Elephant Management in Kruger National Park Series 9-

Kruger Park’s biological diversity is in serious trouble!

Elephant Management in Kruger National Park (12)

(The second – the current period – series)

Professor Rudi van Aarde’s elephant management plan for Kruger National Park has been officially in operation since 2006. But it actually began its process in 1994 – since the day the elephant culling era came to an end. The Kruger scientists call their new plan: “A Landscape Management Approach” to the so-called elephant management “problem”.

At the end of 1994, Kruger’s elephant population stood at 7000; and since that year they have bred “without constraint” – that is, without being annually culled. Today the greater Kruger elephant population stands at c. 20 000 plus-or-minus 5000. In a previous blog I explained how I came to the conclusion that, when the habitats were healthy (c.1955), the sustainable elephant carrying capacity for Kruger National Park was 3 500. And the habitats are no longer “healthy”! They are a far cry from what they looked like in 1960

In another previous blog, I reported that Van Aarde had asserted that: “Elephant culling had been tried and it didn’t work”. It did not achieve its objective of stopping progressive habitat damage! “The only way to stabilise elephant population numbers,” he said, “is to reduce the number of calves that survive their first 12 months of life.”

The Landscape elephant management plan is the way he proposes to achieve that goal. Unfortunately, one of the plan’s major flaws is the fact that it concentrates on creating a stable elephant population whilst completely ignoring what happens to the habitat during that process.

NB: The Kruger elephant culling programme (1967 to 1994) did not affect even the rate of habitat damage that it was supposed to stop. This happened solely because of its annual culling target – maintaining the population at 7 000 animals – was too high. Had that target been dropped to 3 500 its purpose would have been achieved.

The Landscape plan is based on the assumption that if a population of elephants is allowed to breed “without constraint” they will eventually become so numerous they will eat themselves out of house and home during every six-months long dry season. That, in effect, means they will ultimately and purposely be forced to endure dry-season-long starvation conditions every year – and these consequent, annually repetitive, nutritional deficiency regimes will reduce the population’s breeding capacity.

When the plan kicks into gear – that is, when the starvation regime finally begins to have a negative biological effect – a number of things are expected to happen: The age at which young cows conceive for the first time will increase from 10 or 12 to (perhaps) 15 or 20 years; the interval between calves will increase from 4 years to (perhaps) 5 or 6 years; And older cows will stop producing calves at (perhaps) 40 years of age instead of 60 – whereafter, or before which, they will die a natural death of old age. In their lifetimes, therefore, a constant lack of adequate nutrition will induce breeding-age females to produce very much fewer calves.

A reduction in nutrition greatly and adversely affects the production of milk in lactating cows. And when lactation stops, starving young calves that are dependent on their mother’s milk, are abandoned because they lack the energy to keep up with their dams on the breeding herd’s long daily treks in search of food – to and from the water. It is “nature’s way” that adult breeding females should save themselves – because they can breed again in later years; and that weakened babies that have no chance of survival be sacrificed.

Added to all the other problems associated with lack of food, when the programme is well-advanced, the elephants will expend an extraordinary amount of energy walking up to 25 kilometres from their watering places, every day, to those areas where they can find enough food to keep themselves alive; and then to walk another 25 km, that same day, back to the water. As this process gets more and more intense – as the years go by; and as the elephants progressively eat up every morsel of edible vegetation that exists within that 25 km zone from the water, so the amount of energy they get from the food they are able to find, is less than the energy they need to walk those prodigious distances every day. Consequently, the entire elephant population will then first suffer the loss of all the fat it was able to accumulate (from eating lush green grass) during the previous rainy season. And, to stay alive, each animal will be forced to then convert the protein in its muscles to usable energy. The elephants will then start to look like walking bags of bones.

Elephant calves up to the age of two years are entirely dependent on their mother’s milk, and they are partly dependent on this milk until the age of three. Nevertheless, many calves (up to the age of 5) continue to suckle from their mothers until her next calf is born. The impact of a nutrition-stressed elephant population, on calves up to the age of three years, therefore, is devastating.

The abandoned babies die of starvation; or of thirst; and/or of heat fatigue; or they are ripped to death and eaten alive by hyenas and lions. Even some quite large juveniles – that unconsciously separate from their maternal herds when nutritional-stress forces them into a state of malaise and despair – as singletons – become easy prey to a pride of lions.

NB: When elephant herds are fat and healthy, lions and hyenas do not predate upon their calves at all.

