Kruger National Park has 12,500 elephants which is
5,000 more than is sustainable, according to park officials. This
is the issue that has bitterly divided game managers, conservationists
and animal rights groups for years.
We have fenced the wild areas in and with it the
game that live there. We have disturbed the natural balance and
elephant can no longer make their great migrations.
Elephants have few natural predators and live long
lives. They eat about 300kg of vegetable matter per day - and Kruger
alone has 12,500. This translates to 3,750 tons per day or 1.4
million tons per year
In Hwange where there are an estimated 30,000
elephant this translates to 9,000 per day and 3.3 million tons per
How can normal vegetation growth sustain that?
Following the "Big Elephant Debate" in Berg-en-Dal,
some 50 scientists from South Africa, the rest of Africa and abroad
got together to discuss elephants and biodiversity in South Africa’s
national parks, and specifically the Kruger National Park.
The South African government finally concluded it
would have to lift a moratorium on the culling of the native
elephant to cope with its booming population.
Amid protest and expressions of relief environment
minister Martinus van Schalkwyk announced the elephant had been a
victim of its own success with numbers growing from 8,000 to nearly
20,000 in national parks and private reserves in just over a decade.
He unveiled a new conservation plan and stressed
that the killing of excess animals would only be allowed once all
other available options - including translocation and contraception
- had been ruled out.
Contraception and translocation are both cost
prohibitive - and who wants a 4-ton animal that is going to
devastate your habitat? Hwange reportedly has 40,000 elephants and
the same problem faces the authorities there.
"Our department has recognised the need to maintain
culling as a management option, but has taken steps to ensure that
this will be the option of last resort that is acceptable only under
strict conditions," he said in a statement.
"The issue of population management has been
devilishly complex and we would like to think that we have come up
with a framework that is acceptable to the majority of South
The UK Guardian reports that debate over culling is
hugely emotive in South Africa, which is renowned for its wildlife,
and the announcement came after nearly three years of widespread
consultation and acrimonious debate.
Supporters of culling point to growing difficulties
in managing elephants in the country’s biggest and most famous game
reserve, Kruger National Park. It has more than 12,500 elephants,
5,000 more than is sustainable, according to park officials.
Elephants have huge appetites and reduce forests to
flatland by uprooting trees and trampling plants as they feed and
roam - threatening any park’s biodiversity.
But some conservationists argue the environmental
impact is less severe than is being claimed, while animal rights
campaigners, who have threatened to hold public protests if culling
goes ahead, say the elephants’ intelligence and their close-knit
social structures make culling deeply inhumane.
In 2005, the government recommended the cull of
5,000 elephants, which would have been the largest slaughter
anywhere in the world, causing a storm of protest and a rethink. The
new framework, which will permit culling from May 1, is likely to
see a far lower number of the animals destroyed. Van Schalkwyk said
that estimates of between 2,000 and 10,000 deaths were "hugely
A national park or private reserve will only be
allowed to cull with the approval of the authorities and an elephant
management specialist, who must be satisfied all other options are
These include contraception, a tricky process that
can cause females much distress, and relocation of entire elephant
families, which can be stressful for the animals and is expensive.
The removal of fences between the Kruger and parks in neighbouring
Mozambique will eventually help with migration into less congested
areas, but not soon enough, according to some experts.
Rob Little, conservation director at WWF in South
Africa, welcomed the announcement. He said the country’s rapid
elephant population growth of 6% - mainly due to the absence of
natural predators of mature animals - was unsustainable. If
unchecked, wildlife officials say the elephant count will top 34,000
"All available options must be available to control
the elephant population here and conserve the biodiversity of the
national parks," said Little. "The new framework imposes a hierarchy
of choices, and culling is right at the bottom. We are not going to
see a mass destruction of elephants here."
But other conservation groups were less
enthusiastic. "This does not give park managers carte blanche simply
to go out and kill if they think they have too many elephants," said
Christina Pretorius, communications manager at the International
Fund for Animal Welfare. "It is incumbent on the government to make
sure that this is policed properly."
Michele Pickover of Animal Rights Africa, which has
threatened to urge a tourist boycott if culling goes ahead, said
there was no scientific proof that the killing of elephants was
necessary or even effective in controlling the population.
"This is a sad day for the country. Elephants are
being treated as commodities by the government and game managers,"
The Kruger Park Times reported that Danie Pienaar,
head of Scientific Services in the KNP. said that:
"We looked at the positive and negative roles of
elephants in a system and tried to identify weaknesses and gaps in
our existing management plans and identify where more work needs to
Prof Rogers is an ecology professor at the
University of the Witwatersrand who has conducted research in Kruger
for the last 18 years, mainly focussing on rivers. He said there was
broad agreement amongst the attendees that a decision about the
elephants in South Africa’s protected areas needs to be made soon.
If the situation is left as is, the elephant numbers in five years
would probably reach 20 000 and in 10 years there would be about 30
000 elephants in Kruger.
In the past, elephant management decisions were
largely based on carrying capacity. If carrying capacity is defined
in terms of food only, the KNP could theoretically accommodate 50
000 to 60 000 elephants. However in recent years, scientific focus
has moved from big species to biodiversity, a more holistic view.
The "carrying capacity" at which biodiversity is maintained will be
much lower than a food related "carrying capacity" but scientists do
not have a good knowledge of the biodiversity consequences of
elephant impacts at this stage.
The group agreed that too many elephants in the KNP
can have a detrimental impact on the biodiversity.
The impact of elephant on biodiversity is context
specific so that the impact on the vegetation in Kruger, for example
will differ from that in Addo and again from that in Tsavo. In
Kruger the structure of the trees could change over time from large
trees to shrubs and this, in turn, will have a knock-on effect, as
some 40 percent of Kruger’s bird species are dependent on tall trees
for some part of their life cycle.
Many scientists feel that elephant numbers in Kruger
are already too high but others say that elephant will always
eliminate some species so that the real question is at what stage
does it matter. "This brought the delegates to the next major point
of agreement and that is the need for an adaptive management
approach," says Prof Rogers. "Essentially this means learning by
The workshop expressed its high regard for Kruger’s
present adaptive management plan and recognised Kruger’s management
objectives as ranking with the world’s best. The meeting agreed that
a fixed number, e.g. 7000 elephants for a reserve, is unnatural as
elephant numbers will always fluctuate in nature.
Unfortunately South Africa’s national parks are too small for
these fluctuations to take place naturally and the need for an
adaptive management approach is apparent. They felt that there was a
need to do something sooner rather than later. If something is done
now, it will take about five years before the effect is noticeable.
The group agreed that with new ideas developed in the workshop, they
could produce estimates within six to nine months of how soon and
how much effect the elephant population can have on Kruger’s