Culling Elephants In KNP

'Elephant Culling In Kruger National Park: The Story Behind The Controversy' by Ron Thomson


Early in 2008 the South African Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), Martinus van Schalkwyk, finally announced that he had approved culling as ONE of the options for the management of elephants in Kruger National Park (KNP). This was the culmination of several years of open public debate during which all shades of opinion had been aired.

The announcement caused an uproar in animal rights organisation (ARO) circles and there has been an intensification of ARO propaganda demanding that this decision be reversed. So the nature-loving members of South Africa's general public have, once again, been thrown into confusion and uncertainty.

Controversy, confusion and uncertainty - the energy on which the animal rights confidence industry thrives - will continue to fester in everybody's hearts and minds until the need for elephant management is properly understood and accepted by a rational world public at large. This may seem an impossible task but you don't have to be a rocket scientist to understand the fundamental ecological factors involved. Neither do you need to be a genius to understand the factors that influenced van Schalkwyk's decision. All you need is simple common sense. It would help if you also had some understanding about the historical background that led to the present state of affairs.

There were NO elephants in KNP in 1900. There are, however, records of elephants having been shot in the region throughout the 19th Century and before, but not many. This begs the question: Why were there not lots and lots of elephants in the region at the beginning of the 20th Century?

The probable reason for the lack of elephants in KNP the 19th Century and before is the fact that there are much richer soils, more palatable vegetation, and so much better nutrition, in areas that are not too distant from the park boundaries. Indeed, it was precisely because KNP was NOT endowed with much agricultural potential that it was set aside for wildlife.

In years gone by, therefore, elephants were more greatly attracted to the richer habitats that existed in those areas some distance from the park. The park was probably then used by only a few elephants for seasonal visitations when certain trees were bearing fruit and the preponderance of these visitors were probably bulls.

Hunters have been blamed for the elephants' demise in KNP prior to 1900. The fact is, however, there is no record of large numbers of elephants ever having been killed in the region.

There is also the fact that the ivory hunters of Africa's early history did not kill many elephant cows and calves. So, if the hunters shot only the elephant bulls whatever happened to the cows and calves?

The fact is, nobody really knows very much about the historical facts concerning the disposition of elephants in what became KNP, prior to the 20th Century.

What we do know is that ten elephants, one group of four and one group of six, took up occupation of the KNP’s Olifants-Letaba river junction area in 1905. They were refugees from heavy ivory-hunting pressures that were being exerted on the remnants of an elephant population that lived in adjacent southern Mozambique at that time.

Although there is no record of any other elephants coming into KNP after 1905 it is probable that others also migrated into the park in later years. The total elephant population base in the early 1900s must then have been in the region of +/-100 for the herds to have achieved the numbers that were extant in the 1950s.

The elephants of the Olifants-Letaba river junction area increased in number and they dispersed into the rest of KNP, over the next 53 years. It was not until 1958 that elephants were reported to have occupied 'every corner of KNP'.

The dispersal pattern was not uniform. The herds moved in spearheads, in different directions, leaving gaps of country in between that remained, for long periods, unoccupied by elephants. These gaps eventually filled up as a consequence of lateral dispersal of the ever-increasing population. The average rate of population dispersal was 6.2 kilometres per year.

By the early 1960s the scientists of KNP were becoming restless. They were by then recording unsustainable habitat damage caused by too many elephants from regions all over KNP. This was discussed at an ordinary meeting of the National Parks Board (now SANParks) in 1965 when the then Director, Dr Rocco Knobel, made a decision that elephant culling would take place with the purpose of maintaining the elephant population at its then current number.

"This policy," he said, "would be maintained until the (then) developing artificial game water supply programme had been completed. When that stage was reached," he said, "the numbers of elephants the park should carry would be properly determined."

The population number agreed upon in 1967 was 7000 elephants. It is important to understand that this was an arbitrary figure not determined, in any way, by what the scientists of the day considered to be the sustainable elephant carrying capacity of the KNP habitats.

At this juncture it is equally necessary to record the findings of a vitally important research programme. In 1944, when there were no elephants in the area, a study was conducted to determine the number of mature top-canopy trees in the Satara region of the park. The results showed there were then, on average, 13 top-canopy trees per hectare (2.4 acres).

Mature top-canopy trees are important for a number of reasons. First of all, when they form a continuous canopy, they create a habitat that is suitable for a large number of strictly arboreal creatures such as night apes, various reptiles and a whole host of invertebrates. They also provide special foods for a wide variety of other animals and birds.

Another and most important factor about top-canopy trees is that, because their canopies provide shade, they create a special environment for a huge variety of plants that cannot tolerate direct sunlight. These under-story plants, in turn, provide the vital micro-climates for yet other plants that require even less light. So, altogether top-canopy trees create unique and vital habitats that sustain a whole range of plant species that are especially adapted to various degrees of shade. There is a concomitant host of animal species that is especially adapted to these shade-loving habitats, and to no other.

