Managing Our Wildlife Heritage - Part Four

Ron Thomson

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Managing Our Wildlife Heritage - Part Four

Foundation Principles (C)
The practice of wildlife management can only be applied to wild animal populations. It cannot be applied to a species as a whole. This makes the endangered species concept - as the public has been led to understand it - invalid. It also makes it imperative that nature-loving people and people in the wildlife industry – INCLUDING government wildlife agencies – re-organise their thought processes. Lastly, it makes it necessary that everybody understand just what a species is; and what a population is.

A SPECIES can be defined as a group of organisms (animals or plants) that share the same physical (and, in the case of animal, behavioural) characteristics and which, when they breed, produce fertile offspring with the same physical (and behavioural) characteristics. Nature normally provides mechanisms – physical or behavioural differences – between species that prevents them from crossbreeding. Nevertheless, very similar species do sometimes crossbreed (like horses and donkeys sometimes do) but when this happens the progeny is normally an infertile mule.

The elephants of Kruger National Park, of Addo National Park, of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, and of the Selous Game Reserve in Tanzania, therefore, are all the same species.

A POPULATION can be defined as a group of animals of the same species the individuals of which interact with each other on a daily basis, in continuum, and they breed ONLY with other animals of the same group. “In continuum”, means that although all the individual animals may not actually meet each other every day, they are in continuous contact with individuals of the same group every day – as are the links in a chain separate but still part of the same unit.

The elephants of the northern Pafuri region of Kruger National Park, and of the southern Skukusa area, probably never ever meet. They are, nevertheless, part of the same population because there is continuous contact with all the other elephants that live in between the northern and the southern extremities of the park. The elephants of Kruger, Addo, Hwange and the Selous game reserves, on the other hand, comprise different populations. They are different because they are isolated from each other, because they do NOT have daily contact with each other (even in continuum), and because there is no possibility that individuals from any one of these populations can breed with individuals from any of the other populations.

The numbers that comprise every species of animal contained inside game-proof fences on game ranches in South Africa comprise, effectively, separate populations. They are separate because – even though they might be able to rub noses with others of the same species through the boundary fences - they can breed ONLY within the species-group that exists inside each set of fences. This makes ‘national quotas’ for the harvest of certain specially protected species nonsensical.

The significance of managing wild animal species - population by population - is fundamental. Consider, for example, that during the last several decades of the 20th century the elephant populations of East and east-central Africa were subjected to immense commercial poaching pressure. This caused many of them to go into serious numerical decline. During this same period, commercial poaching had very little effect on the elephant populations of southern Africa. Indeed, the southern populations were then (and still are) seriously over-populating their habitats. A management priority for the East African elephant populations at that time, therefore, should (theoretically) have been to “protect them from all harm” with the objective of increasing their numbers. A major management priority for the Southern African elephant populations – AT EXACTLY THE SAME TIME – on the other hand, should have been to reduce them in number to levels that their habitats can sustainably support.

Instead – in a Draconian measure to stop the commercial poaching of elephants in East Africa – the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) declared the African elephant to be a so-called “endangered species” (1989) and it banned ALL international trade in ivory. The implications of this edict effectively required that ALL elephant populations be “protected from all harm” – even those that were so excessive they were in the process of TOTALLY destroying their habitats. This still applies.

In my estimation, Botswana is currently 2300 percent overstocked with elephants; Hwange National Park is 1200 percent overstocked; Kruger National Park is 300 percent overstocked. Whereas CITES has not tried to dictate to the sovereign states of Africa just how they should manage their elephant populations, the restrictions on the international sale of ivory has made the proper management of elephant populations economically impossible. This is so because the sale of ivory and elephant hide in many poor countries is essential to defray the expense of these costly exercises.
 

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