Africa’s final battle to save its wildlife and its national parks

Another of the dangers to Africa’s wildlife and its national parks is the unasked for interference in the wildlife management practices of Africa’s sovereign states by fanatical animal rightist NGOs, and by government institutions in First World countries – like the US Fish and Wildlife Service (USF&WS). Let me now give you an example why!

Elephant and Black Rhino Management in Conflict.

The two most iconic big game animals in Africa are the elephant and the black rhinoceros but under all the non-intervention elephant management programmes that have been imposed on Africa since 1989 – ostensibly to ‘save’ the elephant from an imaged threat of extinction – the black rhino is now under severe threat.

Botswana’s total lack of any wildlife management programme over the last 50 years, demonstrates that when elephant populations are NOT kept ‘in balance’ with their habitats: (1) They eliminate ALL edible plants within a 10 mile (25 kilometre) radius of permanent water; (2) They destroy all the natural habitats within that zone; and (3) They leave a virtual desert in their wake.

The very open state of the vegetation surrounding game water supplies – in any and all African national parks that contain elephants – is visually stark and blatantly obvious even to lay people. It is especially noticeable to people (like me) who know what these habitats looked like 50 years ago. What ordinary visitors don’t see is the decimation of habitats that has taken place within the whole 10 mile radius from the water.

Elephants do three things when they kill mature trees: (1) They continue eating the leaves and the bark off their branches – until the trees die; (2) They prise off (with their tusks) and eat the bark that surrounds the tree trunk – which ‘ring-barks’ the tree and kills it; and (3) They push over, and/or break down, mature trees for a behavioural reason that has nothing to do with feeding.

When young elephant bulls leave their maternal breeding herds they enter a male world where rank means everything. At that stage of their lives they have NO rank at all. Over the next 25 years, however, they first achieve junior ranking by play-fighting – which quickly tells each of them which animals are the strongest in their peer groups.

As they grow into young adults, however, they start pushing over trees to demonstrate their personal strengths. Tragically, the rate at which these ‘symbolic’ trees are destroyed is determined by the number of bulls in each herd. The bigger the elephant population becomes, the more bull herds are created and the numerical size of each herd increases; and, pro rata, the more trees do they push over.

The biggest elephant bull herd I have ever seen numbered 109.

Let’s look at this in another way: If 100 bull elephants lived in a particular woodland for 10 days, they would do infinitely more damage to the mature trees – simply by pushing the trees over – than would 10 elephant bulls do if they lived in that same woodland for 100 days. In both cases we are looking at 1000 days of  ‘elephant pressure’. The significant difference between these two examples is the bull elephant population density.

It would appear that maturing bulls, always looking to achieve greater rank, are at all times prepared to demonstrate their strength to the other bulls in their herd; and they constantly inspire each other to push over more and more trees.   It would seem that when one bull hears and/or sees another bull pushing over a tree, the audible or visual stimulus spurs it to start pushing over trees, too – thus to compete! This is common behaviour in bull society. And nothing is eaten off these trees!

The smaller bull herds, therefore, are less destructive than the bigger herds.

Elephant bulls in the 20 to 40 year age group do most of the damage to mature trees. Bulls aged between 40 and 60 have already established their rank so they don’t normally get involved in the rank challenges.

So it is not just what the elephants ‘eat’ that causes damage to the habitats.

In South Africa’s Kruger National Park – since 1960 – more than 95 percent of the very big top canopy trees have been eliminated by the park’s grossly excessive elephant population. This has caused a major decline in the populations of big eagles – like Martial and Tawny Eagles – and of the giant Ground Hornbill – because these large bird species breed nowhere else BUT in the crotches, in the branches, or in the canopies of big trees. Without very big trees these birds cannot, and will not, breed! And if someone researched this phenomenon properly, I am quite sure they will find hundreds of other major bird species that have been similarly and adversely affected. For many of these large birds, Kruger National Park represents their last stronghold – their only long term haven for ultimate survival!   THIS is one way – a major way – how excessive elephant populations adversely affect a national park’s biological diversity.

