By Carole Landry
Ian Whyte watched in awe one day as a hungry elephant stripped the bark off three marula trees in the Kruger National Park, hammering at nature with all its might.
"Within a few minutes and in just one feeding session, that bull killed three trees," recalled Whyte, a research manager and elephant specialist who has worked here for 36 years.
The park is considering a plan to kill thousands of elephants that are destroying forestland, unleashing a domino effect on eco-systems that is putting other species in jeopardy.
In 10 years the elephant population has nearly doubled to about 12 500, far more than the 7 000 that authorities estimate is the maximum that the park of two million hectares can sustain.
For Whyte, there is no option but to reduce the number of elephants if the park is to maintain its biodiversity.
"I don't know anyone who becomes excited about killing elephants, but is it better to do nothing and risk losing other species?"
Whyte cites studies showing that the number of tall trees in the park has declined, including knob thorns where raptors nest and fever trees favoured by open-billed storks. He says they were smashed by elephants.
In the northern plains of the park, tall trees can be seen towering over an enclosed area partitioned in 1967 for rare roan antelope. Vegetation on the elephants' home range on the other side of the fence has been reduced to shrub.
South Africa has been the target of animal rights groups since announcing six months ago that it was considering lifting the moratorium imposed in 1995 on elephant culling.
"This is a highly emotional issue," said JP Louw, spokesperson for the department of environmental affairs and tourism. "We need to get past the emotion and find out what is best for biodiversity in South Africa."
Animal rights groups have lost no time in pointing out that culling is cruel. Using helicopters, a team would swoop down on a herd with a marksman who would put down the matriarch with a single shot to the head.
The remaining elephants that will gather around the fallen matriarch or wander aimlessly nearby are easy targets for a fast kill.
Because elephants have such strong family bonds, park managers think the most humane method is to kill an entire herd, including calves, in one quick cull rather than allow traumatised animals to survive. Kruger also plans to sell the tusks, hides and meat.
At the forefront of the lobby against culling, the International Fund for Animal Welfare says the park has not sufficiently explored alternatives.
Some of these include contraception and the creation of megaparks.
But Whyte said two trials of contraception at Kruger had generated a slew of problems, including questions over changes to the elephants' family structure through population control.
He brushed off suggestions that elephants would migrate naturally to other areas after calling the Kruger home for decades.
The government's decision is expected before the end of the year and will have regional implications as Botswana and Zimbabwe could follow its example.
The government is trying to secure support from other African countries to buttress its stance. "We want an African solution to this problem," said Louw
(derived from africanhuntinginfo.com)