Elephant Management in Kruger National Park (10)
(The second – the current period – series)
After 1994, it became apparent that the 27-years long culling programme in Kruger National Park (1967-1994) – which had been designed and expected to halt the tremendous habitat damage caused by the park’s large number of elephants – had failed to achieve its objective. A moratorium was then placed on the culling of elephants in the park whilst the SANParks scientists and government re-assessed the situation. The new SANParks (National Park’s Board) director, Dr Robby Robinson, called a public meeting to discuss the Kruger elephant management issue – which I attended on my own cognizance.
1994 was a year of great change in South Africa. Black majority rule was attained for the first time and the need for ‘transparency’ in democratic governance was all the rage.
The interlude created by the cessation of the culling, and by the country’s new political dispensation, enabled the public – for the first time ever – to intervene in the wildlife management affairs of Kruger National Park. Having at that stage in my life just come through 35 years of intense involvement with, and complete commitment to, Africa’s national parks, its wildlife, and its wildlife management programmes, I was horrified by the dire consequences that I could see looming ahead.
I believed then, and I still believe it now, that national park ecosystem (biodiversity) management specifically, and wildlife management generally, are complex scientific disciplines that are best left in the trained and experienced hands of the established SANParks teams who, in those days, were the only real experts in these fields of endeavour. The general public, with all the best will in the world, are simply not equipped to pass judgement on such matters.
The animal rightist NGOs, both local and international, saw an opportunity in this state of affairs which they could exploit. Elephant culling had been officially closed down – even if only temporarily – and they intended to keep it that way.
NB: The South African parliament had, long ago, mandated SANParks with its primary objective: To, at all costs, maintain the species diversity of each national park in the country (unless the park had another specific function – such as to ‘save’ the Bontebok; or to ‘save’ the Cape Mountain Zebra). The management programmes of every other national park in the country, therefore, flowed out from this primary parliamentary mandate.
The International Fund for Animal ‘Welfare’ (IFAW) – the biggest animal ‘rights’ organisation in the world – has an office in Johannesburg which was to play a significant role in everything that follows. But IFAW was not the only significant player.
Robby Robinson was a highly qualified marine biologist who had recently been given the post of SANParks director, and his new position required that he direct the management of the world’s largest mammal in one of the world’s greatest terrestrial African national parks. In the aforementioned public meeting that he convened, I had the distinct impression that he was floundering and looking for someone to guide him in the right direction.
One of Robinson’s first advisers was Kenya’s charismatic Richard Leakey who is a world-renowned paleoanthropologist; one of Africa’s arch-animal rightists; and someone with no wildlife management training or hands-on experience whatsoever. Nevertheless, despite his lack of elephant management experience, Leakey did what Leakey does best. He imbued in Robinson all the so-called merits of animal rightism. And he persuaded Robinson not to reopen Kruger’s elephant culling programme.
Rumour has it that Robinson was also ‘advised’ in other directions by IFAW – that did not want elephant culling to be resumed in Kruger National Park under any circumstances. Just what influence IFAW had over Robinson’s decisions is vague but, upon his retirement a few years later, Robinson (with IFAW’s help) was appointed Director of Uganda’s Wildlife Authority. So there must be some truth in the rumours that were doing the rounds.
And IFAW, it is alleged, paid Robinson (SANParks) US$ 5 million to apply contraceptives to elephant cows to stop them breeding – as an alternative to reintroducing culling.
NB: Many people – who have negative feelings towards elephant culling – want to know why applying contraceptives to elephant cows was not pursued. It was, in fact, thoroughly investigated and found to be wanting in many ways. To be properly effective, the cows must be inoculated every 6 months and, in populations numbering tens of thousands of animals, this fact alone proved to be an impossible task. In addition, inoculated cows come into perpetual heat and they are hounded by irate bulls in musth 24/7, to the extent that the cows become physically exhausted.
Applying contraceptives to elephant cows, therefore, is far more cruel than a culling programme; and, although elephant contraceptives might have some application in small game parks, it has been ruled out as a general population control method in large national parks.