To add insult to injury within this conundrum, most of the artificial water supplies in the park have been purposefully closed down. In 1995, Kruger National Park had 365 boreholes and 109 pipeline troughs, weirs, concrete and earthen dams providing water to its game animals. Today only 41 boreholes and 31 pipeline troughs and other such structures, are in active service; and most animals obtain their water requirements in the dry season from natural pools in the park’s river systems. So, compared to previous years, the amount of food that is available to the elephants during every dry season is now greatly restricted.

NB: Euphemistically, it is said that those areas of the park that are beyond the 25 kilometre range from water during the dry season, are now “rested” for the duration of the dry season every year; and they are only available to the elephants during the wet season – when water availability is not limiting. Many ecologists believe this to be a good facet of the new plan.  

This is how Rudi van Aarde’s elephant management plan for Kruger National Park (and elsewhere) is enabling elephant populations to stabilise their own numbers by “naturally” reducing the numbers of baby elephants that survive their first 12 months of life!

 My mind boggles with a thousand-and-one questions that challenge the desirability of this Landscape idea.

Rudi van Aarde’s principle objection to the practice of elephant culling is that, he says, “it is incredibly cruel”; and he argues that allowing nature to manage elephant numbers, in its own way, is much preferable.

There is no doubt in my mind that this assumption is very wrong.

A common thread that runs through every definition of the words “cruel” and “cruelty” is the use of one or another of the accompanying words: “purposeful”; “deliberate”; and/or “with intent”. Cruelty, therefore, is not just the act of inflicting pain and suffering on an animal or a person. It includes, also, the purposeful intention of causing the pain and the suffering.

“Neglect” can also result in cruelty – especially when it is combined with the words “callous indifference”.

None of these definitions, however, can be applied to elephant culling, hunting, or the killing of an animal in an abattoir – because in all these practices there is no “purposeful intent” to cause pain and suffering. So I guess Van Aarde’s objections to elephant culling would be better described as: “He personally finds the practice of elephant culling distasteful”. And THAT is O.K. Many people would agree with him. Even hardened wildlife managers would be sympathetic, but the professionals cull-when-necessary because they know it is the right thing to do. Culling elephants is a good example of a tough-love and essential management action when it is carried out in the correct manner, under appropriate circumstances and for the right reasons.

The act of killing – in itself – is not cruel. Nevertheless, causing an animal’s death under any circumstances is distasteful to many people. And those who regularly cause the deaths of animals – because it is their job to do so – have inured themselves to the act of killing.

Now I want to compare the Landscape elephant management approach to the so-called elephant “problem” in Kruger, with the alternative culling option.

First of all, everybody has to acknowledge the fact that the Van Aarde philosophy of controlling elephant numbers (as he calls it) “from the bottom” (by reducing the number of yearling calves that survive their first twelve months of life), and the alternative old-style culling “from the top” (total herd elimination), BOTH require that elephants should die. This is a sad imperative that is rarely exposed when the orchestrators of the Landscape elephant management approach explain their rationale to the general public.

In the Landscape model, baby elephant deaths are described as occurring in “a natural way” – that is, in the way that nature intended such animals should die. This is a very vague, benign and designed-to-be-acceptable expression that avoids the necessity to explain to the public the much less-acceptable facts of the matter: that these mainly very young animals, often in considerable numbers, are abandoned by their mothers, and they die of starvation every year; and/or of thirst; and/or of heat fatigue; or they are torn-to-pieces, and often eaten alive, by lions and hyenas.

It takes many decades of uncontrolled proliferation for the combined elephant herds in a game reserve like Kruger, to become so numerous that they literally destroy their own habitats – which they will ultimately do within a 25 km radius of all permanent water. It also takes many years for the food resources in a game reserve to be so totally depleted that this so-called “natural way of dying” phenomenon comes into play. But when the plan finally comes together, and baby elephants start to die in large numbers, it is probably too late to apply any kind of worthwhile remedial action.

A major additional tragedy of this state of affairs is that all the other animals in Kruger National Park have not been given very much attention in the Landscape equation. I have already provided a separate blog explaining that Kruger’s black rhino will become locally extinct because of elephant induced habitat change alone. But every other herbivorous animal in Kruger is also adversely affected one way or another.

The food – the grasses and the browse – that the elephants eat and demolish within that 25 km range of water, represents the food supply of ALL the various other herbivorous animals in the park; and when that food has all been eaten up by the elephants, there will be nothing left for all these other animals to eat. Unfortunately, these lesser herbivores cannot match the prestigious distances that the elephants can travel to find food every day at the height of every dry season. These other animals have to remain close to the water (which is their main comfort-survival consideration) inside that 25 km zone which the elephants are always busy turning into a desert. So I predict that we can expect a lot more casualties from the Landscape management debacle in the years to come. Many other species of herbivore – other than elephants – are poised on the brink of starvation, too. All it will need to trigger an ecological collapse of immense proportions is a very bad drought. And, mark my words, when that happens, the drought will get the blame for the disaster – not long-term bad management.


Consider the fact that excessive elephant concentrations, for the last 50 years, have been focused on the rivers and river pools in Kruger National Park. Consider the fact that the richest vegetation – the richest habitats – and the greatest concentration of biological diversity in any park – occurs on the alluvial soils of the river banks. Consider the fact that, in each and every game reserve where an excessive elephant population exists, the greatest damage to habitats occurs in the vicinity of the water supplies – in the Kruger case, the river pools – and that the damage radiates out from the water for distances that can exceed 25 km. Now think about all the damage that the inadequate elephant culling programme (1967 to 1964 = 27 years) – followed by this new Landscape plan over an additional 23 years – has done to the biological diversity of Kruger National Park.

And remember, a long time ago the South African parliament mandated SANParks, above all else, to maintain the park’s species diversity. What happened to that idea? It was seemingly discarded as being irrelevant because it could not be accommodated within the Landscape management plan! “Somebody” should be made accountable for this oversight because it is really important.

Maintaining biological diversity is (or should be) Kruger’s primary purpose for being! And when the richest habitats in the game reserve have been so totally destroyed, we can say with absolute certainty that the game reserve has already lost a most alarming amount of its formerly very rich biological diversity. And nobody seems to care! It would appear that this fact has been treated with “callous indifference.”

It would seem, for whatever reason, the scientists who have applied the Landscape plan have deliberately turned Kruger National Park into a pure elephant sanctuary. Today in Kruger, other than elephants, nothing else seems to matter (except rhino poaching)! Elephants are given preferential consideration in all wildlife management affairs – including the fact they should not be killed under any circumstances. This is also a desideratum of the animal rights NGO IFAW (The International Fund for Animal Welfare), which has had so much influence over Rudi van Aarde’s CERU (Centre for Ecological Research Unit) over the last two decades and more.

I can tell you from my own very extensive and personal experience, that the culling option presents a very different – far less “cruel” and much more acceptable – picture.

When conducted properly, a culling programme (beginning, in Kruger’s case, with a major population reduction exercise) can maintain the park’s elephant population within the carrying capacity of its habitat. Once the population has been trimmed to the right number, the population’s annual increment can be easily culled every year in order to create dynamically stable numbers that will always remain within the habitat’s carrying capacity.

During a culling programme, selected breeding herds are eliminated in their entirety whilst other breeding herds are left totally alone. This enables the untouched herds to carry on with their lives, as before, after every annual culling operation comes to a close.

Bulls are selectively shot separately. In my opinion, the number of bulls killed should at least equal the number of adult cows that are killed. Bulls live apart from cows so they have to be handled differently and separately. Cognizance must also be taken of the fact that bulls cause infinitely more damage to top canopy trees than do the cows! So they may have to be culled more heavily than cows! This is a judgment call that the responsible wildlife manager will have to make.

Culling is carried out by highly experienced game ranger marksmen – operating on foot – and every animal is killed instantly with an accurately placed brain shot delivered at very close range (normally between 1 and 10 metres).

An experienced culling team – with three expert marksmen using self-loading rifles and operating in unison – is capable of eliminating elephant breeding herds numbering 30 to 50 animals in less than sixty seconds. Normally administering one bullet per elephant! All carcasses are subjected to properly conducted biological examinations; their hides and tusks are recovered, and their meat is salted and dried by the sun in biltong-sized strips. If necessary, the bones and the remaining guts can be buried. A properly constituted culling team – carrying out all these functions – can contend with up to 50 elephants a day (without an abattoir).

In terms of the alleged cruelty factor, there is no comparison between the Landscape approach that has been applied to elephant population management in Kruger over the last 23 years and properly conducted culling operations. A culling-killing episode is all over within a few minutes – compared with years and years of horrible starvation that occurs with the Landscape option. Culling is far more efficient, effective and humane. It offers better options, too, for recreating different natural habitats and for maintaining them in good condition – because the elephant numbers never exceed the carrying capacity of the habitat. Culling ensures the maintenance of a park’s biological diversity compared to the Landscape approach which causes biological diversity loss.