Elephant culling commenced in KNP in1967. The target was to first reduce the elephant population to 7000 and then to maintain it at 7000. This was accomplished by removing the calculated annual increment every year. After 1967 some 350 to 500 elephants were culled every year.

This programme was maintained until 1994 when, due to heavy animal rights pressure on the then Director of SANParks, Dr. Robbie Robinson, elephant culling was discontinued. The last elephant cull was carried out in 1994.

It is important to record that, by 1994, the development programme to create a blanket of artificial game water supplies in KNP had long been completed. There had been, however, no re-assessment of the elephant carrying capacity of the habitats. Also, no revision of the elephant-culling programme had been carried out. By default, therefore, everybody including the general public of South Africa, were conditioned into believing that the elephant carrying capacity of KNP was and remains 7000.

The facts do not support this figure. The Satara top-canopy tree study tells us why. As mentioned above, in 1944 there were 13 top-canopy trees in the Satara study area. This had not changed by 1958 when the first pilot elephant bulls visited the area. The first elephant cow herds became established there in 1960. The Satara top-canopy tree population had been reduced to 9 trees per hectare by 1965. Culling commenced in 1967 whereafter the elephant population was maintained for the next 25 years at 7000 animals.

Despite the continued elephant culling programme, the Satara top-canopy trees had been reduced to 3 trees per hectare by 1974 and to 1.5 trees by 1981. This represents a decline, in just 20 years, of 80 percent. No further assessments were made until 2008. It was then reported that the woodland trees at Satara had been reduced by 95 percent (to 0.78 trees per hectare).

Faced with these kinds of facts no responsible and reasonable person can say that KNP's elephant population, now standing at approximately 15 000, is in any way sustainable. Nobody can say that 7000 elephant is/was the true carrying capacity of the original habitats, which were reasonably stable and healthy until about 1960. Nobody who understands the ecological implications can deny that, if current trends continue, KNP faces the extinction of huge numbers of plant and animal species and eventual total ecological collapse. In fact, Kruger National Park is on the road to becoming a desert!

Ipso facto, the KNP elephant population needs to be quickly reduced to a number that is considerably less than 7000. If this does not happen the KNP habitats will have absolutely no chance of recovery from the last 50 years of very serious elephant population mismanagement.


To cull or not to cull? That is the question.

South Africa's Kruger National Park (KNP) currently supports 15 000 elephants. How many elephants should the park be carrying? This is a question that many different people will answer in just as many different ways. When one looks not just at elephant numbers but at elephant numbers and the effect those numbers have on the habitats that support them, however, the true state of affairs becomes much more clear.

In 1965 the KNP scientists voiced loud enough and passionate enough concerns about irreparable habitat damage to persuade the then Director of SANParks to introduce elephant culling. There were then 7000 elephants in the park.

Ten years earlier, in 1955, the elephants' use of their habitat was considered sustainable. Certainly, there were then no statements of concern about serious habitat damage.

Throughout the last 50 years Kruger's elephant population has increased at an average rate of about 6.8 percent annually. This means the population has been doubling its numbers about every ten years. Extrapolating this equation back in time tells us that KNP's elephant population, in 1955, was half what it was in 1965. In the mid-1950s, therefore, KNP's elephant population can be calculated to have been about 3500.

To put this observation in perspective of the elephant culling controversy, we can say that 3500 elephants were not causing irreparable damage to the healthy habitats in 1955. Since then KNP's habitats were thrashed by far too many elephants over a period of 50 years. The damage, in fact, has been so severe that what is left of these habitats, today, can no longer sustainably support even 3500 elephants. To allow the habitats to recover, therefore - which makes good management sense - KNP will now have to reduce its elephant numbers to a level that is considerably less than 3500.

KNP, in fact, needs to reduce its overall elephant population to something like 2500 animals and the population needs to be maintained at this level for at least the next fifty years. There is no other solution to this vexing conundrum if KNP's current biological diversity is to survive into posterity. Anything less than the achievement of this drastic management objective will only delay the inevitable. Unless the habitats of KNP are allowed to recover, the national park will end up becoming a desert.

The truth of the matter is that we have been trying to carry too many elephants for far too long in practically every national park in Africa - for the purpose of satisfying the needs of tourism and for satisfying the emotional and irrational needs of urban people world-wide. For this we have the animal rights brigade to thank!

The reality of the matter is that wildlife management authorities throughout Africa have been criminally guilty of neglecting our wildlife management priorities for more than half a century.

