The Wildlife Game No.1

Ron Thomson

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The Wildlife Game No.1

During the 1980s a survey was conducted in the United States to determine the general public’s understanding and acceptance of sustainable wildlife utilisation. Five percent of Americans were vehemently opposed to man using wildlife in any way. Fifteen percent approved – some with provisos. One concern was that there should be no cruelty involved in the harvesting of wildlife. Another was that no species should be rendered extinct in the process. Eighty percent of the general public, however, had no committed opinion. They seemed to be completely disinterested. The ratio, therefore, was 5:15:80 – a result that is probably representative of general publics everywhere.

This column is directed at the probable 15 percent of the population that supports not only the sustainable-use of wildlife for the benefit of mankind, but also the sustainable management of wildlife in our national parks. It is hoped that by reading this column regularly this cohort of society will become sufficiently confident about wildlife management affairs as to convince at least some of those in the great silent majority to support rational wildlife management practices, too. Alas, the 5 percent animal rights minority will never change their opinions. Nevertheless, those who, through reading this column, come to properly understand the principles of sustainable wildlife management will, at least, be able to confidently counteract the false propaganda put out by these very misguided people.

I am firmly of the belief that the future of wildlife in Africa rests in the hands of responsible people in the general public – both in Africa and in the rest of the world. I am also quite sure that, without the support of the general public for a new approach to wildlife management practices in Africa, the vast majority of Africa’s wildlife will disappear during the first fifty years of the new millennium. The more people who understand and accept the principles of sustainable wildlife utilisation and the sustainable management of our national parks, therefore, the greater will be the chance of African wildlife surviving into posterity. This educating process is becoming an ever more urgent imperative as the forces ranged against Africa’s wildlife achieve ever greater degrees of success.

Unfortunately, the majority of even the most responsible of nature-loving people exhibit an extraordinary lack of appreciation of the principles upon which modern wildlife management practices are based. This is manifest by the fact that very few people question the constant flow of wildlife management information that is projected by the media today – information that often illustrates the effects of inappropriate wildlife management practices. Much of this information cries out to be challenged – but it rarely is because, I believe, the man-in-the-street is not sure of his facts. This reality has not gone unnoticed by the world’s animal rights groups.

The public’s seeming reluctance to meaningfully participate in controversial wildlife debates is a fact that is being used by protectionist groups - to their own advantage - in many of today’s international wildlife forums. Indeed, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES) has been hi-jacked by the animal rightists as a consequence. CITES is an organisation whose purpose is to regulate the international wildlife trade. Paradoxically, it is now controlled by its animal rights NGOs whose sole purpose in getting themselves accredited to CITES is to STOP wildlife trade. The establishment and the maintenance of the international ivory trade ban is but one example of this reality.

Those involved in the sustainable use of wildlife will ignore these realities to the detriment of their sporting and/or business interests. And those nature-lovers in society who sincerely believe in the honest and logical management of wildlife inside our protected areas, will witness the ultimate ruination of Africa’s national parks and wildlife if they will not combat the adoption of protectionist policies into Africa’s wildlife affairs.

Evil succeeds wherever good men do nothing!

It is imperative, therefore, that the general publics of the world become properly informed about the principles of wildlife management and how, why and when particular wildlife management practices need to be applied.

You don’t have to be a biological boffin to understand the rules of the wildlife game. Every ecological event and every legitimate management practice that takes place in a national park, or on a game ranch, has a reason and a logical explanation. Each can be likened to a single piece of a giant jigsaw puzzle. In order for the whole wildlife management picture to be seen in its full and proper perspective and to be properly understood, however, each and every piece of the puzzle needs to be assembled in its appropriate place. The secret – as happens with every assembly line – is to know the nature of the piece that you have in your hand, and to know just where in the big-picture it needs to be fitted. It stands to reason that when you leave out of the equation even a single piece, the final image is incomplete.

This column will try to provide the reader with a complete understanding of the principles of wildlife management over time. It is not my intention, however, to present you with just a series of dry dissertations on the rules of the wildlife game. The rules of the game you will get - but I shall try to lace them into real and current events so as to provide you with a tangible understanding of these important principles in the context of genuine wildlife affairs.

Inevitably, however, we will periodically go back to basics. As in all endeavours, participants must understand and accept the rules of the games that they play.

One fundamental set of principles provides a cornerstone of understanding about many of the practices of modern wildlife management. It is known as “Society’s Conservation Priority List”. Unfortunately, its importance - even its existence – has been lost in recent years. This is because, due to the success of animal rights propaganda, emotion rather than logic now dominates the public’s feelings for the natural world.

Society’s FIRST conservation priority concerns the health, vigour, protection and/or wise-use of THE SOIL – for without soil no plants can grow.

The SECOND concerns the health, vigour, protection and/or wise-use of PLANTS – for without plants there would be no life on planet earth.

Plants also provide cover for the soil, protecting it from the erosive forces of the sun, wind and - especially - the rain. Plants are at the bottom of the food chain providing food for herbivorous animals which, in turn, are eaten by carnivores. Plants provide cover for animals, too, protecting them from the elements and hiding them from their enemies. And plants, coupled with their local physical environment, create the diverse habitat types that support the whole spectrum of wild animal species that inhabit the earth.

