for hunting elephant than for any other creature on Earth, save possibly the whitetail deer. In the areas where elephants have most recently been hunted, elephant hunting serves an essential and, in my view, irreplaceable role: As with hunting everywhere, elephant hunting places value on the animal. The fees directly fund local initiatives, as well as government functions. The safaris bring employment—and anti-poaching, funded by hunting. Wherever elephants roam there are also people, and as Africa’s human population increases and spreads, human-elephant conflict continues to rise. Elephants, however, are extremely intelligent animals that do indeed have long memories. Hunting acts as a deterrent to crop raiding and other conflicts.

Elephants at waterhole in Botswana
When hunting is closed, outfitter fed waterholes will start to dry up, setting the stage for disaster.

Outside of the major elephant range countries of Southern and Eastern Africa, there are few other countries that have viable elephant populations outside of national parks. In this context, and with an unquestionably gross overpopulation of elephants, this doesn’t bode well for Botswana, which has just recently closed not just elephant hunting, but all hunting on government land. As seasonal waterholes (long kept full by hunting operators) dry up, some of Botswana’s elephants will migrate. But many elephants and most other animals will have nowhere else to go, and will start to die. The potential for an unprecedented ecological disaster is huge.

MANAGEMENT DILEMMA

Until it closed hunting, Botswana authorized export of trophies from 400 elephants. Tanzania, with stringent “minimum size” rules, currently has a CITES quota for export of trophies from 200 elephants. Zimbabwe, with much less habitat and much more human-elephant conflict, has a very aggressive CITES export quota representing 500 elephants.

None of these elephant quotas (or elsewhere in Africa) has the ability to manage elephant populations. South Africa has quietly taken the politically incorrect option of culling in certain parks, but the sad reality is that in southern Africa elephants are running out of room, with genuine overpopulation running into the tens of thousands. Even if the political will existed to do something about it, the expertise no longer does. So it’s a problem that seems almost insoluble, except that, in due time, Nature will find a solution…and her answer may not be pretty.

Boddington with tuskless cow Zambezi Valley Africa
The author with a tuskless cow from the Zambezi Valley. Zimbabwe’s tuskless hunts are some of the most exciting and dangerous hunts.

In the meantime, in various areas, various Band-Aids are applied. In addition to bull permits, Zimbabwe has tried several options. Their current aggressive quota on tuskless elephants at reduced costs is a great idea, not only targeting an undesirable gene , but also removing elephants in an overpopulated situation. In some areas where overpopulation is severe, Zimbabwe also has actual quotas for tusked females. Zimbabwe’s actual elephant harvest probably exceeds 1000 per year,  which is retarding but not stopping population growth. In several countries “local meat quota” elephants are available for harvest. Botswana, with the largest population and, certainly in the Chobe region, one of the worst overpopulation issues, has done no culling and no cow harvest. The shutdown of elephant hunting in Botswana has little impact one way or the other, except of course on hunters, outfitters, and the benefits from hunting that go to the local people. It is my opinion that disaster is coming, and it’s coming soon.

AGE VERSUS IVORY

In the old days it was often suggested that an elephant grew “a pound of ivory per year,” so a “hundred-pounder” (100 pounds of ivory in either or both tusks) was 100 years old. We now know that this is simply not true. It is not impossible that some elephants have lived to the century mark, but the actual life span is usually into the 60s, with actual longevity controlled by tooth wear (which also depends on coarseness of forage). When the last set of molars moves into place, the elephant’s days are numbered.

Ivory growth is slow at first, and slows again as the elephant grows

Botswana bull facing camera
Different regions provide different selection standards. This Botswana bull’s tusks will weigh about 60 pounds.

old, but in the prime of life—20s and 30s, into the 40s—an elephant may grow several pounds of ivory per year.  Now, just how much ivory an elephant can grow is no different than the “trophy characteristics” of any other animal. Food and minerals matter, and when elephants are overpopulated, these resources are limited. Body size also matters and, regionally, some elephants are bigger than others. Just perhaps, however, genetics matter the most. The elephants of northern Tanzania, Kenya, and on westward through Uganda, Sudan and C.A.R. are sort of “medium-sized” elephants, while the elephants of Botswana and on up into southern Angola are the largest-bodied known. But, before the poaching ravages, the elephants of East and Central Africa clearly produced the continent’s heaviest ivory. Botswana’s giants produce heavier ivory than the smaller elephants of Zimbabwe’s Zambezi Valley—but while in its day Kenya produced many hundred-pounders, Botswana has produced only a handful.

Age is also an extremely important factor, and with elephants this is critical because, unlike almost all other game species, it takes decades for an elephant to reach its ivory potential. I will never forget when Johan Calitz and I tracked up a nice bull, with evenly matched ivory well into the 40s. That wasn’t unusual, but his comment as we withdrew is worth pondering: “What a lovely young bull…he’ll be a fine trophy in another 20 years or so!” How often, on whitetails, sable, kudu, lion, buffalo and so many other species, have we heard, “Great trophy, but we need to give him a couple more years.” With an elephant, we need to give him a couple more decades! So, with elephants, as with any other trophy animal, while we all speak in numbers (inches, pounds, record book “points”) the real measure of a trophy should be an animal that has attained pretty much all the trophy size it is capable of…whatever that is. In the case of elephant, this is a matter of many years!

Elephant damaged hut in rural Africa
Human-elephant conflict is a serious issue for many rural Africans. Elephants not only destroy crops, but huts like this one.

THE RIGHT ELEPHANT

This depends on the circumstances. All hunters love big ivory, so the goal on a bull hunt is certainly to take the largest, oldest bull one can find. Realistically, however, elephant hunting is a bit different from most situations in that the excitement and adventure of hunting elephant is pretty much the same across the board, no matter what kind of elephant you are hunting. I would even argue that Zimbabwe’s unique tuskless hunting is some of Africa’s very best (most exciting, and certainly most dangerous) elephant hunting! Obviously there are no tusks to worry about, but there are lots of cool things to be done with elephant skin and feet. Any tuskless without calf is the right elephant, and the hunt is fantastic.

With bull hunting, it really is a shame to take younger bulls of unknown potential. Realistically, it isn’t a train wreck; the meat will be fully utilized, and a bull harvest has no impact on overall numbers. More importantly, a younger bull with the normal tusks of a younger bull, taken now, just may be one of the very few who would grow enormous tusks…if we just waited another 20 years or so.

Donna Boddington with her first elephant. An excellent bull with tusks in the high 50's.
Donna Boddington with her first elephant. An excellent bull with tusks in the high 50’s.

So, ideally, in bull hunting, the “right elephant” is an older bull that has grown its ivory, whatever size it grew to be—and has passed along its genes. The clues are in the tracks, worn heels and deep corrugations, and in body shape and condition when you close. In a trophy hunt you will look for the best you can find, but many older bulls never grew big ivory, and after a long life in rough country many have broken one or both tusks. I would never suggest that such elephants should be considered trophies; that’s in the eye of the beholder. My own “best elephant” had broken at least 10 pounds off the tip of one tusk. That was fine with me, but needn’t be with you. However, in any “non-trophy” or “non-export” situation, older bulls that are worn short or broken off are very much the “right elephants.”– Craig Boddington

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