Is SA Planning an Elephant Bloodbath After the 2010 FIFA World Cup?

© Nigel Dennis

Chief Executive of SANParks, Dr David Mabunda expands...

After a series of uninformed, emotional and identical letters of accusations against South African National Parks (SANParks), I felt that it is necessary once again to pronounce on the issue of elephant culling in our national parks. I want to put paid to any attempts at fuelling a falsified campaign of disinformation from any quarters, nationally or internationally.

I would like to point out that the burgeoning elephant population and the entire wildlife asset in our national parks belong to the people of South Africa. It is a living testimony to the success story of the South African formal conservation tradition dating back to 1898 when the Sabi Game Reserve, a predecessor to the Kruger National Park (Kruger), was proclaimed to protect wildlife from decimation by indiscriminate bloodthirsty hunters.

Through our generosity and warmth we have welcomed the international community to share with us the splendour and inspiration of our nature-based tourism experiences borne from our wildlife, including the majestic elephants. Our success in resuscitating the elephant population which was almost extinct by 1900 has returned to haunt us, with our parks bursting at the seams with elephants. Within South Africa, there is little space left to translocate elephants!

Consultation And Legislation

SANParks has spent the last 12 years (since 1998) consulting South Africans and the international community on the subject of elephant management. A delegation led by the previous Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Honourable Marthinus van Schalkwyk, met with stakeholders in the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Switzerland in 2004/5 and solicited views on elephant management. The national and international consultations culminated in the publication of the 'Norms and Standards for the Management of Elephants in Private and State-owned Parks'.

Shortly after the publication of the 'Norms and Standard's the Minister appointed a Panel of Experts and convened several discussions and reviews where existing data and trends were analysed to formulate interim and long-term management strategies for management authorities' consideration. A book entitled "Elephant Management: A Scientific Assessment for South Africa" edited by R.J. Scholes and K.G. Mennell, with contributions from 62 experts has since been published.

The Assesssment, as the book is popularly referred to, did not generate new knowledge but sought to add value to existing information by collating, summarising, interpreting and communicating it in a form that would be useful to management authorities or decision-makers.

It should be emphasised that there is no one size fits all when it comes to managing elephants in different settings as circumstances vary from one park to another in terms of biome, ecosystem, physical factors, population size, area size, regional socio-economic and political dynamics.

However given the long history of Kruger in elephant research, case histories, and some Kruger elephant decisions and actions were largely quoted in the Assessment and employed as examples to illustrate various principles. These examples are well documented and have similar paralles in other parks elsewhere on the African continent.

Elephant Management: Learning By Doing

Management authorities are currently hard at work crafting and re-crafting their elephant management plans to include immediate to long-term management strategies and interventions. SANParks is no exception to the rule. The majority of waterholes in the Kruger are being closed to allow natural spatial and temporal variation processes to take their own course in regulating population dynamics for elephants.

The intention is to leave a few artificial waterholes for nature-based tourism purposes which is another objective for which the park is managed.

Management is vigorously pursuing the expansion of the natural habitat of some of our national parks through contractual parks with private land-owners and international co-operation with neighbouring countries through Transfrontier Parks. Since 1998 several breeding herds were translocated to neighbouring Mozambique into what is now called Limpopo National Park as an integral part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park including Kruger and Gonarhezou National Park in Zimbabwe.

Experiments on immuno-contraception were attempted with little success in a large place like Kruger but excellent results in smaller parks like Makalali, Botswana. There is room for further trial runs on contraception in smaller parks like Marakele. It has been established that contraception is unlikely to work in big parks like Kruger although nothing dictates against continuing the earlier pilots for better understanding.

Millions of the tax-payers' money have been spent on improving fences to prevent human-wildlife conflict in elephant-range parks and to protect sources of livelihoods for communities living adjacent to parks. Monitoring and evaluation programmes in the context of the adaptive management approach are in place to record data and trends for better understanding of elephant biology and ecology.

All these are interim measures that are already underway in some of our national parks pending the finalization and implementation of elephant management plans. The above interventions reduce the need for massive culls in future.

Culling Rumour

The rumour that is circulating through various communication channels that South Africa is planning a massive cull of between 7000 and 10000 elephants in Kruger is sheer sensation and mischief. It is absolutely heartless, impossible and unaffordable to physically cull so many animals even though culling is an approved intervention in the toolkit.

We have long ditched the notion of carrying capacity of capping the elephant population in Kruger to 7 500 because carrying capacity is a concept borrowed from Agriculture and inconsistent with progressive wildlife population management strategies. We accept, albeit this is a bone of contention, that the population levels in all our parks are currently higher densities than they should be. However to try and do a drastic reductions of populations now at these high levels would be tantamount to a mother trying to implement family planning procedures after she has given birth to 10 children.

We have coped until now with discernible negative impacts of a growing elephant population and the most logical step to follow is to proactively prevent it from growing further. The non-lethal methods described above are part of the proactive interventions contained in our management plan and many are being implemented. We also accept that some impacts are going to be subjected to a long recovery lag given the long elephant life cycles and may require limited experimental culling of a few breeding herds in specific areas to reduce undesired impacts on ecosystems.

It would be premature to thumb-suck exact numbers of breeding herds that might be culled and the management areas where these will emanate from because such detail can only come out of research and continuous monitoring exercises.

In dealing with the current challenges of elephant population management the citizens and tax-payers of South Africa, through their democratically elected representatives (Parliament), have decided to include culling as a management option of last resort for managing elephants. This decision raised the ire of the anti-culling lobby and no doubt it is behind the recent resurgence of rumours that we plan a massive elephant cull after the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Culling When Necessary

In conclusion we are not planning a post 2010 FIFA World Cup elephant bloodbath nor a trigger-happy willy-nilly extermination of elephants as if we are possessed. Culling will come one day as and when it becomes necessary and will be informed by scientific research, management imperatives and prevalent trends as an option of last resort.

As South Africans we are connected to one another and our elephants. We are as diverse in our opinion as our cultural diversity but we love elephants and they will always remain a key component of our national narrative, key driver in our ecosystems and an inalienable subset of the South African tourism experience.

Elephant Population Management

In and around Kruger National Park (KNP), the issue of elephant management is highly debated, as some scientists argue that there are too ma...more
Kruger National Park - South African Safari