The picture I have just painted is one of destruction. It is one of creating deserts – of reducing woodland habitats to wide-open scrubland with little or nothing for all herbivorous animals to eat at the height of every dry season. It is a story of major habitat change in which the closer to the water you get, the less likely is it that you will encounter woody plants of any kind, let alone those that animals will browse upon; or grasses and forbs that animals can eat. And most animals eat the same grass and/or the same browse plants that the elephants eat – and which they totally eliminate. All these factors are the reasons why, when elephant populations reach the final stages of their population growth patterns, there are no life-sustaining plants left in their habitats: No edible grass; no edible browse; and no vegetative cover to protect the soil (or to shelter animals). This is why, at this stage in the elephant population development cycle, all those other species of animals that once shared the elephants’ habitat, go into decline and ultimately disappear. They become locally extinct.

Now let’s have a look at the black rhinoceros – next, perhaps, in the human created icon ranking, to the elephant.

After elephants, I know the black rhinoceros perhaps better than any other of Africa’s wild animals. I spent seven long dry seasons of my life pioneering their capture. During that time, I caught 140 of them in unsafe tribal trust lands and moved them into safe havens in the national parks. I doubt that anybody knows the black rhino quite as intimately as I do. My university thesis was entitled: “FACTORS AFFECTING THE DISTRIBUTION AND SURVIVAL OF THE BLACK RHINOCEROS IN RHODESIA” (now Zimbabwe).

The Black Rhinoceros is a solitary and essentially nocturnal animal. It wanders great distances (within its relatively small home-range) every night, drinking water, feeding off forbs, and green tree twigs and leaves. It bites off small branches as thick as my fingers and chews them, in their entirety, into tiny wood chips – swallowing them all.

Sometime during the first hour after dawn, the rhino – all on its own – retires to heavy thicket vegetation inside which it selects a safe place to sleep. And there, until three or four o’clock in the afternoon, the rhino lies doggo and soundly sleeps the day away. It ventures outside the thicket in the late afternoon and, come dusk, it begins once again its nocturnal perambulations.

In the 1960s, in the Zambezi Valley, the thicket the rhino selected to sleep in comprised a plant species called Combretum eleagnoides – which the rhino does not eat. In Zululand, South Africa, the black rhino adopts exactly the same 24 hour behaviour pattern, also retiring to sleep in thicket during the day. In Zululand, however, the thicket comprises a plant called Acacia karoo – which is one of the black rhino’s favourite foods. In Zululand, therefore, the game rangers came to the logical conclusion that black rhinos retire into Acacia karoo thickets because it is their favourite food. They also noted, however, that the Zululand rhinos did not eat inside the thicket during the day. They went to sleep.

The conclusion drawn in Zululand, therefore, was NOT valid; and because Rhodesian black rhinos retired to thickets that were never eaten by them, I concluded there must be another reason for them using thicket.

Black rhinos use thicket to hide away from the general hustle and bustle of other wildlife activities surrounding them during the day; to hide away from man and other predators; and in which to sleep. And they sleep soundly for most of the daylight hours because they are up all night long foraging.

During my seven years catching black rhinos, I had noticed that the greatest rhino population densities occurred in habitats containing the heaviest and most extensive thickets. They sometimes lived in very broken country with light vegetation cover – even in quite open country – but then they were always in very low numbers. So (in 1964/65) I selected three very different habitats – containing very thick; medium; and very light vegetation cover, respectively – and I mapped out the collective extent to which individual rhinos in each population used their habitats. We knew exactly how many rhinos lived in those habitats because we captured them all.

I then measured the area-coverage of three different vegetation-types in all three study areas – with a pantograph; and I calculated (photographically) a lateral cover measurement for each vegetation type. This gave the cover measurements a third dimension! When I compared the results, I obtained a 99 percent correlation coefficient between the three-dimensional cover factors in the thicket components of the three study areas – relative to their respective rhino population numbers.

This proved there was a definite and measurable relationship between the available thicket cover in black rhino habitats, and the size (or density) of the rhino populations that occupied them. In a nutshell: The greater the three-dimensional thicket cover, the more rhinos the habitat is able to support; and the habitats with the least cover carried much fewer rhinos. Why should this be? Because there is greater day-time security – for sleeping black rhinos – in thick cover, than is the case in habitats with only limited cover. This seems not to have anything to do with availability of food – which we did NOT attempt to measure – but, obviously, the availability of an adequate food supply was an additional and conditional factor.

