Culling Elephants

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  1. Ron Thomson

    Ron Thomson CONTRIBUTOR AH Member

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    Culling Elephants

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    At the end of February 2007 South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) announced that culling was to be included in a range of management options to control Kruger National Park’s excessive elephant population.

    This decision has stirred up the emotions of those who support the animal rights cause. Vehement anti-culling sentiments are once again being expressed in the media. Much of this comment is expressed by people who have no idea about the principles and practices of wildlife management. They also clearly have no knowledge about the damage that will happen to Kruger National Park IF the park’s elephant numbers are NOT reduced to a level that the habitats can sustainably support.

    What are the bald facts?

    I believe that Kruger’s current 14 000 strong elephant herd should be reduced to perhaps 3000 animals – 4000 at the most. IF this does NOT happen – and soon - large numbers of plant and animal species will become extinct in the park. This will start a general and irreversible process of degradation that will result, over time, in the park becoming little more than a desert.

    The elephant-culling subject is too big and too complex to cover in media interviews. Nevertheless, it is a vitally important subject that nature-lovers will want to properly understand if they are to sleep well at night in their beds.

    There are clearly two schools of thought. Those who oppose culling – comprising mainly South Africa’s tiny but highly vociferous animal rights minority. And those who support culling – comprising the game rangers, wildlife ranchers, hunters, and pragmatic nature-lovers who understand the issues at stake. Genuine animal welfare organisations also support the culling – provided the killing of the elephants is done in a humane manner.

    It is time that South African society is made aware of the fact that there is a vast difference between animal rights and animal welfare. And it is time South Africans come to understand the danger to wildlife, and the danger to their lifestyle, that the animal rights brigade poses.

    Animal rightists want ALL animal ”uses” that benefit man, and all linked businesses, to be abolished. This includes stopping ALL domestic animal production - cattle, sheep, goats, chickens etc; the closing down of abattoirs, butcheries and meat counters in food stores; NO ploughing by oxen, horses or donkeys; no horse racing; NO human possession of pets; NO use of dogs – even by the police; NO hunting or wildlife harvesting; NO capture of wildlife for commercial purposes; NO culling of wild animals; NO commercial fishing – in the oceans or in fresh water; NO recreational angling; and NO use of animals for research into the advancement of medical science. These are but a few of their abolition demands. The list is long and tedious.

    If they get their way the animal rightists will change the current life-style of all South Africans. There will be no biltong. There will be no braai-vleis parties on a Saturday afternoon before watching the rugby on television!

    The animal rights current demands to stop the resumption of elephant culling in Kruger National Park, therefore, must NOT be considered in isolation of all their other objectives. Their modus operandi is to challenge one issue at a time – and to knock them all down, like dominoes, one at a time. They isolate each issue, create a huge public controversy over it, solicit public support, achieve their objective, then move on to their next objective.

    What the general public needs to understand is that during the course of their overall operations program there WILL be a domino that has the “animal interest” of every South African on its nameplate. Those people who love their pet animals, may abhor the thought of elephants being culled. They may, therefore, be easily drawn into the animal rights web of intrigue over the elephant culling issue – but they may one-day regret giving these dangerous people their support. They will regret it because one day the animal rightists will start to agitate for the abolition of pet ownership. Those people who love fishing must NOT think that their angling creation is “different” to the elephant culling question. It is linked – as are all other animal ”uses” that benefit man – somewhere within the animal rightists’ long-term agenda.

    Animal welfare organisations, on the other hand, accept that man DOES have the right to “use” animals for his own benefit. They just stipulate that when man “uses” an animal when it alive – such as when he rides a horse – that there should be no cruelty involved in such use. And when he has to kill an animal to gain benefits that the killing action should not be cruel. Animal welfare people, therefore, look after man’s civilised standards when he “uses” animals – domesticated AND/OR wild.

    Animal rightists disapprove of animal welfarists – believing they are part of “the problem” (concerning man’s “use” of animals) that they want to abolish.

    Animal rightists cannot achieve ANY of their objectives without violating the legitimate rights of other people.

    I emphasise the involvement of the animal rightists in the elephant culling debate because they, and they alone, were responsible for the cessation of culling after 1994; because they, and they alone, are responsible for the delays in getting culling back as a management tool in Kruger; And because their’s will be a continued voice of dissension in the months and years ahead.

