A game Warden Takes Stock

Ron Thomson

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Jun 27, 2009
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A game Warden Takes Stock

Forty-five years ago I joined the Rhodesian (now Zimbabwean) Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management as a game ranger. I was twenty years old. Over the years I accumulated a vast amount of big game hunting and big game capture experience. I was part of the transition that saw the control of our national parks taken from the old-time game wardens and placed in the hands of scientists. I, myself, became a university-trained ecologist. These were times the likes of which will never be seen again.

How time flies! Now I am old a gray and I look back on my long and adventurous life with much satisfaction. My great concern, however, is that everything is not rosy in the Garden of Eden.

I am so disturbed by modern wildlife-management-thinking trends that I cannot just sit back and let the responsible theoreticians of academia “do their thing” without being challenged. I have the advantage, you see, of having experienced an Africa in which the wild animals were “in balance” with their habitats – about which the young scientists of today can only theorise. But it is they, regrettably, who now toll the bell!

1960 seems to have been the year when elephants all over southern Africa first exceeded the carrying capacities of their habitats. In Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park that year – amongst many others – the Mukwa tree (Pterocarpus angolensis) and the Mlala palm (Hyphaene crinita) were proclaimed to be “on their out” as a result of there being, then, too many elephants.

I remember camping that year at Ngweshla Pan under a giant baobab tree that had been torn to pieces by elephants. Two years later all that remained of that tree was a pile of rotting pith. Today’s game rangers now laugh when I tell them there were once baobabs all over Hwange’s Kalahari sand regions – for there are now none left!

The elimination of the baobab in all southern African game reserves where there are too many elephants grieves me greatly. Some of these giants of the African bush are said, by acknowledged experts, to be in excess of 5 000 years old. If this is true, they were already large trees, seven hundred years old, when the legendary boy-king, Tutankhamen, was Pharoah in Egypt. Our baobabs, therefore, deserve better consideration than the frivolous attentions they are being afforded by many of today’s young scientists.

There are also many species of slow-growing hardwood trees in Africa’s game reserves that, although they may not measure their ages in millennia, are still several hundreds of years old. These ancient giants, too, are being eliminated by unmanaged elephant populations – and they will never be replaced once they are gone.

The public needs to be alerted to this tragedy-in-the-making!

The newly appointed scientists in my department – in the 1960s - erected cable fence “exclosures” around several particularly impressive stands of large Mukwa trees in Hwange. Their purpose was to create “protected witness stands” of the species because they knew that the elephants were going to eliminate them. It didn’t help. The fences were ripped down and the trees were all pushed over or ring-barked.

The phenomenon of habitat change wrought by too many elephants is not unique to southern Africa. There is photographic evidence of the woodland habitats of the Rwindi Plain in the Congo being changed to grassland between 1934 and 1959. The habitats of Tsavo East National Park in Kenya (1970s) were changed from extensive thick-bush to grassland. The riverine forest of Kenya’s Amboseli National Park (1960s) was also coverted to open grassland. In the latter two cases three major ungulate species were rendered locally extinct - the gerunuk, the bushbuck and the lesser kudu.

Habitat change is not confined to destruction caused by too many elephants. In both Hwange and South Africa’s Kruger National Park, buffalo, zebra and wildebeest have been culled because of the adverse effects they were having on their habitats. Hundreds of hippos have been culled in Zimbabwe’s Gonarezhou National Park. And the ubiquitous and prolific impala has been culled all over Africa.

For the last 50 years, therefore, Africa’s wildlife managers have been wrestling with the need to cull excessive wild animal populations in protection of habitats. A new breed of scientist, however – seemingly tired of the constant war of attrition against the more prolific herbivores – is now advocating the desirability of “letting nature’s natural cycles take their course”. They say that when herbivore populations exceed the sustainable carrying capacities of their habitats they should be allowed to destroy their habitats. Then, they say, the excessive populations will crash, naturally, and during the period when the animals have been so reduced to low numbers, the habitats will recover and the rise-and-fall cycle will repeat itself. Even Kruger National Park is playing with a “controlled” version of this concept.

A scientist, working on the excessive elephant population in Botswana, has stated that the elephant cycle in that country will repeat itself every 100 years. His research is puristic. It is not management-orientated. He is on record as having said that he would be “devastated” if Botswana ever initiated elephant population reduction management “because it would destroy his beautiful research programme”.

I am encouraged by the fact that ALL scientists are not tarred with this brush!

Nevertheless, I am dismayed by this new “scientific attitude” – and by the fact that it is gaining ever greater support in academia. It is one that goes hand-in-hand with the animal rights philosophy – that man has no “right” to cull or to hunt wild animals. There is even a group of anti-hunter scientists who are now targeting the safari industry. They have claimed that over-hunting is responsible for, among other things, an imagined decline in lion populations all over the continent – a statement which has been trounced by pro-hunter scientists. It seems, therefore, that an unholy alliance is developing between certain segments of academia and the animal rights brigade. Readers should not be under any illusion. Scientists are NOT above such personal bias. Many of them are strong fellow travelers of the animal rights brigade.