Linked to this observation was the fact that, at the height of the dry season, no rhino anywhere in the dry Zambezi Valley ventured more than 3 miles (5 kilometres) from permanent water. In dry and hot areas, black rhinos ‘sweat like pigs’ and they are distressed if they cannot have daily access to water.

Only in very rare instances are black rhinos able to survive in the absence of water. To my knowledge black rhinos can ONLY do without drinking every day in those habitats that have an abundance of very succulent Euphorbia plants!

So we have three important habitat factors that determine black rhino occurrence, that decide population density, and that contribute to their survival. They need: a reliable water supply that is no more than 3 miles from their dry-season home ranges; a good deal of thick cover (for security) into which they can secrete themselves during the day – to sleep; and an adequate supply of edible plant foods.

In habitats that have been stripped naked by excessive numbers of elephants over a long period of time, NONE of these habitat resources exist.

There is one other thing that still needs to be said. When a black rhino cow has a new calf, she forcibly rejects her previous calf; and she moves out of her established home range to become a wanderer. She does this to ruthlessly break the bond with her previous calf (which stays behind in her old home range area); and to better ‘hide’ her new calf from predators. Her movements then have no routine!

For the first six months of her new baby’s life, every night its mother hides it in thick bush up to a mile away from the water. She goes down to the water by herself and, perforce, leaves her baby alone during her absence. (This behaviour is not yet widely known to science.)   She does this because it is at the waterholes where lions and hyenas lurk at night. If she brought her baby down to the same waterholes regularly, therefore, sooner or later she would be handing it to these predators on a plate.

Being solitary animals, black rhino cows have great difficulty protecting their babies from (especially) packs of marauding hyenas at night; and hyenas are the biggest killers of baby black rhinos!   When there is no cover to hide her baby away at night, therefore – as occurs in areas where excessive numbers of elephants have cleared away all the vegetation within 10 miles of water – baby black rhinos become very vulnerable. In fact, it is doubtful that any would survive.

There exists, therefore, a massive clash of ‘conservation’ objectives between those people who want to let elephants multiply without constraint (such as the animal rightist NGOs) and those scientists and wildlife managers who want to ensure that our shrinking black rhino populations are managed in the best possible manner – in the interests of the species’ survival.

In countries like Botswana – where the elephants have removed ALL the (security) cover and ALL the black rhino’s food plants for upwards of 10 miles from ALL surface water supplies during the dry season – there is NO habitat left that can possibly support a black rhino population.

Those ignorant animal rightist NGOs, those pseudo-scientists who are fellow-travellers of the animal rights brigade, and those other people who simply cannot countenance the idea of an elephant being killed, have no idea that these contradictory ecological circumstances prevail.   Yet there is no doubt that, even where there was once a vibrant population of black rhinos living in a healthy habitat, if the elephant population that shares that habitat is allowed to breed without constraint, they will render the black rhino locally extinct.

This exemplifies just why it is so dangerous for Africa’s wildlife to have so-called NGO ‘experts’ in the First World telling us how to manage our elephants and our rhinos – or any other wildlife for that matter. They have no ecological training or practical experience about wildlife management in Africa, and they are in the constant emotional grip of the First World media which continually drenches the public mind with animal rights propaganda. These NGO people – AND their foot soldiers – live in a fool’s paradise. Some of them may be educated but they are still ignorant, and yet they are outspoken in the extreme. You can’t teach them anything because they believe they know everything. They are dangerous people!

God help Africa’s wildlife!


The warnings (below) come from an eminent psychiatrist, Dr. Emanuel Tanya, a former industrialist and member of the German aristocracy before World War II. When asked how many German people were true Nazis, the answer he gave can be used to guide what our attitude should be towards fanaticism.