Finally, society’s THIRD and LAST conservation priority concerns the health, vigour, protection and/or wise-use of ANIMALS.

The logic of this ideal is easy to understand. But how, you may ask, does it work is practice?

When an excessive and expanding herbivorous animal population over-exploits its food supply the first thing that happens is that the animals reduce the plant cover that protects the soil. Soil, then, is lost to erosion. As more and more soil is lost, so the health and vigour of the plant community declines. The ecosystem then spirals into a state of decline with, every year, more and more animals eating more and more plants and, all the time, more and more soil is lost. This can only result in one conclusion - the creation of a desert and the collapse of the animal population in question.

The consequent decimation of habitats also causes the local extinction of those sensitive species of plants and animals that cannot survive in a progressively deteriorating environment. This latter fact is a most important consideration in our national parks because their principal purpose is to protect our plant and animal species diversity.

Society’s conservation priority list, therefore, provides us with front-line guidance regarding where our wildlife management responsibilities lie. It logically tells us what has to be done to rectify unhealthy ecological conditions and it removes emotion from the equation.

Our first priority, clearly, has to be for the soil. This means we must protect the soil’s vegetative cover at all costs. In game reserves the best way to achieve this is by constantly maintaining herbivorous animal populations within the sustainable carrying capacities of their habitats. If this can be achieved, maintaining plant and animal species diversity will automatically happen as a natural by-product of the wildlife management programme.

When one understands this, the need to cull excessive numbers of herbivores in our national parks takes on a whole new meaning. It is easy then to understand that, IF world governments are to act responsibly with regard to Africa’s wildlife resources, they cannot entertain the animal rights’ argument that it is morally unconscionable to cull elephants because they are so-called “sentient beings”.

We cannot have our cake AND eat it!

It is simply not possible to maintain the species diversity of our big game national parks without culling excessive herbivore populations - especially elephants, which so badly damage their own habitats. There must be no misunderstanding about this reality. If an elephant population is allowed to increase its numbers beyond a game reserve’s sustainable elephant carrying capacity, vegetation communities WILL, each year, be progressively ever-more damaged, there WILL be a continuous loss of topsoil, and sensitive plant and animal species WILL, one by one, become locally extinct.

The fact, therefore, that Botswana’s elephant population probably reached its ecological carrying capacity sometime in the early 1960s, and has been doubling its numbers every ten years since then, should make responsible nature-loving people in society restless. I have calculated – by extrapolating backwards from current population figures - that Botswana’s elephant population stood at 7 500 animals in 1960. Today it numbers well over 120 000! It takes little imagination to appreciate what has happened to the wildlife habitats in Botswana during the last forty years! The undoubted consequent loss of species diversity will also be appreciated.

Something similar has happened in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. Hwange’s original sustainable elephant carrying capacity was probably 5 000 animals. Its estimated population in 1960 was 6 000. Culling began in Hwange in 1965 by which time the population numbers had risen to about 8 000. Culling was initiated then because the ecologists of that time all agreed that habitat damage, caused by these 8 000 elephants, was not sustainable.

Culling stopped in Hwange in 1987 - after the elephant population had, during the previous three years, been reduced from 20 000 to 13 000. Between 1965 and 1987 many thousands of elephants had been removed from the game reserve. A conservative estimate of Hwange’s current elephant population is 40 000 - but it could well be over 50 000. What has happened to Botswana’s elephant habitats and to its plant and animal species diversity, therefore, has been repeated in Hwange – and it continues unabated in both countries.

Since 1960, habitat damage in both Botswana’s elephant sanctuaries and in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, is visibly huge. There is no question that, because of the almost total removal of the original vegetation communities, caused by some four decades of abuse by too many elephants, the sustainable elephant carrying capacities of both the Botswana elephant sanctuaries, and Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, are now very much reduced. No longer can we say that Botswana can sustainably carry 7 500 elephants, or Hwange 5 000, for their sustainability levels are not what they used to be.

Something that is far more critical than inadequate elephant culling programmes, however, is the fact that both these important elephant sanctuary areas have been losing hundreds if not thousands of species of plants and animals every year – for four decades. The fact of there being far too many elephants in both these sanctuary areas, therefore, is negating the very purpose for which the game reserves were protected in the first place.

Tree species that are in an advanced stage of being permanently lost to the Botswana and Hwange ecosystems are too numerous to mention. They include baobab trees, all the big acacia trees, the kiat (mukwa), all the commiphora tree species, all the palms, and their entire riverine forest communities. Major animal species that are sensitive to habitat change, and which are inevitably on their way out, too, include the bushbuck, the tssessebe, and the roan and sable antelope. Even zebra, buffalo and giraffe populations are declining. Arboreal animals – like galagoes and bush babies – are disappearing, as are all those species of birds that live in forest under-story habitats. Big eagles like the Martial and Bateleur are declining. And what is happening to the invertebrates – the butterflies, beetles and other creepy-crawlies - is anybody’s guess. The list of potential probable extinctions goes on and on and on.

Now that South Africa’s Kruger National Park has also stopped its erstwhile very effective elephant culling programme, therefore – and is about to replace it with an untested cyclic elephant management experiment - should make responsible South African nature-lovers sit up and take notice.
 

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