I hope this blog will give the TGA’s readers a better perspective of the facts, and the ecological arguments when elephant management options in Kruger National Park come to the fore again. I have no doubt in my mind that the correct management option for the elephants of Kruger is to reduce their numbers to 2 500 (not 3 500) and to keep them at that reduced level, by annual culling, for the next 50 years. And during that recovery time, every effort should be made to replant and reseed the habitats that have been so badly trashed by too many elephants for far too long.

A warning and advice to all southern Africa’s nature-lovers and true ‘conservationists’; and to all those inadequately informed but caring people throughout the rest of the world who genuinely want to see Africa’s wildlife managed properly.

  • Elephants – due to their strength, large size and voracious appetites – are capable of causing greater damage to game reserve habitats than any other animal.
  • Excessive elephant populations WILL destroy their own habitats entirely – over time – and they WILL destroy, too, the habitats of every other species of animal with which they share occupation of their sanctuaries. Thus excessive elephant populations – if left alone – will be the direct cause of massive local extinctions of many plant and animal species in the game reserves that they occupy.

NB: An excessive elephant population is one that exists in numbers that are above the sustainable elephant carrying capacity of the habitat.

  • In the game reserves of southern Africa, elephants occur in excessive numbers in all of Namibia’s north-eastern wildlife sanctuaries; throughout the wildlife sanctuaries of northern Botswana (and the Tuli Block); in Zimbabwe’s Hwange and Gonarezhou national parks; and in South Africa’s Kruger and Addo national parks. In many of these wildlife sanctuaries, the elephant populations are already grossly
  • Excessive elephant populations – if they are allowed to continue to breed without constraint – will quickly become GROSSLY excessive. This – without intervention by man – will lead to the desertification of the wildlife sanctuaries in which these elephant populations exist. During this process the elephants will enter into situations of inevitable and perpetual dry season starvation; and every other species of herbivorous animal that shares the wildlife sanctuaries with these elephants will be subjected to the same (or worse) starvation regimes, too.
  • Starvation, in any species, weakens the resilience of animal populations and makes them very susceptible to disease. Lack of energy, however, is the main problem and their environment can no longer provide it. In all the elephant-occupied game reserves of southern Africa, therefore, their ecosystems are ever more precariously tottering on the brink of collapse. The crash may not happen this year. It may not happen next year. It may not happen in the next ten years. But when the next severe drought occurs it WILL happen. The most classical example of this occurrence happened in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park in 1972 – a year of intense drought – when 15 000 (some say 20 000) elephants, and 5 000 black rhinos, died in a single episode.
  • When the crash occurs do not blame the drought! If you have to assign culpability, blame persistent bad wildlife management practices; blame the interference of First World governments in Africa’s wildlife management affairs; blame the animal rightists for pursuing their own criminal confidence industry agendas – to the detriment of sustainable wildlife utilisation practices in Africa; blame CITES for not allowing the well-government countries of southern Africa to sustainably harvest their own prolific wildlife resources as they see fit – and to sustainably market their own wildlife products (like ivory and rhino horn). Just don’t blame the drought!
  • The truth of the matter is that the first world is all the time imposing pressure on Africa to “save its elephants” – ALL its elephants – at ANY and ALL costs; and in total and criminal ignorance of the ecological facts and related wildlife management – and national park management – implications. The whole world – no matter how powerful many of its nations might be – CANNOT change the rules of the game in natural ecosystems. Our elephants; our other wild animals; our biological diversity considerations; and the plants and the animals in our national parks, cannot be controlled by the political dictates of man. The world of all these living organisms is a complex interaction that can only be guided, and nudged in the right direction (to achieve man’s desired objectives), by people who know how these natural systems work. And the animal rightist NGOs – who are the main drivers of all this First World pressure – and who have no accountability for the demands that they make on Africa – haven’t a clue about the realities of wildlife management. Their self-serving demands, therefore, are destructive and should be ignored.
  • Surely it is time that the governments of this planet learned these lessons; and that they learned, too, to identify and respect the truth. The survival of Africa’s elephants, its other wildlife, its national parks, and its constantly diminishing wilderness areas, are all dependent on the civilised world coming to honest grips with these realities.
  • So PLEASE – everybody – let’s make this happen!









21 thoughts on “Kruger Park’s biological diversity is in serious trouble!

  • I found your article very informative, thank you. I live in the US and love elephants and yes I’m one of those people who want to save them all. I have no expertise in these fields and realize that wildlife and environment management is a very difficult topic and there are many different views out there. And although the word ‘culling’ makes my skin crawl I do appreciate your point of view. I do have a question though, wouldn’t expanding the Kruger park not help and hasn’t this already been done with the transfrontier parks?

