Culling... A Dreaded Word
After reading some reactions to an undated report published on the Lonely Planet website, written by a volunteer at Tembe Elephant Park (TEP) during a lion population management operation, Africam feels that it needs to contribute to the discussion and also reiterate the professional manner of all associated organisations.
Normally we would leave the discussion to take its natural course as espoused by the community and as seen on front of the camera. However there is concern that not all the facts are out there, or at the least they have been quoted out of context. Having said that, the article is mostly well written apart from one or two issues which need some clarification.
Population control is of course in part the 'nice' term for culling – a tool used as part of wildlife conservation best practices the world over. It is a very complex, critical and most obviously an emotional subject. So, first and foremost, some background and context is needed.
Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW - see HERE and HERE for more detail ) is the government authority that is on the ground and responsible for TEP, where Africam has a hi tech camera system installed. EKZNW is considered a world leading authority on many aspects of wildlife conservation, and they manage to do that with very limited resources. The organization was formed in 1947 and has a number of legislated responsibilities which includes population control - a critical task as land designated for conservation becomes ever scarcer as human populations encroach. Even so, wildlife conservation efforts in the area stretch back over 100 years meaning there is a lot of experience in managing wildlife resources in the most efficient and sustainable manner possible. It must also be stressed that it is a criminal offense for anybody to kill predators (and other wildlife) without express permission from the authority and even then it is highly restricted as well as being monitored with strict conditions.
Concerning the lions themselves, the most recent history is that the lions were reintroduced in 2002 after hunting had decimated the entire population many years ago. The return of lion to Tembe is to make the park a genuine “Big Five” destination, thus helping to stimulate ecotourism to the reserve and region, along with bringing the lion back to where they once roamed freely. Tourism is an important source of revenue for wildlife management as are central government contributions.
Two male lions were captured at Madikwe Game Reserve and then placed into the Pilanesberg Boma in May 2002. The males were unrelated and from different prides, but remained together as a pair. The two female lions are both from Pilanesberg National Park, North West Province. They are half sisters from the same pride (different mother). It is understood they were also captured around the same time as the males. The idea behind this was to maximize the genetic diversity being introduced to Tembe. This also reduced conflict between lions at Tembe and thus the total population quickly grew to 15. Future genetic introduction apparently took place in 2009 according to the government's Lion Management Plan.
This population of lion is now considered almost stable (which now apparently number between 36 and 40 ) but has to be managed on a day to day basis to ensure that the surrounding community is safeguarded and most importantly that the species can be maintained in equilibrium within itself and the rest of the park. So some present actions taken to monitor this balance are:
- Daily monitoring of the swamp area to allow reed cutters safe access to the reserve.
- Daily fence patrols to ensure the lions do not escape.
- Positive confirmation of each lion on a weekly basis.
This would explain the collars that you see on some lions.
It needs to be said that lion are very prolific & efficient breeders and a saturation point can be reached fairly quickly, possibly too quick in some instances to establish strong pride formations. Also of concern is the ratio between male & female. Too many lions in a given area can lead to a number of negative consequences to the lions themselves one of which is they will simply begin to kill each other. Most reserves have a similar problem.
Another potential negative development is that by allowing continued inter-breeding past the 4th generation compromises not only the long term pride structure, but also the genetics of the lion populations in a given area. Genetics being the key word here, as statistics show the generations of lions breeding amongst their own family lineage begins to break down by the 5th generation. For a more serious discussion of the issues around inter breeding see this article.
TEP itself is surrounded by communities, making it a primary concern to ensure that the lions do not leave the area. Additionally local farmers, with their livelihood threatened, will generally kill the predators and not always in an appropriate or effective manner, in the process radically ratcheting up the risk of further bad encounters between animal & human. The reintroduction also presents other challenges including a number of potential ecological consequences. Lion are a part of the savanna ecosystems, and have an impact on the ecosystem in Tembe as they do in other areas, however the habitat and prey composition is different to that found in other reserves with lion. Keeping that in mind, EKZNW management are continually assessing the impact that the lion have on key potential prey species such as suni. Conservation of this antelope is one of the primary objectives of the Tembe Management Plan.
Such careful planning and scientific intervention is now highly necessary, because unfortunately, man in his ultimate knowledge and wisdom has managed to interfere with the natural flow of nature. We have changed natural migration patterns, taken animals from their natural habitats and done it for the most part without any concern for the future of wildlife. Can we just back off and let it fix itself? We'd like to but there is almost no where to back off to. How can we keep many of the animals from becoming extinct as a result of our selfish need to expand? How can we protect those that are still living in the wild? EKZNW is focused on doing just that.
One must conclude that population control is necessary and there are of course several options. Relocation (sold or for free) is one but requires a legitimate destination (a lot are not acceptable as they are seen as “lion farms” where they could be victim of some seriously nefarious acts – e.g. Canned hunting). It is also becoming increasingly costly and difficult due to recent law changes. In addition, it is important to keep in mind that lions are not endangered in most parts of SA anyway, apart from perhaps limited genetic diversity. The net effect is there is low demand for lion on other conservation land.
Contraception is another and is quickly becoming popular. Male circumcision has been tried but not to great success. Female contraception is producing much better results and is easier – in fact this is already being introduced at TEP. Be that as it may, this approach requires some long range planning and monitoring which is not always opportune once a problem has developed.
But at the end of the day euthanasia may become necessary for any number of the reasons stated. When this does become necessary, strict procedures need to be followed to ensure it is not cruel and its impact is minimized.
Of course the unfortunate statement in the said article that “culled animals are stuffed & sold to local dignitaries” does not necessarily characterize the actual process as it is. All carcasses will be used to generate maximum revenue which is then pumped directly back into the conservation effort as well as communities that live in or nearby such wildlife reserves. You don't have to be a dignitary to purchase such a product should you be that way inclined.
Any way you look at it, its a sad thing that the killing of any big cat has become necessary to ensure the species survival. Weighing out the alternatives versus this practice has and will continue to be looked at and tried in order to keep the mighty lion population from deteriorating. While this is a heart wrenching choice for the lay person to accept or comprehend, it is at this point, one of the chosen modes of ensuring the lions roar continues to be heard.
Some of us watching the cams have no idea the energy and constant fight there is in South Africa to conserve and protect the survival of healthy animals. Yes, man has managed to cause this dilemma, but the rangers, conservationists and dedicated people that are working at the reserves are desperately trying to keep what is left from being totally destroyed. We are quick to judge the actions of others, but ultimately the theme of trying to protect what is left of the world of nature is something we all can agree on.
In conclusion, it must be noted that Africam is not an authority on wildlife management, but we do have exposure to whats its like on the ground as it were, behind the camera. What has been difficult here is to pin down the exact date this incident took place. One incident did occur where it appears that proper procedure was not followed to the letter and this is of course subject to official scrutiny. When and if the results are made public Africam will let you know. Nevertheless, Africam are very sensitive with whom and where they work and undertook to do some investigating. From this it was determined, with all the information available, that no illegal, unethical or cruel practices occurred.
We hope that this helps shed light on the issues facing wildlife management authorities in Tembe as well as countless other wildlife protected areas. Feed back is most welcome with the idea of adding value and further education to this discussion.
Please note that any opinions expressed here are entirely Africam's.