Kruger Park’s biological diversity is in serious trouble! 8.

Elephant Management in Kruger National Park (8)

When an elephant population is expanding – and, for simplicity’s sake, doubling its numbers every 10 years – once it breaks through the 100 percent safe saturation level (the sustainable habitat carrying capacity level) it gallops on to ever higher percentage levels very quickly. And no matter what their actual numbers are, any population that exceeds the 100 percent level, is considered to be “excessive”. The scary thing about this phenomenon is the ever greater rate of the population’s increasing numbers.

NB: 100 percent could comprise 1000, 10 000 or any other number of elephants – which is why it is preferable to talk about the elephant carrying capacities of different game reserves as being at the 100 percent level. Using the percentage parameter levels the playing field and makes comparisons uniformly applicable.

NB: I accept that not all elephant populations enjoy an annual incremental rate of  7.2 percent (which gives a doubling time of 10 years); but some do (e.g. Botswana’s elephants increased at an annual rate of 8.3 percent throughout the 1990’s decade). This “maximum” incremental rate occurs (under natural conditions), however, when habitat resources are not limiting – and that state of affairs ONLY occurs before and during the “surge” phase of the population’s growth pattern. That is the only time in an elephant population’s existence, when habitat resources – food, water, shelter and lebensraum – are constantly plentiful.

Using the figure 7.2 percent is convenient because it is very easy to then predict population expectancies every 10 years. It is important to point out, however, that when growing elephant populations cannot, or do not, disperse – and when they are then forced to eat the parental plant stock of their habitats to survive – the population will continue to double its number every 10 years even when it is technically excessive. This is possible because their nutrition levels are STILL not limiting (and that state of affairs will remain in force until the parental plant stock becomes exhausted).

Instead of now presenting you with gigantically tall graphs that depict the annual increase in an excessive elephant population, I am now going to resort to a simple list of numbers depicting time spans of 10 years and the doubling effect on the elephant population numbers. The population depicted on the graphs I have given you in previous blogs, shows that it took 20 years to reach the 10 percent level of its habitat’s carrying capacity. After that, the rate of increase changes dramatically. These statistics apply to SAFE populations living within the carrying capacities of their habitats:-

  • 10 percent – is reached in 20 years;
  • 20 percent – is reached in 30 years;
  • 40 percent – is reached in 40 years;
  • 80 percent – is reached in 50 years; and
  • The 100 percent level is reached in just three more years!

And, if this elephant population is “boxed in” by fences or by heavy human population densities (which both inhibit elephant dispersals) after the elephant numbers exceed the 100 percent level, the population “explodes”. It is then correctly classified as being “excessive”.

The following time periods and population increases – after the 100 percent level has been reached – are here provided (below) to give you some perspective of the ever increasing rate of the population ”explosion” effect. These statistics are applicable to “excessive” elephant populations after the100 percent level has been penetrated.

  • 200 percent – is reached in 10 years.
  • 400 percent – is reached in 20 years.
  • 800 percent – is reached in 30 years.
  • 1600 percent – is reached in 40 years.
  • 3200 percent – is reached in 50 years.

This theoretical state of affairs will never happen, of course, because during “some” period in between – sometime within this 50 year period – the elephants will exhaust the available stock plants (the parent “hedge” plants) that have been keeping them alive. The elephant population will then collapse; so will the game reserve’s entire ecosystem. And when that time comes, many plants and animals will have been long ago rendered locally extinct.

NB: Keep in mind the fact that even the Kruger scientists admit that Kruger National Park’s top canopy tree population has already been reduced by “more than 95 percent” (since 1960) – which supports this thesis. These top canopy trees are (or were) part of the “parent-hedge-row-plants” that once sustainably nourished all of Kruger National Park’s herbivores with their annually surplus growth. And today that cornucopia of abundance is tottering on the brink of exhaustion.

NB: Also keep in mind that, elsewhere in southern Africa, Botswana’s Ngamiland game reserves and Zimbabwe’s Hwange and Gonarezhou national parks are, in my estimation, all over 2000 percent overstocked. If society can understand and accept that this state of affairs actually exists, the potentially massive regional catastrophe that looms over our heads will be better understood – and, perhaps, to a degree, might be circumvented. But before anything can be done about it, this state of affairs has to be understood, accepted and acknowledged by society at large. Don’t listen to the self-serving animal rightists’ rhetoric. That is all emotional hyperbole used for the purpose of extracting large sums of money from a gullible public. Instead evaluate, in your own way, the common sense rationale that is offered in this series of blogs.