    • Hello my good and intelligent friend,

      Thank you for your very understandable and welcome comments.
      I think that you epitomise most people when they are confronted with the realities of elephant management. The “many different views out there”, however, are not important. You cannot manage nature by way of public referendums. What IS important are the facts of the matters-at-hand related to the principles of wildlife management. You cannot get away from “what is”; you cannot ignore the realities of nature; and, if you are going to do the right thing for elephants and for the national parks that supports them, you have to apply the appropriate management action. TOUGH LOVE ACTION. In its most simplistic interpretation, any given piece of ground (or national park) can only produce so much vegetation (food and plant cover = habitat) every year; and that food (and habitat cover) can only support so many wild animals (of all species). You cannot force the ground to produce more food; and you cannot expect the habitats to continue to absorb more and more animals. When the animals become too many (excessive), they eat up all the available food very quickly during the early stages of the dry season (when no new growth occurs). They then have to endure varying levels of starvation until the new rainy season comes along. Starvation involves eating anything and everything that the animals normally would not eat. In the case of elephants, it means total destruction of woodlands and thickets (which has already happened in Kruger). It means decimation of grasslands. It means exposure of the soils (because of reduced protective plant cover) to erosion by sun, wind and rain. It means mother animals stop lactating and their babies die. It means sensitive plant and animal species become locally extinct (which process, in Kruger, has already begun) . And it ultimately means the game reserve will become a desert.
      So you have a choice. Pro-actively maintain elephant numbers (and the numbers of all other wild animals species populations) at a level that the habitats can sustainably carry without causing constant and progressive habitat damage; pro-actively keep the habitats vigorous and healthy; and pro-actively maintain all species and their habitats in a healthy and dynamically stable condition – which will require the pro-active establishment and maintenance of dynamically stable and sustainably healthy ecosystems – wherein even butterflies, grasshoppers and worms are happy – OR DO NOTHING. LEAVE NATURE TO HER OWN DEVICES. AND END UP MAKING THE NATIONAL PARK A DESERT.
      YES!. You can expand Kruger National Park. We can create a “Greater Kruger Game Reserve” by installing the planned Transfrontier National Park. That bigger area will accommodate more “numbers” of animals of all species – but that does not change anything in terms of the need to apply the management principles I have outlined above. It just means that the “management” programme becomes bigger, too. It does not make the management any better – only different! I am all for expanding protected areas. We must make them as big as we can. Lets accommodate more “numbers” of all animal species in these bigger reserves, but all that does not make “management” redundant. You still have to “manage”. You still have to maintain elephant numbers (particularly) within the sustainable carrying capacities of their available habitats.
      Don’t be too concerned about a population reduction management action that “appears” to have been an over-kill. When nutrition levels are high – as they will be in a game reserve that has drastically reduced its elephant numbers – elephant populations will bounce back very quickly. They are capable of doubling their numbers every ten years. So 2500 will become 5000 in 10 years; 10 000 in 20 years; and 20 000 in 30 years – IF THAT IS WHAT YOU WANT!
      In my humble opinion, Kruger National Park needs to have its elephant population reduced (from its 20 000-odd) to 2 500 – and kept at that level for the next 50 years by annual culling – during which time the habitats should be pro-actively rehabilitated with active assistance by man. THIS is the only solution to the so-called “KRUGER ELEPHANT PROBLEM” if the park’s biological diversity is to be saved for posterity. And maintaining the park’s biological diversity is infinitely more important than allowing the uncontrolled proliferation of elephants to destroy the national park in its entirety.
      May I suggest that you avail yourself of a copy of my book: “ELEPHANT ‘CONSERVATION’ – The Facts and the Fiction”. It contains ALL the facts about elephant management in the present day and age.

    • The Kruger Park is already 10 TIMES overstocked with elephants. There no new land to add to the reserve. Ron Thomason

  • Agree with 99% of document just one thing carrying capacity cannot be constant year on year surely it is rainfall, biomass production, species composition, basal cover driven and by factors that vary year to year.

    • Hello Gustav,
      You are exactly right, of course, but if you want to go into detail you should look at the carrying capacity issue on multiple plains. The carrying capacity in a good year and the carrying capacity in a bad year (as near as you can make that possible); and in between you will have an average. In many of my writings I have suggested that “wise” managers should use the maximum level carrying capacity as their bench-mark but that they then “apply” that maximum figure at the seventy percent level for good management reasons. Theoretically, this will leave a 30% margin for food availability in bad seasons. But THAT will not always work out, either, Another way to look at this problem is to cull heavily in those years when seasonal rains have been poor. In the end, good wildlife managers, get a “feel” for what is right and what is wrong – and they make adjustments all along the way. NOTHING is precise.

