Following the "Big Elephant Debate" in Berg-en-Dal in October last year, some 50 scientists from South Africa, the rest of Africa and abroad got together last week to discuss elephants and biodiversity in South Africa's national parks, and specifically the Kruger National Park (KNP).
"We looked at the positive and negative roles of elephants in a system and tried to identify weaknesses and gaps in our existing management plans and identify where more work needs to be done," says Danie Pienaar, head of Scientific Services in the KNP. In addition the group's inputs will be used in the management plans for the various parks where elephants roam. Prof Kevin Rogers, co-author of the book 'The Kruger Experience' facilitated the workshop.
Prof Rogers in an ecology professor at the University of the Witwatersrand who has conducted research in Kruger for the last 18 years, mainly focussing on rivers. He said there was broad agreement amongst the attendees that a decision about the elephants in South Africa's protected areas needs to be made soon. If the situation is left as is, the elephant numbers in five years would probably reach 20 000 and in 10 years there would be about 30 000 elephants in Kruger.
In the past, elephant management decisions were largely based on carrying capacity. If carrying capacity is defined in terms of food only, the KNP could theoretically accommodate 50 000 to 60 000 elephants. However in recent years, scientific focus has moved from big species to biodiversity, a more holistic view. The "carrying capacity" at which biodiversity is maintained will be much lower than a food related "carrying capacity" but scientists do not have a good knowledge of the biodiversity consequences of elephant impacts at this stage. The group agreed that too many elephants in the KNP can have a detrimental impact on the biodiversity.
The impact of elephant on biodiversity is context specific so that the impact on the vegetation in Kruger, for example will differ from that in Addo and again from that in Tsavo. In Kruger the structure of the trees could change over time from large trees to shrubs and this, in turn, will have a knock-on effect, as some 40 percent of Kruger's bird species are dependent on tall trees for some part of their life cycle.
Many scientists feel that elephant numbers in Kruger are already too high but others say that elephant will always eliminate some species so that the real question is at what stage does it matter. "This brought the delegates to the next major point of agreement and that is the need for an adaptive management approach," says Prof Rogers. "Essentially this means learning by doing."
The workshop expressed its high regard for Kruger's present adaptive management plan and recognised Kruger's management objectives as ranking with the world's best. The meeting agreed that a fixed number, e.g. 7000 elephants for a reserve, is unnatural as elephant numbers will always fluctuate in nature.
Unfortunately South Africa's national parks are too small for these fluctuations to take place naturally and the need for an adaptive management approach is apparent. They felt that there was a need to do something sooner rather than later. If something is done now, it will take about five years before the effect is noticeable. The group agreed that with new ideas developed in the workshop, they could produce estimates within six to nine months of how soon and how much effect the elephant population can have on Kruger's biodiversity.
These figures will provide a much more scientific basis for management decisions than is available now. While science will play a role in determining the future of SANParks' elephants, so will economic, political and social considerations have to be taken in to account when environmental Minister Martinis van Schalkwijk decides, some time this year, on what course of action to take with one of South Africa's much loved and certainly, most talked about species.