    Despite this, the Minister of DEAT has animal rightists (and/or “fellow travellers” of the animal rights brigade) on his advisory boards – which is why the elephant culling issue has been surrounded by so much controversy.

    These are issues that complicate the debate. Nevertheless, the rationale in support of elephant culling is relatively easy to explain.

    Kruger National Park has only so much soil. It has an average annual rainfall and a regular temperature regime. The soil and the rain and the climate can produce ONLY so much vegetation every year and this vegetation HAS to be able to SUSTAINABLY feed ALL the wild animals that exist in the park. If it cannot do this the whole ecosystem will collapse. So it is vital that the overall animal carrying capacity of the national park is NOT exceeded.

    The overall animal carrying capacity of the Kruger National Park is measured in terms of “biomass” - the whole weight (or mass) of animals, of every individual of all species, combined, that live in the park. The TOTAL amount – at the overall sustainable habitat carry capacity level - can call 100 percent of the habitats’ sustainable carrying capacity. So elephants (at, say, 4000 in number) may start off being the equivalent of 20 percent of the total biomass; at the same time, eland may be 10 percent; kudu 10 percent; impala 20 percent; buffalo 10 percent; zebra 10 percent, sable 5 percent and roan 5 percent; and all the rest 10 percent. (These figures are used here merely to illustrate a point.)

    Today there are 14 000 elephants in Kruger National Park. This is 3-and-a-half times more than the 4000 in our calculation. That means the elephants now take up 70 percent of the sustainable carrying capacity of the total biomass. It also means that ALL the other species will have to be reduced in number to fit into the remaining 30 percent (70% plus 30% = 100%) - IF sustainability is to maintained.

    This is a VERY simplistic way of explaining what happens when elephant populations increase in number without control. Something HAS to “give”.

    The REAL problem is a little more complicated. In reality, what happens is that the elephants – and ALL the other ‘robust’ species – grow in number and they (altogether) start to over-utilise (damage) the habitats. This means they eat MORE vegetation each year than the habitats can produce during the annual growing (wet) seasons. The habitats, therefore, degrade annually. And each year they degrade a little bit more than they did the previous year. If this is allowed to continue the game reserve will, ultimately, lose ALL its vegetation. And, in the process, massive numbers of (in the early stages) sensitive species of both plants and animals will disappear. Later even more robust species will disappear too – including, eventually, the elephants themselves. And the game reserve will persistently degrade until it becomes a desert.

    THIS IS NOT WHAT SOUTH AFRICAN SOCIETY WANTS.

    Populations of ALL SPECIES that exceed the sustainable carrying capacities of their habitats, therefore, need to be annually reduced in number, by culling, so as to maintain a dynamic balance between the soil, the plants and the animals. No single species should EVER be allowed to exceed the sustainable carrying capacity of its habitat – because, IF it does, it contributes to the overall degradation of the game reserve …. until, as explained above, it becomes a desert. But the elephants are THE most important species in this conundrum because they can and do so much more damage than do other species.


    Our “Wildlife Management Priorities” are really quite simple to understand. Our Number ONE priority concern must be for THE SOIL – because without soil no plants can grow. Our SECOND priority must be for THE PLANTS – because without plants there will be no food for animals to eat; or habitats for animals to live in. Plants also protect the soil from erosion by the sun, wind and (especially) the rain. Finally, our THIRD priority must be for the animals. So the animals come LAST on the priority list of our wildlife management concerns.

    Tourism – IF it were to be part of this consideration – would appear on the list of priorities as Number FOUR. Sustainable and prosperous tourism can ONLY exist where the ecosystems on which tourism depends are, themselves, stable and sustainable – and in a state of dynamic equilibrium. To put tourism ahead of our concerns for the soil, the plants and the animals is “putting the cart before the horse.”

    So what is/has been happening in Kruger National Park?

    In 1960 the park scientists first admitted that the game reserve had exceeded the elephant saturation point. There were then about 5000 elephant in the park.

