Original post The Star Newspaper
Secondary Source africanhuntinginfo.com
By Peter Borchert
Culling elephants has been an accepted management practice in many parts of Africa since the 60s.
Kruger Park's managers of the day believed that the elephant population (which had grown steadily since the park's inception in 1926) should be stabilised at around 7 000 individuals if severe habitat alteration were to be avoided.
Thus began an annual cull which resulted in about 17 219 elephants being killed or removed from 1967 to 1996. In the eyes of many African and international conservation agencies and individuals, culling as a management strategy had always been unpopular, so when SANParks announced a moratorium on killing, it was widely applauded.
Culling has always been unpopular
The decision was taken after a SANParks-initiated debate on the ethics and morality of killing elephants, but also influencing the stance was the fact that they were moving away from the "7 000 elephants is the correct number for Kruger" approach, to arguing for strategies aimed at managing num-bers at either low, moderate or high levels in different parts of the park.
They also wished to change these areas and numbers through time, pending the response of biological diversity to elephant numbers. But what is this obsession with the number 7 000 that has dominated several decades of Kruger Park's history?
The number represents about "one elephant per square mile" (roughly 0,4 elephants per square kilometre), a calculation based on personal observation and a research paper published in 1969, two years after culling started.
Currently, elephant numbers in Kruger are increasing at near maximal rates, and are now well above one elephant per square mile, showing that resources are not limiting their numbers. This may be due to management actions such as fencing that override natural limitations.
Others have argued that 7 000 is much too high as impact was already apparent when elephants reached this number. From population trends elsewhere it is unlikely, without strong human intervention, that Kruger's population will stabilise before a density of at least one elephant per square kilometre (that's 2,6 per square mile) is reached.
'One elephant per square mile'
By then the population will have grown to about 20 000 and the park's savannahs will look very different to the way they do now, but they will be savannahs nonetheless. SANParks conservation managers have argued that to allow such a scenario to play out - in effect, to let nature take its course - would be un-advisable. Accordingly, they proposed that culling again be available as a management option.
Not surprisingly, the local and international media had a field day with this news and the voice of protest, especially from animal rights campaigners, raised itself in no uncertain terms, some actively branding South Africa as "a last outpost of wildlife tyranny" should elephant culling occur.
The Humane Society of the United States has already publicly stated that if culling takes place, they will advise their 8,5-million members not to visit South Africa.
Amongst the more pragmatic of the conservation NGOs this confrontational stance is decriedbut the threat and the serious impact such an action would have on the local tourism industry cannot be taken lightly.
In the face of this protest Marthinus van Schalkwyk, South Africa's Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, found himself between a rock and a hard place his conservation colleagues at SANParks were urging the need to consider culling while his other portfolio, tourism, would be threatened by such an action.
Wisely, he put together an advisory board of experts and has heard their counsel over the intervening months. In February he announced that more scientific information was needed.
Some argue that he is simply buying time, many think it a sensible move. Elephant impacts in Kruger are being monitored; if this process continues over the next three years, the results may suggest strategies less traumatic than culling.
One possible outcome is that with the advent of the Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park (which embraces Kruger, a million-hectare slice of land in Mozambique and a section of Zimbabwe), elephants may begin to exploit these "new lands", resulting in a more dynamic ebb and flow of elephant numbers within a more "natural" migratory system (see The Big Picture on page 76).
The way in which events unfold could well be a watershed in conservation thinking and action, not only in South Africa but in elephant range states across the African continent.
This article was originally published on page 2 of Saturday Star