The Future of Conservation

This elephant-conservation initiative is an example of how the private sector can help save the planet

May 23, 2019

3:12 pm

By transferring 200 elephants from a nature reserve in South Africa to a national park in Mozambique, two ecosystems can be saved. But moving so many elephants over 1,000 miles of mostly unpaved roads and across an international border is even harder than it sounds.

The impetus for this Moving Giants initiative came from the northeast corner of South Africa, hard by the Botswana and Zimbabwe borders. There, at Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve (VLNR) — one of several reserves in the country owned by De Beers Group — a unique problem was developing: VLNR has too many elephants.

VLNR has a carrying capacity of 40-60 elephants, yet it has amassed more than 270 members of the species. Considering that as many as 35,000 elephants are killed across Africa each year by poachers, an overpopulation of elephants might seem like a luxury. But too many elephants on a reserve will inevitably destroy flora and decimate grasslands, leaving behind a barren landscape.

Elephants are, of course, expected to knock over trees, to trample paths through savannah land, and to eat significant amounts of vegetation to sustain their massive frames. But elephants are a migratory species by nature, covering thousands of miles in range. And the realities of conservation in South Africa dictate that fencing plays a critical role. We know that it is working, as South Africa is one of the few countries on the continent with an overpopulation of elephants. But it requires careful oversight, and in the case of VLNR, the management team there quickly recognized that it had to find a solution for its own elephant overpopulation. After a long search, it found a suitable partner in this effort, 1,000 miles to the east — in another country.

Wildlife once flourished in Mozambique. But then the country suffered through a particularly devastating 16-year civil war (1977-1992). Not only did one million people lose their lives, but because many died of famine, it had a domino effect on the country’s animal population. Most wildlife in Mozambique was consumed by a starving populace. Now, Mozambique is trying to rebuild its animal population and spur tourism, which experts believe could be an engine for the country’s economy.

Elephants are more than just a “nice to have” iconic species for any burgeoning park looking to build its profile for tourists. Elephants are a “keystone species,” meaning that their contributions to ecosystems are critical. For example, certain plant species depend on elephants to propagate their seeds. Elephant dung is incredibly useful for creating potent soil. Even elephant footprints are so massive that they can — in rainy season — provide huge homes for up to 60-some invertebrate species. Mozambican parks, such as Zinave National Park in south-central Mozambique (to which the first 50-odd elephants of Moving Giants were translocated), will never reach their potential without elephants.

Elephants in Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve.

The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have potential solutions to Earth’s environmental challenges. In fact, the SDGs identify — in 17 Goals, with 169 targets — the planet’s most pressing problems. The first 16 goals are each aligned with problems that are easily recognizable around the world, from Poverty (SDG 1) and Education (SDG 4) to Health (SDG 3) and Climate (SDG 9). SDG 15 — “Life on Land” — specifically addresses issues pertaining to wildlife and habitats.

The Moving Giants initiative addresses problems that are, in fact, critical to the achievement of SDG 15.

Among SDG 15’s 12 targets:

  • Take urgent and significant action to reduce the degradation of natural habitats, halt the loss of biodiversity and, by 2020, protect and prevent the extinction of threatened species

-- Not only will Moving Giants preserve VLNR’s habitat, catalyze Zinave’s, and save elephants, but the revitalized VLNR and Zinave ecosystems will also be a boon to scores of other species — both flora and fauna — as well.

  • Take urgent action to end poaching and trafficking of protected species of flora and fauna and address both demand and supply of illegal wildlife products

-- Moving Giants also includes a De Beers contribution (via the Anglo American Foundation) of $500,000 in anti-poaching support to Zinave National Park

  • Enhance global support for efforts to combat poaching and trafficking of protected species, including by increasing the capacity of local communities to pursue sustainable livelihood opportunities

-- By creating a viable tourism product, the communities surrounding Zinave — which will receive 20% of all revenue generated by tourism — will begin to see that elephants and other species will be more valuable to them alive than dead.

By moving 200 elephants 1,000 miles — from one overburdened habitat to one desperately in need of a keystone species like elephants — both ecosystems can be saved.

Mozambican parks, such as Zinave National Park, will never reach their potential without elephants.

SDG 15 is not the only UN Goal addressed by Moving Giants. The Moving Giants initiative brings to life SDG 17: “Partnerships for the Goals.” SDG 17 is in many ways recognition by the UN that the public sector will never be able to afford the trillions of dollars it will cost to achieve the SDGs. That is why public-private-civil-society partnerships are critical to the success of the SDGs.

And it so happens that Moving Giants is, in fact, a public-private-civil-society partnership, between the Mozambique government's conservation authority (ANAC), De Beers Group, and Peace Parks Foundation (PPF, a nonprofit co-founded by Nelson Mandela to promote transfrontier wildlife corridors, which co-manages Zinave with ANAC). The three entities are working in concert to achieve the SDG 15 goal of halting biodiversity loss, combating desertification, and protecting and restoring two terrestrial ecosystems.

Most importantly, we’re hopeful that Moving Giants can help put a spotlight on solutions-oriented ideas to effect change in the conservation space. Case in point would be translocation. As Conservation Solutions co-founder Kester Vickery puts it in Episode Six of our series, “If you do the math, and we're losing 40,000 elephants a year, it's not going to be long before we have no elephants left. The good news, of course, is that South Africa has an overpopulation of elephants and can essentially provide elephants to repopulate areas where they are in decline."

This feature is a companion piece to Episode 7 of our "Moving Giants" video series, which you can watch below. To see previous episodes in the series, please visit our video hub here.

Baby elephant in Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve.