Kruger Park’s Biological Diversity is in Serious Trouble!

Elephant Management in Kruger National Park (11)

(The second – the current period – series)

The period between 1994 and 2006 was a period of intense debate in South Africa.

1994 was the year the last elephant cull in Kruger took place, and from that year onwards the elephant population started to grow at an exponential rate. 2006 was the year that the infamous “five professors” – who described themselves as being “the most knowledgeable (scientists) about elephants” – presented their assessment report on the so-called “Elephant Problem” in Kruger, to South Africa’s Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism.

Whilst there was no move to reintroduce elephant culling during this period, all the media outlets were packed full of anti-culling journalistic opinion. Yet few – if any – of these journalists, had any knowledge of the science of wildlife management. Nevertheless, the media took sides and it championed the efforts of the world’s biggest animal rights NGOs in their efforts to stop the culling. IFAW – The International Fund for Animal “Welfare” – which is, arguably, the biggest animal “rights” organisation in the world, sang the same song from a front row in the choir.

In those days, there were still several old guard scientists on the staff of Kruger National Park; and there were still many “feet-on-the-ground and highly experienced game rangers” still in service. Everyone of these in-service old-timers warned that Kruger’s too-many-elephants were destroying the park’s biological diversity. They were very conscious about the forces at play and they all desperately wanted to see a resumption of the culling. Many of their older colleagues, recently retired, stood up and warned of the same impending disaster.

Public meetings were held here, there and everywhere – nearly every month – to discuss the so-called elephant problem in Kruger National Park; and the debates kept the pot boiling. At one such meeting, at Berg-n-Dal Rest Camp inside Kruger National Park, several animal rightists barracked the pro-culling speakers at a major meeting on this subject, stating that if elephant culling was ever resumed in Kruger National Park they would institute an international boycott of tourism to South Africa. Few people realised that they had just witnessed a genuine terrorist threat – and it was ignored!

Nevertheless, such rhetoric most certainly swayed the Hon. Martinus van Schalkwyk whose portfolio covered both the environment and tourism. Not long after that meeting, he accepted the report by the five professors. Culling was eliminated as an elephant management tool – indefinitely – except for exceptional circumstances (or words to that effect).

Van Schalkwyk ignored the reference within that report which drew his attention to the fact that it was parliament that had issued SANParks with its management mandate – which, above all else, was to maintain the biological diversities of its every (non-specialised) national park in the country. The Bontebok National Park and the Cape Mountain Zebra National Park were two special outliers. They had been created for the express purpose of saving these two species from extinction.

The correct thing for Van Schalkwyk to have done would have been for him to defer the making of a final decision to parliament. He never did that; and this most important official National Park management guideline was ignominiously thrown, by him, onto the scrap heap.

Furthermore, despite the fact the old-guard at Kruger – since 1994 – had continually warned the South African government that there were too many elephants in Kruger National Park – and that they were destroying the park’s unique biological diversity – nobody listened.

The die had been cast. Culling had been eliminated as an elephant management tool, and the pressure was off the minister! So the Kruger National Park settled into a new regime that focused on the elephant management recommendations made by the likes of Professor Rudi van Aarde.

Rudi van Aarde is employed by Tukkies – the University of Pretoria (South Africa). His brainchild is an organisation called CERU – The Conservation Ecology Research Unit of Tukkies – which is affiliated with his university. Van Aarde was one of the five professors who submitted that infamous report to Minister Van Schalkwyk. His CERU organisation is funded, in large measure, by IFAW who, on their own website, claims to be working “in partnership” with CERU (and Van Aarde). Their joint venture now extends way beyond ten years and, during its first decade, on its website, the University claims that IFAW funded CERU to the tune of R 9.2 million.

What is it that drives Van Aarde to study and to make the recommendations that he does make, on the management of elephants? He makes no bones about detesting hunters and hunting. He refuses to even countenance the idea that elephant populations should – even COULD – be managed by means of culling, and he claims his opposition to culling stems from his observations that it is a very cruel way to manage elephants. He also says that “elephant culling was tried in Kruger National Park and it failed to produce the desired results”. Hence, he says, the elephant culling experiment was a failure, so it should be discarded. There are other ways – more humane ways – to control elephant population numbers, he asserts, and these new ideas should replace the old and archaic practice of culling.

And what of IFAW? What is their attraction to Rudi van Aarde?

IFAW is an inflexible animal rightist NGO the purpose of which is – as is the case with all animal rights organisations – to abolish all animal uses by man. And it follows its dogma, in all circumstances, without any kind of regard for the needs of other people or of practical considerations. Apparently, one of its special interests in South Africa is keeping the pressure on the South African government to maintain its ban on the culling of elephants in Kruger National Park.

So maybe the marriage between Rudi van Aarde and IFAW is a match made in heaven?

What needs to be said very clearly, however, is that – through CERU and Van Aarde – IFAW seems to have developed an ability to influence the wildlife management programmes in Kruger National Park. One might liken it to a Gupta-style capture of SANParks.

Van Aarde’s PhD thesis was based on a study of the African porcupine. Now his main interest is in the management (or lack of it) of the African elephant. One of his one-time doctorate pupils is Dr. Sam Ferreira – now head of the Large Mammal Research Unit in Kruger National Park. Ferreira, therefore, is an important conduit for Van Aarde through which the professor is able to gain an insight into the wildlife management affairs of the Kruger Park. Van Aarde – through CERU – however, is the chief architect and is still the principle driver of Kruger’s elephant management programme.

Van Aarde and IFAW have also produced a very polished paper on Van Aarde’s theories about elephant management in Africa; and they have offered it, free of charge, as one of the training programmes that qualify South Africa’s licensed tourist guides. And in this way, Van Aarde and IFAW have inveigled their opinions into the country’s official wildlife/tourism industry.

Van Aarde once told me culling had been tried as an elephant population management tool in Kruger “but it had not worked”. I protested that the culling had not worked simply because the annual culling target had been too high. Had the elephant population been reduced to 3500 every year, I insisted – instead of to 7000 – the culling programme would have worked perfectly. But he was not prepared to discuss that idea with me. The fact that he could say “the culling programme had not worked” – studiously avoiding saying anything about the inappropriate culling target – suited his purpose admirably.

As the professor in charge of Pretoria University’s Conservation Ecology Research Unit (CERU) – and as one of the five authors of the report on elephant management – both factors enabled Van Aarde to introduce and to apply his own elephant management programme – a totally untried theory – on the whole of Kruger National Park.

Thereafter, Professor Rudi van Aarde flew his own kite, and he brooked no interference from anybody.

He told the people in a workshop of which I was a part (at the Great Elephant Indaba debate held at the Berg-en-Dal camp, Kruger National Park, in 2004) that when culling was carried out in Kruger (1967 to 1994) the operators culled the population “from the top”. He meant, by that terminology (I think), that adults were a major component of the animals killed. “But elephant populations don’t expand ‘from the top’” he was quick to tell us all, “they actually expand ‘from the bottom’. It is the number of calves that survive the first 12 months of their lives that determine the rate at which the population will expand over time.”

I have to admit that I could see the sense in what he was saying, but I could not understand how that had anything to do with the practical management of an elephant population. Was he intimating that baby elephant calves should be shot instead of adults?

He seemed to be expressing his dream. But I was intrigued. Two years still had to pass before he could start making his dream come true – but we were all getting a preview.

I will focus on Van Aarde’s dream-child in the next blog.

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