Business Day (Johannesburg)
Chris Van Gass
Addo National Park
Top environmentalist Prof Graham Kerley conceded yesterday that while he personally would not kill an elephant, there were circumstances in which culling could occur.
The question being asked by experts is whether overpopulation is sufficient justification.
Kerley is head of the centre for African conservation ecology at Nelson Mandela University and is one of Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk's scientific round table of elephant experts who are helping to formulate a draft elephant management plan.
Culling is the seven-letter word that everyone is trying to avoid since South African National Parks stopped this activity in 1995 amid intense pressure from elephant lobby groups and the concern that this form of population "management" might not wash scientifically.
It is still, however, one of four options being presented by Van Schalkwyk's experts.
Addo Park's elephant population has grown by 5,8% a year, which is "as fast as elephants can reproduce without involving Viagra", said Kerley.
This means that the elephant population in Addo, as in the Kruger National Park, will double in the next 13 years. By then, despite the planned expansion of the park to nearly double its present size, and relocation of some of its 450 elephants into the enlarged area, Addo will be in the same position it is in now -- under pressure to find more space or to revert to other methods of population control.
Kerley said there is no quick fix for the problem.
"Planning elephant conservation is a long-term process and there is no instant solution," he said. "Addo has the best-kept database of any elephant population in the world, but it also shows the effect they have on the environment."
Elephants are destructive to the habitat within which they move. Bulls eat up to 300kg of vegetation a day and cows 150kg.
Addo has found that 75 plant species have become rare and one, the Aloe Africana, has become extinct in the area roamed by elephants. So, in managing elephant populations, there will always be priorities about what is to be conserved.
Another consideration is the value of these animals when it comes to bringing in revenue. It is estimated that elephants can generate up to 70 times their value in money spent by tourists on accommodation, airfares and other costs.
Kerley said scientists were looking at a "toolbox" of solutions, including culling, relocation, enlarging the range of elephants and contraception (for cows) and vasectomies (for bulls).
A problem is that finding the ideal population for a park is dependent on the management plans for that park.