The decision to allow elephant culling after a 13-year ban is one of the most controversial in South Africa’s conservation history. While animal rights activists think it will lead to an elephant genocide, conservationists believe there is reason to be optimistic. By Alison Westwood.
Less than 100 years go, elephants had almost disappeared from South Africa. When James Stevenson-Hamilton arrived at the fledgling reserve that would become the Kruger National Park in 1902, he couldn’t find even one. But conservation in this country has done an incredible job of bringing back the elephant. There are now over 20,000 in South Africa, about 14,000 of which are in Kruger.
There are two major snags to this success story. Firstly, elephants are what’s known as environmental engineers. They have such a large impact on ecosystems they transform them – possibly irreversibly. Secondly, elephant populations don’t appear to self-regulate. Left to themselves, elephants proliferate. Together, these qualities could be a recipe for a conservation disaster.
The why and how of population control
Ecologists believe habitats can sustain only a certain number of a species without damage – this is called carrying capacity. If carrying capacity is exceeded, the environment is damaged, plants and animals die, and carrying capacity shrinks. Kruger’s estimated carrying capacity for elephants is about 7,000. This figure is based on research published in 1969 and represents a concentration of 0,4 elephants a square kilometre.
Back in the 1960s, there was one principal tool South Africa’s park rangers used to limit elephant populations: their rifles. Between 1966 and 1994, over 16,000 elephants were culled in the Kruger Park. But in 1995, public pressure resulted in a ban on elephant culling in South Africa and a new elephant management policy for Sanparks.
This focused on elephant impact rather than elephant numbers. Keeping to an overall carrying capacity was no longer as important as achieving a range of elephant impact by maintaining different densities in different areas at different times. However, it didn’t limit population growth.
Ten years later, almost everyone agreed there were far too many elephants. Translocation was no longer practicable: there were too few places left to send elephants and moving them created more populations to control. Contraception was also unsatisfactory: it can’t reduce existing numbers and is only viable for populations of 200 or less. (Elephant contraception relies on regular booster injections. In large parks with many elephants, it’s almost impossible to ensure the right individual is injected at the right time.)
An elephant round table
In 2005, Sanparks presented a new elephant management plan – and it included culling. There were immediate public outcries and threats of tourism boycotts. Tasked with the tightrope act of devising a policy for elephant management, the Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, realised he needed two things: more time and more information.
He bought both by calling together the world’s leading elephant scientists to form an Elephant Science Round Table. The scientists gathered all available information on elephants and published a detailed assessment. This, as well as hundreds of submissions from the public, resulted in significant revisions to the minister’s original policy document.
The final policy passed into law at the end of March 2008. It still allows culling, but is much clearer about the conditions under which it will be allowed and the methods which must be used. It says that culling ‘should be undertaken with caution and after all other alternatives have been considered.’ The alternatives are contraception, translocation and range manipulation. The latter includes putting up fences, managing water supplies, creating corridors for movement and giving elephants more room.
Proving the case for culling
The inclusion of culling as an option, no matter how restricted, is not acceptable to animal rights activists. Animal Rights Africa (ARA) is considering legal interventions, demonstrations and tourism boycotts. ‘Culling is a very drastic intervention,’ says Michele Pickover of ARA. ‘If you’re going to use an intervention like that, then you have to have complete proof and there is no compelling scientific case for culling.’
But this is one of the reasons Prof Rudi van Aarde, a scientist on the round table, says he’s delighted with the new norms and standards. Prof van Aarde has never been a proponent of culling. He believes it will be very tough to prove that elephants are having an irreversible impact or that their populations are too large – a requirement before culling can take place. ‘Elephants have never had an irreversible impact anywhere in Africa, not even in Tsavo – and definitely not in Kruger,’ says Prof van Aarde. ‘And one’s ability to count elephants is extremely limited, even in Kruger.’
Kruger’s carrying capacity could also be much greater than previously calculated. Prof Norman Owen-Smith, another round table member, referred to the figure of 7,000 animals as an ‘aesthetic carrying capacity’ rather than an ecological carrying capacity. ‘Based on observations in other parks, the elephant population in the Kruger Park could grow towards a regional density of around two animals per square kilometre,’ he said. In other words, Kruger could accommodate more than twice the elephants living there now.
In fact, the elephants’ greatest hope is a revision of our current ideas. Adaptive management, the best-practice approach, accepts that our knowledge is incomplete, that actions must be undertaken as experiments and must change with new information. The ‘experiment’ of culling had a long run and conservationists are now legally obliged to try all other options. So it should be premature to ask when elephant culling will start. It should be more appropriate to ask ‘if’.
What’s the fuss about?
Elephants are not the only animals to face the threat of culling in South Africa, but most people find the thought of killing them particularly disturbing. Highly intelligent, with strong family bonds and complex social structures, elephants share many qualities with humans. No-one who encounters them can fail to feel a sense of connection.
There’s something else we have in common. Humans change the landscape – frequently irreversibly – and, even with contraception, we don’t appear to self-regulate. In 1999, scientists at Cornell University proposed a carrying capacity of two billion people for the earth. Today our estimated population is over 6,6 billion. It may sound ridiculous to many people, but to some the issue of elephant culling begs the question: what about us?