African Elephants: How to Die?
by Jacques Berney
For some months, and actually perhaps for years, South Africa has been confronting what appears, (although it should not) to be a serious dilemma: should culling of elephants be resumed in the Kruger National Park? It was stopped there in 1995 after long debates with animal rights groups such as IFAW and HSUS, which offered so-called compensations in the form of grants to buy land to translocate some animals, or to experiment with methods of contraception for them. Although the Minister of the Environment has not given formal approval, it appears that the decision to resume culling has now been made. Through African Hunting Info, we have learned that the Minister and officials of the South African National Parks have recently visited some key countries in Europe, to explain to representatives of governments and NGOs why elephant numbers need to be reduced and, we presume, to get some assurance that South Africa shall not be criticized too strongly, when culling starts again.
At the same time, dramatic reports are coming from the also famous Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, where at least 50 elephants have died and many more are expected to die due to serious lack of food and water. This region, like others in southern Africa, is once more suffering a serious drought. Although officials of Zimbabwe have suggested the translocation of elephants from Hwange to Namibia, African Hunting Info has reported that the Namibian director of parks and wildlife management refuses; there is no way for Namibia to accommodate more jumbos; they have enough elephants of their own.
These two situations have to be considered at the same time, as they are parts of the same problem. How can elephant populations be managed, when it is evident that their numbers are becoming excessive in view of the habitat available? While the population of the Kruger NP was for years maintained around 7000 elephants, it has steadily grown after the ban on culling. In spite of actual translocations and the opening to new grounds, including through the elimination of fences at the border with Mozambique, it has probably doubled by now. In Hwange NP, where the capacity is estimated at around 45,000 elephants, the population has soared to more than 75,000. Such densities are not without serious consequences on the habitat, especially in the case of negative climatic events, drought in particular. This has detrimental impacts on other species and on the elephant itself, as now evidenced in Zimbabwe. A solution should be found before very serious disasters occur there and elsewhere in similar circumstances.
This kind of problem is indeed not specific to either the African elephant or to southern Africa. Many countries throughout the world are confronted with similar problems, e.g. in Europe with wild boars, foxes and deer, in North America with deer, beaver and seals, in Australia with kangaroos and some parrots. In all these countries, the problem has not turned to a dilemma. It is simply and logically understood, in particular by governments, that these species have to be managed and, to prevent their demographic explosion, that they must be hunted or culled. Except for seals, this does not raise large campaigns of protest, if any. Regarding foxes, as an example, animal-right groups may be using them to produce posters and pamphlets but this is not to campaign against their hunt but against the use of their pelts because these groups are opposed to the fur industry in general. The United Kingdom is or was an exception, due to the traditional dog hunting. Few of these groups propose contraception for wild boar or deer, nor do they consider those species as endangered contrary to what they claim for the African elephant. Why this difference in attitude? Because they know well that their protests would remain without any effect on the authorities and, above all, would result in a complete failure in terms of fund raising. The elephant, on the other side, what a godsend! Millions of dollars have been collected to ‘save’ elephants, although not much has reached the range countries to assist them to conserve the species.
Therefore, we shall strongly support South Africa, as well as other countries such as Zimbabwe, when they resume culling where necessary to prevent African elephant overcrowding and the destruction of its habitat. There is no need to ask for permission from other governments or especially, from NGOs, to manage their own game. The former are not telling them whether hunting should be allowed or not on their territories and while the views of NGOs might be taken into consideration, they should not dictate the final decision. Similarly, the governments of these African countries should not listen to NGOs that are blackmailing them by claiming that it would be against tourism interests to cull elephants because international tourists would boycott them. Hunting and culling may perfectly coexist with tourism when properly conducted, as demonstrated in many places, including in Kruger NP before 1995. Concerning contraception, which is still considered by some NGOs as a potential solution, to suggest that a species should be prevented to breed is blatantly indecent from people who describe it as in danger of extinction. To close waterholes, as also proposed, does not inspire better feelings.
In addition, it should not be forgotten that before the culling ban in Kruger NP, elephants were providing considerable quantities of meat for the local human population, and other products of high value on the international markets. The economic return from culling, although it is not without costs, is far from negligible and is a benefit to the conservation of the elephant, of other species, and to local communities sharing the same habitats. This supposes however that it is possible to trade internationally in these products. For that reason CITES should finally agree that countries which have been the best protectors of their populations of elephants have to be allowed to manage them in their (the countries’ and the elephants’) best interests.
If these countries still have doubts on their rights in this matter, they should ask the relevant governments how they would react if they were pushed to ban any use of wild boar, deer or kangaroos.