Elephant Culling in Kruger National Park - Part Two

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  1. Ron Thomson

    Ron Thomson CONTRIBUTOR AH Member

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    Elephant Culling in Kruger National Park - Part Two
    The story behind the controversy

    To cull or not to cull? That is the question.

    South Africa’s Kruger National Park (KNP) currently supports 16 000 elephants.
    How many elephants should the park be carrying? This is a question that many different people will answer in just as many different ways. When one looks not just at elephant numbers but at elephant numbers AND the effect those numbers have on the habitats that support them, however, the true state of affairs becomes much more clear.

    In 1965 the KNP scientists voiced loud enough and passionate enough concerns about irreparable habitat damage to persuade the then Director of SANParks to introduce elephant culling. There were then 7000 elephants in the park.

    Ten years earlier, in 1955, the elephants’ use of their habitat was considered sustainable. Certainly, there were then no statements of concern about serious habitat damage.

    Throughout the last 50 years Kruger’s elephant population has increased at an average rate of about 6,8 percent annually. This means the population has been doubling its numbers about every ten years. Extrapolating this equation back in time tells us that KNP’s elephant population, in 1955, was half what it was in 1965. In the mid-1950s, therefore, KNP’s elephant population can be calculated to have been about 3 500.

    To put this observation into perspective within the elephant culling controversy, we can say that 3 500 elephants were NOT causing irreparable damage to the healthy habitats in 1955. Since then KNP’s habitats were thrashed by far too many elephants over a period of 50 years. The damage, in fact, has been so severe that what is left of these habitats today can no longer sustainably support even 3 500 elephants. To allow the habitats to recover, therefore - which makes good management sense - KNP will now have to reduce its elephant numbers to a level that is considerably less than 3 500.

    KNP, in fact, needs to reduce its overall elephant population to something like 2 500 animals, and the population needs to be maintained at this level for at least the next fifty years. There is no other solution to this vexing conundrum if KNP’s current biological diversity is to survive into posterity. Anything less than the achievement of this drastic management objective will only delay the inevitable. UNLESS the habitats of KNP are allowed to recover, the national park will end up becoming a desert.

    The truth of the matter is that we have been trying to carry too many elephants for far too long in practically every national park in Africa, for the purpose of satisfying the needs of tourism; and for satisfying the emotional and irrational needs of urban people world-wide. For this we have the animal rights brigade to thank!

    The reality of the matter is that wildlife management authorities throughout Africa have been criminally guilty of neglecting our wildlife management priorities for more than half a century.

    Our wildlife management priorities are:

    FIRSTLY: Consideration for the health and stable maintenance of the SOIL – because without soil no plants will grow;

    SECONDLY: Consideration for the health and stable status of PLANTS (and of a healthy and stable diversity of habitats) for without plants there can be no animals; and without a wide variety of healthy and stable habitats there can exist only a very poor biological diversity.

    THIRDLY: Consideration for the healthy maintenance and stable status of wild animal populations. Note animals come third, AND LAST, on the list of our wildlife management priorities.

    Tourism fits into this picture only at the very end of the equation. Sustainable tourism in a national park is only possible when it is imposed on an ecosystem that is properly managed with an eye towards stability and sustainability. This means that the soils, the plants and the animals in a national park must be managed in such a way that a stable state of dynamic equilibrium is established BEFORE tourism is even considered. And demands of tourism must never be allowed to take precedence over this primary wildlife management objective.

    Few of Africa’s national parks meet these criteria. Tourism seems to have become the raison d’etre of Africa’s national park authorities and of African government administrations. Avoiding conflict with the irrational and vociferous anti-elephant culling demands of our animal rights adversaries has also become a major factor. Today, nobody seems to have the intestinal fortitude to publicly reject the animal rightists’ bizarre ideology. Nobody seems to have the temerity to call the animal rights movement what it really is - The biggest confidence industry the world has ever known! It has NO place in responsible wildlife management practice.

    Wildlife management is the action man takes to juggle the three elements of the equation – the soil, the plants and the animals - in order to achieve desirable man-conceived objectives. And the most important management objective in a national park must be the maintenance of the park’s biological diversity. No other objective is more important.

    There are very few national park habitats in Africa that will survive if the elephant population density is allowed to exceed about one elephant per two square miles (or about one elephant per five square kilometres). Even THAT kind of elephant population density, in many of our more arid parks, may not be sustainable.

    This explanation will be a bitter pill for many people to swallow. Nature-loving people in society, however, should teach themselves to look at difficult wildlife management problems, such as this one, with complete objectivity. If the general public cannot do this, or will not do this, the right management solutions will never be applied. Pure emotion cannot solve wildlife management problems.

    The nature-loving man-in-the-street still has to learn that so-called political transparency and public participation cannot be used to solve wildlife management problems. Finding workable solutions to difficult wildlife problems requires expert consideration of the hard realities of ecological facts – and most ordinary citizens do not have the knowledge or the expertise to pass judgement on the complex decisions that sometimes have to be made.

    Political transparency and public participation, when used to determine emotional wildlife management decisions, satisfy ONLY our political masters AND the animal rights brigade. It satisfies the politicians need to interact with their constituents and to thereby gain points for the next election. It satisfies the animal rightist organisations because it gives them an official public platform on which to disseminate their often false and/or distorted propaganda in order to solicit funds from the gullible public.

    Only wildlife management experts, the people who live with and who KNOW their subject, can possibly determine what kind of wildlife management solutions can, and should, be applied to achieve desired-by-man wildlife management objectives. Expecting the general public to pass judgement on how the KNP, or any other national park, should manage its elephant population is no different to society demanding a public referendum to approve how a brain surgeon should carry out his expert medical procedures.

    The general public needs to be informed about our wildlife problems. YES! And those of us who understand the issues involved SHOULD be spending time in educating the public about the principles and practices of wildlife management. Few of us are doing this. Fewer still have done this in the past. The blame for this whole debacle, therefore, rests upon our shoulders. It is our fault that the public is so misinformed today. Those of us who have lived with these kinds of problems all our lives, and who understand them, have a duty to the wildlife that has sustained our spirits throughout our lives, to create a better informed public. We have nobody else to blame for the current deficiently informed public than ourselves!

    It is ludicrous, therefore, for government to prime the general public into believing that the man-in-the-street can provide the Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, and SANParks, with any kind of constructive advice with regards how KNP should manage its excessive elephant population problem.

    Yet, when one examines how this whole debacle came about, this is exactly what South Africa’s Minister van Schalkwyk has been doing for the past several years. He has also been cow-towing closely, and dangerously, with some of the biggest and most irrational animal rights groups in the country. And he has been listening to academic fellow travellers of the animal rights brigade, too, some of whom are considered by the public to be eminent professors. Some of these professors have accepted sponsorships from animal rights organisations that amount to nearly a million rand annually. They thus propagate animal rights propaganda every time they appear on television. And while he has been thus occupied the same time the minister has ignored the advice of his own wildlife management scientists in KNP.

    In order to placate his concerned electorate Minister van Schalkwyk has said that although elephant culling will be permitted in KNP, it will be used ONLY as a last resort. He has also said that no ‘wholesale slaughter’ of elephants will be permitted.

    In the face of the obvious need to remove 12 000 elephants from the KNP landscape, and considering the minister’s ill-conceived prescriptions, it will be apparent that the kind of elephant management practices that are urgently needed in KNP will never be applied. Kruger National Park, therefore, will become a desert now, sooner rather than later.

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