Elephant Culling in Kruger National Park - Part One

Ron Thomson

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Jun 27, 2009
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Elephant Culling in Kruger National Park - Part One
The story behind the controversy

Early last year the South African Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), Martinus van Schalkwyk, announced that he had approved culling as ONE of the options for the management of elephants in Kruger National Park (KNP). This was the culmination of several years of open public debate during which all shades of opinion had been aired.

The announcement caused an uproar in animal rights organisation (ARO) circles and there has been an intensification of ARO propaganda demanding that this decision be reversed. So the nature-loving members of South Africa’s general public were, once again, thrown into confusion and uncertainty.

Controversy, confusion and uncertainty - the energy on which the animal rights confidence industry thrives - will continue to fester in the hearts and minds of societies the-world-over until the need for elephant management is properly understood and accepted by a rational public-at-large. This may seem an impossible task but you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to understand the fundamental ecological factors involved. Neither do you need to be a genius to understand the factors that influenced van Schalkwyk’s decision. All you need is simple common sense. It would help if you also had some understanding about the historical background that led to the present state of affairs.

There were NO elephants in KNP in 1900. There are, however, records of elephants having been shot in the region throughout the 19th Century and before, but not many. This begs the question: Why were there not lots and lots of elephants in the region at the beginning of the 20th Century?

The probable reason for the lack of elephants in KNP the 19th Century and before is the fact that there are much richer soils, more palatable vegetation, and so much better nutrition, in areas that are not too distant from the park boundaries. Indeed, it was precisely because KNP was NOT endowed with much agricultural potential that it was set aside for wildlife.

In years gone by, therefore, elephants were more greatly attracted to the richer habitats that existed in those areas some distance from the park. The park was probably then used by only a few elephants for seasonal visitations when certain trees were bearing fruit. And the preponderance of these visitors were probably bulls.

Hunters have been blamed for the elephants’ demise in KNP prior to 1900. The fact is, however, there is no record of large numbers of elephants ever having been killed in the region.

There is also the fact that the ivory hunters of Africa’s early history did not kill many cows and calves. So, if the hunters shot only the elephant bulls whatever happened to the breeding herds?

The fact is, nobody really knows very much about the historical facts concerning the disposition of elephants in what became KNP prior to the 20th Century.

What we DO know is that ten elephants, one group of four and one group of six, took up occupation of the KNP’s Olifants-Letaba river junction area in 1905. They were said to be refugees from heavy ivory-hunting pressures that were being exerted on the remnants of a once large elephant population that lived in adjacent southern Mozambique at that time.

Although there is no record of any other elephants coming into KNP after 1905 it is probable that others also migrated into the park in later years. The total elephant population base in the early 1900s must then have been in the region of +/-100 for the herds to have achieved the numbers that were extant in the 1950s.

The elephants of the Olifants-Letaba river junction area increased in number, and they dispersed into the rest of KNP, over the next 53 years. It was not until 1958 that elephants were reported to have occupied “every corner of KNP”.

The dispersal pattern was not uniform. The herds moved in spearheads, in different directions, leaving gaps of country in between that remained, for long periods, unoccupied by elephants. These gaps eventually filled up as a consequence of the lateral dispersal of the ever-increasing population. The average rate of population dispersal was 6.2 kilometres per year.

By the early 1960s the scientists of KNP were becoming restless. They were by then recording unsustainable habitat damage caused by too many elephants from regions all over KNP. This was discussed at an ordinary meeting of the National Parks Board (now SANParks) in 1965 when the then Director, Dr. Rocco Knobel, made a decision that elephant culling would take place with the purpose of maintaining the elephant population at its then current number.

“This policy,” he said, “would be maintained until the (then) developing artificial game water supply programme had been completed. When THAT stage was reached,” he said, “the numbers of elephants the park should carry would be properly determined.”

The population number agreed upon in 1967 was 7000 elephants. It is important to understand that this was an arbitrary figure NOT determined, in any way, by what the scientists of the day considered to be the sustainable elephant carrying capacity of the KNP habitats.

At this juncture it is equally necessary to record the findings of a vitally important research programme. In 1944, when there were NO elephants in the area, a study was conducted to determine the number of mature top-canopy trees in the Satara region of the park. The results showed there were then, on average, 13 top canopy trees per hectare (2.4 acres).

Mature top canopy trees are important for a number of reasons. First of all, when they form a continuous canopy, they create a habitat that is suitable for a large number of strictly arboreal creatures such as night apes, various reptiles and a whole host of invertebrates. They also provide special foods for a wide variety of animals and birds.

Another and most important factor about top canopy trees is that, because their canopies provide shade, they create a special environment on the ground beneath them for a huge variety of plants that cannot tolerate direct sunlight. And these under-story plants, in turn, provide the vital microclimates for yet other plants that require even less light. So, altogether top canopy trees create unique and vital habitats that sustain a whole range of plant species that are especially adapted to various degrees of shade. And there is a concomitant host of animal species that is especially adapted to these shade-loving habitats, too, and to no other.

Elephant culling commenced in KNP in1967. The target was to first reduce the elephant population to 7000; and then to maintain it at 7000. This was accomplished by removing the calculated annual increment every year. After 1967 some 350 to 500 elephants were culled every year.

This programme was maintained until 1994 when, due to heavy animal rights pressure on the then Director of SANParks, Dr. Robbie Robinson, elephant culling was discontinued. The last elephant cull was carried out in 1994.

It is important to record that, by 1994, the development programme to create a blanket of artificial game water supplies in KNP had long been completed. There had been, however, no assessment made of the elephant carrying capacity of the habitats. Also, no revision of the elephant-culling programme had been carried out. By default, therefore, everybody including the general public of South Africa, were conditioned into believing that the elephant carrying capacity of KNP was and remains 7000.

The facts do not support this figure. The Satara top-canopy tree study tells us why. As mentioned above, in 1944 there were 13 top canopy trees in the Satara study area. This had not changed by 1958 when the first pilot elephant bulls visited the area. The first elephant cow herds became established there in 1960.

The Satara top canopy tree population had been reduced to 9 trees per hectare by 1965. Culling commenced in 1967 whereafter the elephant population was maintained for the next 25 years at 7000 animals.

Despite the continued elephant culling programme, the Satara top canopy trees had been reduced to 3 trees per hectare by 1974; and to 1,5 trees by 1981. This represents a decline, in just 20 years, of 80 percent. No further assessments were made until 2008. It was then reported that the woodland trees at Satara had been reduced by 95 percent (to 0,78 trees per hectare).

Faced with these kinds of facts no responsible and reasonable person can say that KNP’s elephant population, now standing at approximately 16 000, is in any way sustainable. Nobody can say that 7000 elephant is/was the true carrying capacity of the ORIGINAL habitats, which were reasonably stable and healthy until about 1960. Nobody who understands the ecological implications can deny that, if current trends continue, KNP faces the extinction of huge numbers of plant and animal species, and eventual total ecological collapse. In fact, Kruger National Park is on the road to becoming a desert!

Ipso facto, the KNP elephant population needs to be quickly reduced to a number that is considerably less than 7000. If this does not happen the KNP habitats will have absolutely no chance of recovery from the last 50 years of very serious elephant population mismanagement.

For Part Two, Click here. Elephant Culling in Kruger National Park - Part Two

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