    In 1965 Dr. Rocco Knobel, then Director of the Parks Board, made a decision: The elephant population should not be allowed to exceed its present numbers “UNTIL THE GAME WATER SUPPLY DEVELOPMENT PROGRAMME HAD BEEN COMPLETED”. The number of elephants in the park was then c. 7000.

    NOTE: 7000 was NOT ever considered to be the “elephant carrying capacity” of the park. This was an arbitrary figure derived as a result of the decision referred to above. Yet EVERYBODY seems to have assumed that 7000 WAS/IS the elephant carrying capacity of Kruger National Park – and today, people are saying that Kruger’s current 14 000 is going to have to be reduced to 7000. THIS IS NOT A VALID ARGUMENT.

    In 1965 7000 elephants was THEN too high a number of elephants for the park to sustainably carry. How do we know this? Consider this scenario.

    The ONLY top canopy tree study conducted in Kruger National Park prior to 1960 was located at SATARA. In 1944 a large study area disclosed that, on average, there were 13 top canopy trees per hectare. At that time there were NO resident elephants in the Satara area.

    Top canopy trees are an important component of all habitats because they create the micro-climates (in their shade) where a whole range of sun-sensitive plant and animal species can exist – and which, without the shade from these trees, will become extinct. Top canopy trees also provide unique habitats for many arboreal animal species that can move from treetop to treetop without ever having to travel over the ground. On the ground there is a range of predators that would quickly kill them.

    The first resident elephant herds arrived in Satara in 1960. By 1965 the Satara top canopy trees had been reduced to 9 trees per hectare. Elephant culling commenced in 1967 and it was arbitrarily decided to keep the elephant numbers at 7000. Despite the maintenance of the elephant herds at 7000, the top canopy tree population at Satara had been reduced to 3 trees per hectare by 1974. By 1981 the top-canopy tree population at Satara had been reduced to 1,5 trees per hectare. This means the top canopy trees at Satara had been reduced by 88,5 percent between 1960 and 1981.

    Culling – maintaining the elephant population at 7000 – was carried out until 1994. In 1994 animal rights activists persuaded the then Director of the Parks Board, Dr. Robbie Robinson, to stop elephant culling. The last cull took place in 1994. Since then the elephant population has increased to 14 000; and today the numbers of Satara’s top canopy trees are reported to be down to just 6 percent of what they were in 1960. This means there are now only 0.078 trees per hectare in the Satara top canopy tree study area.

    It doesn’t need much intelligence for ANYBODY to understand what has happened to the one-time mass of under story plants and animals that once existed in the original Satara woodlands; or what has happened to the many arboreal animals that once lived in the tree canopies at Satara.

    One of the most horrendous consequences of excessive elephant populations is that, SUDDENLY, the elephants (during a drought year) turn on the baobab trees. This happened in the Gonarezhou (Zimbabwe) in the early seventies when 23 percent of the baobabs were killed over a two year period and where a further 71 percent were damaged. Only 6 percent were NOT attacked during that two year period. But since then MANY more baobabs have been killed in the Gonarezhou by elephants.

    Baobabs reach an estimated age of 5000 years. That means the big baobabs that are under threat because of too many elephants in Kruger at this time, were already 1 700 years old when Tuthankhamen was Pharoah of Egypt. These are VERY special trees, therefore, and they deserve better consideration from human beings than is currently being given them. And to those who say that the damage caused by elephants is a natural cyclic event – which will be quickly repaired - we say: “Twiddle Sticks”. Are we prepared to wait 5000 years for the big baobabs of Kruger to be replaced after they are gone? Surely it is far better to “maintain an acceptable, reasonably stable and dynamic balance between the soil, the plants and animals” by culling animal populations (not JUST elephants) whenever their populations become excessive?

    All this is clearly explained in the attached and inexpensive booklet – “Managing Our Wildlife Heritage” by Ron Thomson. Those who want to know more about this fascinating subject can obtain a copy direct from the publishers, MAGRON PUBLISHERS, at Box 733, Hartbeespoort 0216. Tel/Fax (012) 2530 521. Email: magron @ ripplesoft.co.za. Its cost is just R80 – inclusive of postage – in South Africa; or R100 for overseas airmail delivery.

    This booklet is not JUST about elephants. It explains the principles and practices surrounding the management needs of ALL wild animals - and in a language that everybody can understand.

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