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The appropriate management South Africa’s elephant populations is the focus of a national debate. In terms of the Biodiversity Act of 2005 and the National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, the ultimate responsibility for establishing national policy in this regard is the Minister of Environment Affairs and Tourism. The Minister convened a Scientific Roundtable (SRT) in January 2006 to advise him on policies regarding elephant management. The SRT concluded that in key aspects, the available scientific information was insufficient for a fully-informed decision (Statements from SRT 1 and 2, summarised in Owen-Smith et al. 2006).
The Minister mandated the SRT to propose a research programme that would reduce the uncertainty regarding the consequences of various elephant management strategies. The first activity initiated by the research programme is a scientific assessment of the state of knowledge regarding elephant-ecosystem-society interactions. The aims of the assessment are: 1) immediately mine the extensive existing information that has not yet contributed to policy; 2) establish an information baseline against which to judge the success of the programme, and 3) identify the critical research gaps that the programme must address.
The Assessment of South African Elephant Management aims to evaluate the large amount of information regarding South African elephants and provide a clear, scientific picture of the state of our current knowledge at multiple scales: small- medium- and large conservation areas. This assessment will also identify and evaluate the policy and management options while including economic agendas, and socio-cultural aspirations.
The management of South Africa’s elephants is a lightning-rod for a whole range of associated values-based policy issues, and this assessment may pave a way to better resolution of this type of issue. It is essential to remember that an assessment is not an advocacy piece; that different views must be incorporated. Note also that assessments don’t prejudge the outcome or make the hard decisions: they just provide the information, as it exists, on which decisions can be made by appropriately-mandated bodies.