      In my opinion, what you MUST NOT DO is ignore the carrying capacity parameter altogether – as has happened in Zimbabwe’s Hwange and Gonarezhou National Parks, and in Kruger. If nothing else, knowing the carrying capacity helps you to judge whether what is happening in an animal population is good or bad. Look at Kruger today. Because nobody took the trouble to determine the elephant carrying capacity of the park in the 1960s, the elephant population now numbers (in my opinion; others think this way, too) in excess of 20 000. And I am prepared to justify my opinion…. that in 1960 – when the habitats were still healthy – the elephant carrying capacity of the park was only 3 500. NOW the question is – what to to do with the massive surplus?



  • Welcome back Ron Thomson. As a bushwalker/ecologist, I am also concerned about habitat and biodiversity. In my area, hot fires and people do the damage that elephants do in Kruger! Thanks for the article, and I hope we can get Kruger on the right track again.

    • Hello Loodt,
      Thank you for your kind words. You seem to have all your bases covered – so what are you waiting for? I know what I am waiting for: I am waiting for everybody who thinks we are doing a good job to knuckle down and join us as full members of the TGA. We need all the help we can get and it is always nice to have the support of your friends and family. Just remember THIS is “YOUR” TGA not mine!
      We will get Kruger back on the rails – but it will only happen when we make the TGA big enough to be properly reckoned with by government
      With kind regards. Ron

  • Hello Hercules,
    well said.

  • I agree with your assessments. I lived in Kenya for ten years in the 1970s. I watched the death and the devastation of the vegetation and soils in Tsavo. Richard Laws research back then was useful and prescient. In terms of cruelty, I used to think at that time that the poaching alongside the starvation may actually have been a good thing, a mercy. Although, as we all know, poachers never kill the right animals to replicate the least unpleasant whole herd culls you rightly argue for. Since corridors, contraception, capture and relocation, and water point management, or nature taking its course, cannot even begin to address a 6% growth rate without serious loss of biodiversity (and, I would argue, loss of soils), there is no alternative to culling.

    • Dear RN,
      Well said. Now spread the word and get more people to start looking at what the TGA says and does. We need memberships; we need membership fees, we need donations. Without money we cannot function. The coffers are in a perpetual state of emptiness – and we have so much more ‘goodness’ to spread.
      What is wildlife management? It is the action that man takes to achieve man desired objectives.
      What are man’s most important objectives? (1) To maintain the biological diversity of our national parks; (2) to ensure that there is an ecological balance in the relationship between the soil, the plants and the animals in our national parks(in that hierarchical order of priority). THAT means the interests of the soil, of the plants and of the habitats in our national parks should supersede our concern for elephants. Elephants are but ONE species in our biological diversity, Elephants should not take precedence over everything else.
      You have seen all this in action. Tell the world about it – and reinforce what we are trying to achieve.
      Well done RN. I wish more people thought like you.


  • This article tackles the issues fairly and squarely The overarching matter is biodiversity In agricultural terms leaving elephant numbers to increase to natural collapse is simply Elephant Monoculture We humans have messed up our planet mostly through ignorance and greed that has given rise to unsustainable consumption of our environment. We have all the tools to put this right but fail to do so because we can not muster the consensus and political will. Emotions now massaged by the massive world wide Media take precedence over rational , scientific reasoning. Sound goal driven conservation management is thwarted from embracing the ultimate long term vision of securing the biodiversity of our planet so that it will be able to adapt to the challenges of climate change and ( even more so ) continued human degradation.
    Without a major effort to preserve our biodiversity and foster its natural development our planet is doomed !