I grew up believing that in natural resource management there is an hierarchy of priorities. Our first consideration must be for the soil – for without soil no plants can grow. Our second priority must be for plants – because if there were no plants there would be no animals. Plants capture energy from the sun and convert it into edible food. Plants provide cover for animals, protecting them from the elements and hiding them from their enemies. Plants provide cover for the soil, too, protecting it from the erosive forces of the sun, wind and (especially) rain. Finally, plants, in concert with the local physical environment, create the many different habitats that enable the earth’s wide spectrum of animal species to exist. Last on the list of priorities come the animals. This hierarchy tells us that provided the soil is intact and provided the habitats are healthy, the endemic species of animals in any given environment will be safe and healthy, too.

The - what I consider to be scientifically pedantic - natural-cycle-management theories ignore this basic principle. They also ignore the fact that Africa’s rural human population is doubling every 20 years and that Africa’s rural human communities are sinking ever deeper into poverty – which fact is the main driving force behind the commercial poaching pandemic. They ignore the fact that this expanding human population is also creating desert-like conditions all around the game reserves. By the time the next postulated 100 year (elephant) cycle comes round, therefore, there will be no natural “seed-banks” left outside the national parks. As a consequence, the national parks will have no places from which they will be able to draw recruits for the re-establishment of the species of plants and animals that will have been rendered locally extinct, within the national parks, during even just the first supposed (elephant) management cycle. So, however good these scientists’ cyclic management theories might be in principle, they will never work in practice within the greater and still evolving African picture.

The alternative ideal is to manage our national parks in the conservative manner that was practiced by the old game wardens. Their purpose was to maintain the natural biomes in as a healthy state as possible – and with due consideration of man’s natural resource management priorities.

A “biome” is a recognizable plant community PLUS the animals that are specially adapted to live within it. A biome, therefore, is a floral/faunal complex. Thus we can recognise biomes such as riverine forests – comprising mostly evergreen trees that draw their water requirements from the waters of a river; montane evergreen forests; deciduous Acacia/Combretum woodlands; deciduous mopani woodlands; deciduous teak forests; swamplands; grasslands; and many more.

The old game wardens knew that the safest way to protect Africa’s species diversity was to make sure our biomes remain intact. The management objective of this philosophy is to ensure that the species compositions and physiognomic characteristics of each biome do not change – outside tolerable limits. For example, some trees will die of old age. Others will be killed by animal action. The “acceptability” criterion of such change is that other, younger, trees are available to replace those that are removed.

Provided the habitats remain intact the soil they depend upon will be protected. No species of plants will then be rendered extinct – and a natural age structure within the plant communities will be maintained. And the animals that live within these habitats, especially those species that are particularly adapted to them, will remain - forever - dynamically “safe”.

Within this general milieu man can judiciously manipulate the components of the biomes to achieve specific objectives. Major animal population reductions, for example, will probably be necessary to maintain the habitats in a healthy state. Elephants, hippos, buffaloes, zebra – and many other prolific and hardy animal species will have to be culled on a regular or irregular basis. The numbers of some robust animal species populations may have to be kept – forever - in check to allow more sensitive species, with which they compete, to thrive. Both plants AND animals can also be consistently harvested - conservatively and sustainably – without fear that they will become locally extinct. Sport hunting will be possible.

There are many “wise-use” plant and animal management options in the biome-maintenance strategy that can satisfy a whole host of desiderata. Poverty-relief of a national park’s neighbour human communities could be one of them – which would help eliminate poaching. The creation and maintenance of a relatively stable set of environmental conditions is the key to success. It is also the basis upon which a prosperous and sustainable tourism industry can be constructed - which is something that cannot be guaranteed by the cycle-management theorists. And what is most dear to my heart is the fact that the perpetuation of Africa’s giant and ancient trees will be assured.

The scientists who advocate the cyclic management ideal would have society support their viewpoint that man should allow a game reserve’s many different biomes to be destroyed (by too many elephants – or whatever). They also want us to accept that it is “all right” for the plants and the animals that are especially adapted to these habitats, to be rendered locally extinct. Furthermore, they want us to place our trust in their conviction that the destroyed habitats WILL return to their former glory without the interfering hand of man. And, finally, they want us to believe that all the species of plants and animals that will have been rendered locally extinct in the cycle process WILL ALSO return of their own accord.

In the meantime, let me state that the habitats of Kenya’s Amboseli AND Tsavo East National Parks have shown NO signs of recovery whatsoever - some 40 years after they were destroyed by too many elephants!

My whole life has been spent in the service of wildlife, and/or in managing big game national parks. I KNOW what makes wildlife tick. The implausible expectations of these academic theorists, therefore, is just too big a mouthful-of-risks for me to swallow. I do NOT believe their philosophy is valid. In my view these scientists are using Africa’s national parks – unscrupulously - as personal laboratories to prove or to disprove their bizarre theories. What is more, they have no apparent concern, nor accountability, for the outcome.

It would be utterly tragic if these misguided people were allowed to destroy the ancient biomes with which they are now playing. If they do, all that the people of the world will have left to remind them of Africa’s currently astounding wildlife heritage will be written and photographic records – and for those like me, memories - of something that was once unique and exquisitely beautiful.

And those records, and memories, will be an indictment on the society that let such a tragedy happen!

Africa’s wildlife and Africa’s people deserve better than this. The cycle management theory needs to be challenged – and challenged vigorously. If enough people-in-the-street stand up to be counted governments will listen. If they don’t, those who say they care about wildlife – but do nothing - will only have themselves to blame when the ancient biomes of Africa pass into oblivion.

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