Published online by Cambridge University Press: 04 June 2019
So geographers, in Afric maps,
With savage pictures fill their gaps;
And o'er unhabitable downs
Place elephants for want of towns.
On Poetry: A Rhapsody
THESE LINES by Jonathan Swift (1667–1745) are often quoted as a satire on the cartography of the age. However, they also contain three observations about the elephant populations of Africa that illuminate aspects of elephant distribution and human–elephant contact and that continue to influence elephant management. The first is that elephants are the iconic and most charismatic mammals of Africa – indeed, its very symbol. In a continent renowned for its megafauna and wealth of raw materials, elephants and their ivory hold premier positions. The second observation is that elephants were once very widely distributed on the African continent, occurring wherever there was suitable habitat, while the third is that where large settled concentrations of humans occur, one will find either no elephants or very few.
This chapter considers the shifting economic and political dynamics, value systems and technologies that have impacted on Africa's elephant populations, with detailed attention being given to South Africa. It explains how the current (2006) presence of the African elephant Loxodonta africana indicates that it was once abundant throughout the continent in suitable habitat. While the process of the dramatic decline in elephant range and numbers did not play out in the same way throughout Africa, as far as South Africa is concerned it was accelerated in the nineteenth century by a growing market for ivory and by significant habitat transformation within a modern state. By the early twentieth century the once large elephant population in the region had been virtually exterminated except for a few small relict populations in remote localities. In the later twentieth century, however, owing to a combination of factors that are outlined below, an elephant population that is highly restricted to limited areas (relative to pre-colonial distribution) in South Africa has undergone a period of sustained growth. Since its near-extinction in the region owing to hunting and dense human settlement and rural land exploitation, elephant population growth is rebounding in strictly protected preserves and being manipulated through intensive management and translocations.