What I can tell you, with absolute confidence and certainty, is that – because there is no elephant population management system in place in Kruger National Park at this time; and because this absolute state of affairs has persisted for the last 22 years (since 1994); and because prior to 1994 (1967 – 1994) an inadequate culling programme was in operation in the park; this state of affairs is already very well advanced.

So, what is the answer? What has to happen in Kruger National Park to avoid this catastrophic ecosystem disaster?   What has to happen to save what is left of Kruger’s one-time immense biological diversity? There is only one answer: elephant population reduction!


Let us now, therefore, have a look at this possibility – that an elephant population reduction management programme be instituted in Kruger National Park. How many elephants need to be “taken off”? The answer – in the first phase of such an operation – is 50 percent of the standing population. And what does that mean in actual numbers? We don’t know!

The official numbers are currently in dispute. It has been postulated, by several knowledgeable sceptics, that the current SANPark’s scientists admit only to those numbers that support their new elephant management philosophy of a “natural” self-regulating population. The top scientist, Dr Sam Ferreira, offers the official number of 17 000. Many people say the actual number is much higher.

If we take the 1994 figure of the then known population (7000) – and double that number every 10 years – we come to an estimated 28 000 for 2014. Dr. Salomon Joubert, an eminent wildlife manager and scientist who has lived most of his life in Kruger National Park, a man who once managed the park in its entirety – working on a 6 percent annual increment – believes that the current population could be as high as 25 000 or 26 000.

NB: In this regard, it must be noted, there are many uncertain and sometimes ugly undercurrents flowing in and around wildlife management issues in Kruger National Park today – especially with respect to elephant management. This has happened because of the deep involvement in SANPark’s wildlife management affairs by that arch-animal-rightist group, IFAW (the International Fund for Animal Welfare) which I intend to discuss in a later blog. Nevertheless, let us be gracious. Let us accept Dr Ferreira’s official figure of 17 000. And, who knows, his assessment may be correct!

Fifty percent of 17 000 is 8 500. So that would be my estimate of the numbers that have to be taken off the Kruger elephant population in the first phase of an elephant population reduction programme. But that would not be nearly enough. This is a very serious statement that is coloured by extensive past experience. During the culling era (1967 – 1994), I have already explained that the 7 000 culling target was far too high. Why? Because holding the elephant population during that 27 year period – at 7 000 – was not enough to stop the almost total destruction of the park’s top canopy trees. So – nothing has changed. Seven thousand was too high a number then; and it is too high a number today. In this case, therefore – according to my own population reduction programme rules – we would have to institute a second phase operation and take off   50 percent of the remaining 8500. That would reduce the remnant population to 4 250. But, that too, would not be enough.

We have clear hindsight knowledge that tells us that when the elephant population stood at an estimated 3 500 (circa 1955) the trees in the Satara Top Canopy Tree study area were left intact. I believe, therefore, 3 500 was, originally, the true elephant carrying capacity of Kruger National Park (circa 1955).

Nevertheless, I must also point out that the Kruger habitats that existed in 1955 are greatly degraded when compared to the habitats that exist there today. The most significant change is that today, most of the top canopy trees that existed in 1955 have disappeared; and the physiognomic character of the national park has changed. The sustainable habitat carrying capacity (for elephants) is now, therefore, much reduced. I believe it would be prudent, therefore, for the elephants of Kruger to be reduced not “by” any number, but “to” 2 500 – and kept at that level (by an annual culling programme) until the habitats have recovered. This may take 50 years or more.

Acceptance of this rationale, and the implementation of such an elephant population reduction programme, is the only way for South African society to protect Kruger National Park’s biological diversity! And THAT is the most important of all considerations.

So much for the animal rightists’ insistence at CITES CoP17 in Johannesburg, last year, that the African elephant is facing extinction!


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 225 posts and counting. See all posts by Ron Thomson

One thought on “Kruger Park’s biological diversity is in serious trouble! 8.

  • Hi Ron

    You end off this brilliant series of articles with

    “So much for the animal rightists’ insistence at CITES CoP17 in Johannesburg, last year, that the African elephant is facing extinction!”

    The animal rightists are correct, the African elephant is facing extinction if we carry on managing them as the animal rightists would have us manage them.

    Kindest regards
    Trevor Oertel


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