    • Well said Ant! Ron

  • Hi Ron ,
    I find it hard to believe that a professor could advocate the irreparable destruction of vegetation as a means of controlling elephant populations . How animal activist are happy to allow elephants to suffer the pain and trauma of starving to death but are opposed to the culling by a single well aimed shot to the brain is another thing I can not understand .
    I had the privilege of visiting Kruger in the 1950 s as a 10 and as a 12 yr old . How I wish I could clearly recall the vegetation . I do remember large bare areas along the Sabi river and I do remember that one had to go up to Letaba to see elephant
    For various reasons , it was only in 2003 that we started visiting regularly . One of the first things that struck me was the destruction of the vegetation by the now numerous Elephants . Over the last 16 yrs some of the visits coincided with drought years and I was appalled by the lack of ground cover . I remember one time looking out from the Nkumbe lookout and there was not a blade of grass to be seen . I said to my wife that I shudder to think what will happen when the first heavy rain falls . Raindrop impact no infiltration , loss of top soil ,floods , waterways filled with sand and silt , disaster .
    I believe that the deterioration over those 16 years is noticeable . North of Satara there are large areas where grass has been replaced with some sort of broad leaf ” weed ” . We have just completed a two week visit and from the Croc river to above Satara , in most places , the best grass cover we have ever seen . Sadly there are large areas that I believe have suffered such loss of top soil that recovery is impossible . Looking out again from Nkumbe , there is grass but sparse and of poor quality .
    To me , a major concern , and there is nothing that one can do about it , is the fact that apart from a small area around Pretoriuskop , the whole of Kruger is a sweetveld area that evolved by not being heavily grazed in Summer . The large herds migrated to the High veld in Summer and returned to the nutritious dry sweetveld in Winter . One can only try and manage around that problem as best one can but I do wonder what the long long term effect of 12 month grazing of sweetveld will be .

    • Dear Neil,

      Scientists, after all, are also just “people” and they are subject to personal preference opinions just like the rest of us. I think, however, that you have misread whatever it was that I wrote. I have never said that a professor “advocated the irreparable destruction of vegetation as a means of controlling elephant populations”. What HE has said (and has had applied) is that elephant populations should be allowed to increase in number “without constraint” until they outstrip their food supply … that is – a reduction in nutrition (caused by too many elephants) would cause them to halt their rapid rate of reproduction. This happens when lack of food (lack of nutrition) causes lactating mothers to stop producing milk; this causes the death of more and more baby elephants and THAT reduces reproduction. In his own words the elephant population – once it is subject to lack of nutrition – will self-regulate its own numbers (naturally????) by the increasing number of babies that annually fail to reach 12 months of age. Thus starvation kills off more and more babies every year until (he says) the population stops increasing.

      In effect, however, what “too many elephants” has done is to reduce the number of top canopy trees in the deciduous woodlands (that once were) in Kruger National Park by “MORE THAN 95%” (This is a scientific assessment!!); AND, the removal of those trees – because the understory plants could not survive except in the shade of those big canopy trees – has incidentally killed off 100 percent of the incredibly complex understory habitats that once thrived in the shade of those top canopy trees.

      Altogether, the loss of biological diversity in what were once complexly vegetated deciduous woodlands – all over Kruger – must have been immense. And nobody seems worried about this state of affairs….. Even though the mandate that SANParks received from parliament many moons ago was “To maintain species diversity!”

      Your comments, however, were otherwise ‘on target’.

      Kind regards

      Ron Thomson

  • So good to hear voices concerned about habitat and diversity. I just want to add that apart from elephants there is another big man made herbivore called ‘FIRE’. It is a powerful tool to manage habitat and if not used wisely can be just as destructive. Man made ‘hot fires’ at the end of winter or in spring leave bare soil when heavy thunderstorms arrive. This regime leads to poor ground cover as described by Neil. I also strongly agree with Ron that large trees create special conditions and micro habitats which are totally lost without trees. Image the combined effect of hot fires and elephant on bushveld!

    • How really nice to read something by someone who cares and who understands. Well done Lood Wentzel.
      We need YOUR kind of comment to educate those people who are currently uninformed but who truly want to know the facts.

      The normal Veld Fires you get in Kruger National Park are NOT “man-made”(“or unnatural” as you suggest). Veld Fires are a product of this “too many elephants” story, too.

      For veld fires to burn there must be combustible material in the habitat. For fires to burn HOTLY, however, there must be LOTS of combustible material in the habitat… and that means lots of grass (or dead woody material)and dead woody material is normally a product of the previous years’ fires. Grass, however, is the most obvious and the most abundant combustible material in wild veld fires…. which, when driven by a wind, rages across vast stretches of grassland during the dry season (doing a lot damaged to woody plants).

      Habitats, however, grow naturally towards their state of “vegetative CLIMAX” – and a habitat’s climax is the maximum state of growth that the vegetation a particular habitat can grow to. A grassland habitat, for example – IF GRASSLAND is truly the climax vegetation type – will grow to the maximum state of grassland habitats (in terms of grass species and grass mass) which that particular ecosystem is designed to accommodate. AND, you can (naturally) have pockets of grassland growing inside what is otherwise a woodland habitat complex. This will give you a mosaic of different habitat types all growing in the same general area (depending on soil type; temperature regime and rainfall). And all caused or influenced by fire.

