Elephants To cull or not to cull That is the question

... an opinion by Ron Thomson

Ever since the SANParks director-of-theday succumbed to animal rights pressures, and stopped elephant culling in Kruger National Park in 1994, the practice of culling elephants, anywhere and everywhere, has been brought into question. In my opinion the answer to this question is NOT a matter for debate. In my opinion the decision to stop culling in 1994 was wrong grossly wrong.

Because the primary objective of a national park is to maintain species diversity the culling of excessive numbers of any and all wild animals species including elephants; especially elephants is imperative. Elephants - the largest land mammals on earth have a greater propensity to modify habitats than any other wild animal species when their populations exceed the sustainable carrying capacities of their habitats.

A decision NOT to cull an excessive elephant population will result in the local extinction of many plant and animal species. Such a decision, therefore, is simply NOT tenable in a responsible society. There are moves afoot to reinstate the elephant-culling programme in KNP. I would welcome, and strongly support, a reversal of the ill-conceived 1994 decision. Having said that, however, I have many misgivings about the new elephant management plan for Kruger. As I have been led to understand the management strategy, the new plan divides the park into six blocks.

There are two small botanical reserves, one in the north and one in the southwest. The rest of the park has been divided into four elephant management blocks each of some 2000 square miles. In the botanical reserves no irreversible changes to the plant communities will be tolerated. Whatever animals are causing unwanted damage, therefore, will be removed. Two strategies will be applied to the elephants in the four management blocks. In the two central blocks to begin with elephant population increases will be allowed to continue without interference.

This means the elephant numbers in those blocks will likely double every ten or eleven years. In the northern and southern blocks to begin with the elephant populations will be reduced at the same rate they are currently increasing (7 % p.a.). This means they will be reduced by 14 percent per annum - 7 % to remove the annual increment and another7 % to effect the required reduction. This means their population numbers will be halved, and halved again, every 10 years. In both cases what have been described as "Potential Thresholds of Concern" (TPCs) have been, or will be, determined.

These are upper and lower thresholds of environmental change caused by either too many elephants, or too few, that will be the decision-making parameters the scientists will use to determine when to reverse the respective management strategies in each block. The TPCs will be diverse. It has been suggested, for example, that one of the more important TPCs in the unmanaged blocks will be an 80 % reduction in the top canopy tree population. Conversely, in those blocks where elephants are being continuous culled, one of the TPCs will be the degree to which bush encroachment starts to change the character of the open grasslands.

Other TPC's will be gauged by an increase or decrease in particular bird species populations. The TPCs have all been carefully worked out by the Kruger scientists. When these TPCs have been reached in any one block the applied management strategy in that block will be reversed. Elephant populations that had been left unmanaged, therefore, will be subjected to culling and those that had been culled will be left to increase without interference until the next upper and lower TPCs had been reached, respectively. When that happens the management strategy will again be reversed.

Each block will be managed like this, individually, ad infinitum. The new elephant management plan for KNP is based upon sound scientific principles. It has been designed by managementorientated scientists who know what they are doing. And they who care deeply about achieving their desired objectives but they are not infallible. The strategy is designed NOT around elephants but around the need to manage elephants to enhance the park's bio-diversity. This is an important and welcome ideological change from the past. But, having said that, it is my opinion that the new plan has too many flaws.

Furthermore, contrary to the plan's stated objectives, it carries far too many risks for the park's bio-diversity. So much so, I feel uncomfortable with it. Against what baseline data, for example, is the 80% top-canopy-tree-destruction threshold (TPC) going to be measured? In my last article I stated the fact that the climax top-canopy tree population in a Satara study area had been reduced by 89%, as a result of elephant action, between 1960 and 1981. And in the 24 years since 1981 KNP's elephant population has increased well beyond the 7000 of 1981.

It is probable, therefore, that, in 2005, the 80% Top Canopy Tree TPC has already been grossly exceeded all over KNP! I am particularly concerned about what will happen to the park's baobabs which will suddenly all be attacked at the same time by each excessive elephant population cycle, in turn. The oldest of these giants are said to be in excess of 5000 years.

This means they were already 1 700 years old when Tutankhamen was pharoah in Egypt. In Zimbabwe's Gonarezhou, inside two years (circa.1970), 23% of the baobabs were killed and 71% were damaged to a greater or lesser extent - before the elephant population was reduced by some 50 percent! KNP needs to understand that this kind of thing WILL happen in Kruger, too, under the new elephant management regime they propose.

Finally, I am deeply concerned about the physiognomic structure of the KNP woodlands that will occur even when they are at their best during the proposed cyclic regime as a result of the new management plan (IF it works). Even if it DOES work, ultimately, the age structure of the woodlands will be no older than the length of one of its cyclic phases. This means that if it takes 50 years for the elephant population to be reduced from its maximum size to its lowest ebb, and then to return to its former maximum size again, the oldest tree in the woodlands of Kruger will, ultimately, be no older than 50 years.

Where, then, will birds like the Ground Hornbill and Pel's Fishing owl find large-enough nesting holes in which to breed? They currently nest in trees that are, arguably, 500 years old! These are but a handful of my many concerns about the new KNP elephant management plan. In my previous article I indicated that the number at which the Kruger elephants were held during the culling era - 7000 -was far above the park's sustainable elephant carry capacity.

I also suggested that the sustainable numbers would probably not exceed 5000; and that, perhaps, the management objective should be rather an optimum ecological (as opposed to sustainable) carrying capacity of, perhaps, just 3000. Either of these choices would necessitate a return to the old culling objective of maintaining a relatively low-number and stable elephant population. But I would retain the management focus on bio-diversity. I believe the BEST option for Africa's game reserves is "Biome Management".

A biome is an identifiable vegetation complex PLUS the animals that live within it. Most nature lovers will identify the vegetation complexes of biomes more readily than they will know the diversity of animal species that are adapted to live within them. On its own, each vegetation complex can be described as a particular "habitat" but a biome is more than just a habitat. A biome includes the particular animal species that live within that habitat. And whereas the habitats will remain the same (or very similar) from one game reserve to another, the animals that live within these same habitats can be very different.

Ron Thomson

Ron Thomson worked in the Rhodesian/Zimbabwe National Parks Department for 24 years where he rose to the rank of Provincial Game Warden i/c., Hwange National Park - Zimbabwe's premier game reserve. After leaving Zimbabwe in 1983 he worked as Chief Nature Conservation Officer for Ciskei and then, for three years, was the Director of the Bophuthatswana National Parks Board. He is a university-trained ecologist. For twenty years, before retirement, he was a registered Member of the Institute of Biology, London, and a Chartered Biologist for the European Union.

His African big game hunting experience is vast by anyone's standards. Ron has published five books. Their principle purpose is to create a betterinformed
public - better-informed, that is, about wildlife management affairs. The series of articles written by him, which will be appearing in The Kruger Park Times in the months ahead, are all excerpts from his latest book A Game Warden's Report. He can be contacted at tel./fax. (012) 2530 521; or magron@ripplesoft.co.za.

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