The elephant culling programme remained in suspension – and under debate – until late in 2006 when five professors – who described themselves as being ‘a panel of scientists most knowledgeable about elephants and the consequences of their impacts for ecosystems’ published a joint report entitled: ‘A scientific perspective on the management of elephants in the Kruger National Park and elsewhere’. The report appeared in the South African Journal of Science (102, September/October 2016). The authors were: N.Owen-Smith; G.I.H.Kerley; B.Page; R.Slotow and R.J.van Aarde. It was addressed to the Hon. Marthinus van Schalkwyk, Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism in South Africa. The minister accepted the professors’ recommendation that elephant culling in Kruger National Park should be permanently discontinued.
There were several contentious issues in and about this report that need to be discussed:
- Whilst the old guard SANPark officials wanted culling to be resumed, the animal rights lobby – wanted culling to be stopped forever; and both the minister and the five professors gave the animal rights lobby (in my opinion) undue attention.
- The five professors acknowledged that the South African parliament had mandated SANParks to consider the maintenance of Kruger’s biological diversity to be the Park’s prime wildlife management objective. Then they ignored that most important political directive, and contradicted its purpose with two astounding and unsupportable statements :
- The ultimate objectives of natural resource management are decided by society at large through democratic processes; and
- Society must ultimately judge the balance between the local disappearance of some rare plants or the loss of a more substantial component of ecosystem diversity, and the lives of the elephants killed to prevent this loss.
In view of these last two remarks, anyone with any modicum of common sense will realise that, in their report, the five professors were pandering to the heavy pressures exerted upon them and the minister, by the anti-culling animal rights lobby.
The report also states: “There is no benchmark against which to judge an ideal vegetation state for KNP”. In these blogs, I have provided you with such a reasoned benchmark: A population of 3500 elephants when the habitats were still healthy (c.1955). The five professors clearly didn’t look very far to find such a benchmark.
Finally, the professors state that: “Density feedbacks must ultimately curtail the growth in elephant population numbers”. This has been interpreted to mean that a gradual reduction in available nutrition, as elephant numbers increase, will ultimately cause elephant populations to numerically stabilise – naturally. This is an assumption that we will discuss in later blogs in this series.
Perhaps one of Van Schalkwyk’s biggest errors of judgement was that he asked the five professors to provide him with scientific information that he could use to “solve the elephant problem” in Kruger National Park. That was unfortunate because Kruger National Park did not have “an elephant problem”. The problem that Kruger National Park had was a very serious challenge to the maintenance of its biological diversity caused by the fact that there were too many elephants. And to resolve that biodiversity problem was not difficult. All it needed was a reduction in the elephant numbers to a level that was within the sustainable carrying capacity of the Kruger habitats.
But – as a result of a slip of the tongue – the report took a different turn.
Through the process that culminated in this ‘learned’ report, many of the professors’ peers were vocal in their condemnation. From one of them – a renowned wildlife management expert in his own right (who I have been asked not to name), I received a quite unsolicited letter of encouragement. In part, the letter said:
I have received a copy of the paper (on the subject of this report) which you intend to publish soon. I agree totally with you. However, I think that you are missing the vital argument that none of these so-called big five experts has any or much training in wildlife management. As far as I know, they are either mammalogists, zoologists or, at most, general ecologists.
Keep at it. These “experts” are pure fakes when it comes to wildlife management.
I received another letter, written by Professor J du P (Koos) Bothma, formerly Director: Centre for Wildlife Management, University of Pretoria, in which, in part, he wrote:
I retired in 2005 and do not involve myself in these disputes anymore. However, I recently did write an extensive module on ecosystem health for a new graduate course for the University of Pretoria’s Veterinary Faculty, as part of a worldwide new approach known as the “One health concept”. It can be summed up as: healthy ecosystems produce healthy animals (wildlife and livestock) and healthy people. In it, I discussed the concepts of ecosystem dynamics with the healthy soil and vegetation as cornerstones of ecosystem dynamics.
Regrettably, I am not at liberty to divulge the full text of Prof. Bothma’s letter.
Unfortunately, after he had accepted the report by the five professors, the Hon Marthinus van Schalkwyk, Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism in South Africa, officially withdrew culling as the wildlife management practice of choice for Kruger National Park’s elephants. And Kruger National Park started its downward spiral towards becoming a desert.
One would think that this would be the last anyone would hear about the contentious issue of elephant culling in Kruger National Park. But that was not the case. The professors’ report merely closed the elephant culling chapter in Kruger National Park’s history, but it opened up a whole new can of worms that we shall examine in the several blogs that follow.