      Frost or no frost etc affects a grassland, too. Heavy frosts, for example kill off many tree-species saplings at the height of winter – and this fact favours the grass. Young trees are competitors for the grass – taking both nutrients and moisture (in the soil) away from each other (because they have to share the same soil nutrients and soil water). This is why many low-lying pieces of ground (vleis) remain free of trees. The frost kills off the saplings (or renders them weak); and when the grass burns it kills off the young trees completely. This is why many vlei systems never have trees.

      Above all, however, grassland needs full and open exposure to sunlight. So, one of the prerequisites of a healthy grassland is access to maximum sunlight. When sunlight is deficient grass will not grow – or it won’t grow vigorously – OR only ‘tender’ broad-leafed grasses (grass that like an modicum of shade during the heat of the day), will be found growing in the shade of a tree.

      Fire tends to keep grasslands growing as grasslands, because many grasses are pretty fire-resistant and they will burn hotly when fires come along – the intense heat killing off all the young woody plants that are struggling to grow out (i.e. those that are striving to return to a woodland climax state). But fire doesn’t damaged these kinds of veld grasses – because their perennial root stock is protected from the heat because its root stock is under the ground.

      The botanists will tell you that fire created the savannah habitat (treed/grasslands); and fire maintains it in that state.

      A very large part of Kruger National Park is deciduous woodland climax – which, when the big top-canopy trees were in their climax state, cast considerable shade below their canopies. These semi-shade conditions were ideal for a whole host of understory plants that cannot grow in direct sunlight (they grow in naturally mottled semi-shade conditions under big trees). The understory plants, in “their” shade cast even greater shade beneath – and thus the conditions become perfect for a very diverse and complex understory habitat.

      This, altogether, therefore, reduced the penetration of the sun’s hot and bright rays to ground level – so much so, that grass could NOT grow in those conditions at all.

      When the elephant numbers became “excessive” (i.e. too many elephants for the habitats to sustainably carry) they removed “more than” 95 percent of the deciduous trees that made up the deciduous woodland complex. And once the top canopy trees were gone, 100 percent of understory habitats disappeared, too. Thus, where there were deciduous woodlands all over Kruger National Park before the elephants became too plentiful – when they BECAME “too many” – they created a new situation where sunlight was able to penetrate to the ground everywhere. This promoted grass growth where no grass ever grow before…. and that set a perpetual motion syndrome in place there the grass burned – every year hotter and hotter. The hot fires killed whatever tree sapling were trying to grow – which promoted yet more grass growth – so the vicious circle began.

      The hottest fires in Kruger National Park, however, are constructed by man. They occur when man decides that he wants to burn off a “block of land” (such a block of country that is surrounded on all sides by a system of roads). In the past it has been common practice for game rangers to travel all round such a block setting fire to the grass at the inner road-side. In this way the fire burns inwardly on itself from the surrounding perimeter. As the grass starts to burn more and more fiercely – from all sides all around – it sucks in air from the surrounding country so the fire tends to act like a funnel – or a chimney – and it becomes self-generating. The core area of the fire, therefore, acting like a furnace generates huge temperatures rising towards the burning centre of the chimney which incinerates all plants and animals that have been caught inside the chimney.

      We must never forget, however, that if it wasn’t for the fact that: (1) there are too many elephants in Kruger National Park, more than 95 percent of the top canopy trees in the woodlands would not have been removed; (2) that the shade once cast be those trees (and their undergrowth) used to stop grass from growing on the grou8nd beneath them; and (3) that being so, fiercely hot veld fires would not be possible. Those people, therefore, who separate direct tree damage caused by too many elephants from consequential tree (and sapling) damage caused by hot veld-fires, are not “seeing the bigger picture”. It is the fact that there are too many elephants in Kruger National Park which is causing the very damaging hot fires, too!

      RT. CEO-TGA

      • Thanks Ron for the thorough explanation. It makes one believe in again in the dynamics of nature and plant communities. Things like natural succession in communities are easily ignored nowadays.

        • Dear Loot,
          Keep with it. We have a lot of convincing to do for a lot of people. Our world depends on people like you and me to get “everybody” educated in these things.
          Why don’t you join us as a full member of the TGA. We need people like you ‘working with us’. This not a ‘hallow’ suggestion. I really mean it!
          Kind regards
          Ron Thomson


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