  1. “Very few people were true Nazis,” he said, “but many enjoyed the return of German pride, and many more were too busy to care. I was one of those who just thought the Nazis were a bunch of fools. So the majority sat back and let it all happen. Then, before we knew it, they (the Nazis) owned us and we lost control, and the end of the world had come. My family lost everything. I ended up in a concentration camp and the Allies destroyed my factories.”
  2. He went on to say: “We are told again and again by ‘experts’ and ‘talking heads’ that Islam is the religion of peace and that the vast majority of Muslims just want to live in peace. Although this unqualified assertion may be true, it is irrelevant. It is meaningless fluff meant to make us feel better, and meant to somehow diminish the spectre of fanatics rampaging across the globe in the name of Islam. The fact is: The fanatics rule Islam at this moment in history. It is the fanatics who march. It is the fanatics who wage any one of 50 shooting wars worldwide. It is fanatics who systematically slaughter Christian or tribal groups throughout Africa and are generally taking over the entire continent in an Islamic wave. It is the fanatics who bomb, behead, and honor-kill. It is the fanatics who takeover mosque after mosque. It is the fanatics who zealously spread the stoning and the hanging of rape victims and homosexuals. It is the fanatics who teach their young to kill and to become suicide bombers. (AND) the hard, quantifiable fact is that the peaceful majority, the ‘silent majority’, is cowed and extraneous.
  3. “History lessons are often incredibly simple and blunt, yet for all our powers of reason, we often miss the most basic and uncomplicated of points: Peace-loving Muslims have been made irrelevant by their silence. Peace-loving Muslims will become our enemy if they don’t speak up, because they will awaken one day and find that the fanatics own them, and the end of their world will have begun.”

WE must, therefore, pay attention to the fanatics who threaten OUR way of life.  For me, they are the animal rightists who are intent upon destroying everything that I have believed in my entire life: the survival and the maintenance of the earth’s wild animal and plant species diversity; and the creation and the maintenance of wild animal populations that live in complete harmony with their ecosystems.

The people who have the most to lose from an escalation of animal rights fanaticism are our wildlife authorities, the game ranchers of South Africa and true hunters everywhere, who all tend to view animal rightists as “just a bunch of fools”.  They seem quite prepared to “sit back and let it all happen” like our German friend above did.  Before they know it, therefore, the animal rightists will ‘own them’.  And they will lose control over their livelihoods and their passions; and ‘the end of their world will have come!’




Ron Thomson

I am NOT a ‘trophy hunter’ - and never have been. I am not involved in the trophy hunting safari business. I am also not a game rancher. But I have ‘administratively controlled’ professional hunters and safari outfitters in my capacity as a government game warden. I am an 80 year old ex-game warden with 60 years of continuous experience in hands-on wildlife management, and national park management, in Africa (1959 to 2019). In breakdown, I have 24 years experience in the management of national parks in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe - and in the management of the wild animal populations that lived inside those national parks; one year as the Chief Nature Conservation of the Ciskei in South Africa; three years as Director of the Bophuthatswana National Parks Board in South Africa; and I worked for three years as a professional hunter in the South African Great Karoo (taking foreign hunters on quests for plains game trophies). I discovered, however, that professional hunting was not my forte. I worked as an investigative wildlife journalist for 30 years in South Africa. I have written fifteen books and hundreds of magazine articles on the subject of wildlife management and big game hunting in Africa. Five of my books are university-level text books on wildlife management. I am a university-trained ecologist; was a member of the Institute of Biology (London) for 20 years; and was a registered chartered biologist for the European Union for 20 years. I have VAST experience in the “management hunting” of elephants, buffaloes, lions, leopards and hippos (as part of my official national park work in the control of problem animals); and I pioneered the capture of black rhino in Zimbabwe’s Zambezi Valley (1964 - 1970). My university thesis was entitled: “The Factors Affecting the Survival and Distribution of Black Rhinos in Rhodesia”. Look at my personal website if you want any further details about my experience:

Ron Thomson has 229 posts and counting. See all posts by Ron Thomson


  • I read your article with much interest!
    Thanks for the information relating to elephants and black rhinos in particular that I had an idea but not a firm knowledge about .
    For the benefit of the public and visitors I tried to share the info on the sanparks kruger park forum and look at what I got :
    Incredible !
    Regards, JMJ Felizardo -Eastern cape

    • Dear Joao
      You will never achieve perfection in this battle. Just be content that you HAVE the message – and then spread the word.
      Kind regards


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