Our wildlife management priorities are:

  • FIRST: Consideration for the health and stable maintenance of the SOIL because without soil no plants will grow.
  • SECOND: Consideration for the health and stable status of PLANTS (and of a healthy and stable diversity of habitats) for without plants there can be no animals and without a wide variety of healthy and stable habitats there can exist only a very poor biological diversity.
  • THIRD: Consideration for the healthy maintenance and stable status of wild ANIMAL populations. Note animals come third, and last, on the list of our wildlife management priorities.

Tourism fits into this picture only at the very end of the conundrum. Sustainable tourism in a national park is only possible when it is imposed on an ecosystem that is properly managed with an eye towards stability and sustainability. This means that the soils, the plants and the animals in a national park must be managed in such a way that a stable state of dynamic equilibrium is established before tourism is even considered. And tourism must never be allowed to take precedence over this primary wildlife management objective.

Few of Africa's national parks meet these criteria. Tourism seems to have become the raison d'etre of Africa's national park authorities and of African government administrations. Avoiding conflict with the irrational and vociferous anti-elephant culling demands of our animal rights adversaries has also become a major factor. Today, nobody seems to have the intestinal fortitude to publicly reject the animal rightists' bizarre ideology. Nobody seems to have the temerity to call the animal rights movement what it really is - The biggest confidence industry the world has ever known! It has NO place in responsible wildlife management practice.

Wildlife management is the action man takes to juggle the three elements of the equation - the soil, the plants and the animals - in order to achieve desirable man-conceived objectives. The most important management objective in a national park must be the maintenance of the park's biological diversity. No other objective is more important.

There are very few national park habitats in Africa that will survive if the elephant population density is allowed to exceed about one elephant per two square miles (or about one elephant per five square kilometres). Even that kind of elephant population density, in many of our more arid parks, may not be sustainable.

This explanation will be a bitter pill for many people to swallow. Nature-loving people in society, however, should teach themselves to look at difficult wildlife management problems, such as this one, with complete objectivity. If the general public cannot do this, or will not do this, the right management solutions will never be applied. Pure emotion cannot solve wildlife management problems.

The nature-loving man-in-the-street still has to learn that so-called political transparency and public participation cannot be used to solve wildlife management problems. Finding workable solutions to difficult wildlife problems requires expert consideration of the hard realities of ecological facts and most ordinary citizens do not have the knowledge or the expertise to pass judgement on the complex decisions that sometimes have to be made.

Political transparency and public participation, when used to determine emotional wildlife management decisions, satisfy only our political masters and the animal rights brigade. It satisfies the politicians need to interact with their constituents and to thereby gain points for the next election. It satisfies the animal rightist organisations because it gives them an official public platform on which to disseminate their often false and/or distorted propaganda in order to solicit funds from the gullible public.

Only wildlife management experts, the people who live with and who know their subject, can possibly determine what kind of wildlife management solutions can, and should, be applied to achieve desired-by-man wildlife management objectives. Expecting the general public to pass judgement on how the KNP, or any other national park, should manage its elephant population is no different to society demanding a public referendum to approve how a brain surgeon should carry out his expert medical procedures.

The general public needs to be informed about our wildlife problems. YES! And those of us who understand the issues involved should be spending time in educating the public about the principles and practices of wildlife management. Few of us are doing this. Fewer still have done this in the past. The blame for this whole debacle, therefore, rests upon our shoulders. It is our fault that the public is so misinformed today. Those of us who have lived with these kinds of problems all our lives and who understand them, have a duty to the wildlife that has sustained our spirits throughout our lives, to create a better informed public. We have nobody else to blame for the current deficiently informed public than ourselves!

It is ludicrous, therefore, for government to prime the general public into believing that the man-in-the-street can provide the Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, and SANParks, with any kind of constructive advice with regards how KNP should manage its excessive elephant population problem.

Yet, when one examines how this whole debacle came about, this is exactly what South Africa's Minister van Schalkwyk has been doing for the past several years. He has also been cow-towing closely and dangerously, with some of the biggest and most irrational animal rights groups in the country. He has been listening to academic fellow travellers of the animal rights brigade, too, some of whom are considered by the public to be eminent professors. At the same time he has ignored the advice of his own wildlife management scientists in KNP.

In order to placate his concerned electorate Minister van Schalkwyk has said that although elephant culling will be permitted in KNP, it will be used only as a last resort. He has also said that no "wholesale slaughter" of elephants will be permitted.

In the face of the obvious need to remove more than 10000 elephants from the KNP landscape and considering the minister's ill-conceived prescriptions, it will be apparent that the kind of elephant management practices that are urgently needed in KNP will never be applied. Kruger National Park, therefore, will become a desert now, sooner rather than later.

Ron Thomson

Elephant Herd

Recommended Reading

A Game Warden's Report

A Game Warden's Report by Ron Thomson. There isn't anybody who loves wildlife and/or who works with wildlife, in Africa, therefore, who can afford not to have this book on their bookshelves. More books by Ron Thomson

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