Elephant Management in Kruger National Park (3)
In the last blog in this series (No.2.) we determined that during the 27 year long culling era (1967-1994), the culling objective in Kruger National Park – to maintain the elephant population at 7000 animals – was based upon an incorrect assessment of the ecological circumstances. The whole reason the culling programme was instituted was to arrest the constantly deteriorating state of the Kruger National Park habitats in the face of a rapidly expanding elephant population. And desired objective – stopping the serious habitat destruction – was not accomplished.
The yardstick, in all these deliberations, was the 1944 Satara top canopy tree study (which determined that, on average, there were 13 trees per hectare at Satara)! Right up until 1955 this number did not change.
The ultimate culling objective, therefore, was to create and to maintain Kruger’s habitats in a healthy and sustainable state. That was not achieved because, despite all the pointers – telling everybody that it was wrong – the target set for the culling quota – 7 000 – was far too high. No adjustment was ever made to that number and I cannot understand why.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand and to interpret the following figures:-
- – 13 top canopy trees in the Satara study area – c.1 750 elephants
- – 13 top canopy trees in the Satara study area – c. 3 500 elephants
- – 9 top canopy trees in the Satara study area – c. 7 000 elephants
- – Culling commenced: Target – reduce the population to: 7 000 every year
- – 6 top canopy trees in the Satara study area – 7 000 elephants
- – 3 top canopy trees in the Satara study area – 7 000 elephants
- – 1,5 top canopy trees in the Satara study area – 7 000 elephants
- – Trees in the whole park reduced by (est) 95% – 7 000 elephants.
A quick glance at these figures should tell you a number of things:
(1). Up until 1955, the number of elephants in the national park – in living memory – had had no ill-effects on the Kruger habitats. The elephants’ annual rate of utilisation of the vegetation – by however many elephants there were over the years – through eating and (seemingly) wanton destruction – was sustainable. And we have already calculated that, in 1955, the elephant population numbered 3 500! We can be reasonably sure, therefore, that – because sometime following 1955 – the elephants started to damage the park’s habitats irreparably – that 3 500 elephants represented the probable sustainable elephant carrying capacity of the Kruger National Park at that time.
(2). This is supported by the fact that measurable damage to the top canopy trees in the Satara study area, started to occur sometime between 1955 and 1965. Indeed, this damage was first alluded to by the Kruger scientists in 1960. And by 1965 the Satara trees had been reduced from 13 to 9 trees per hectare (a reduction of 31% during a period of less than10 years). At that time (1965), the estimated number of elephants in the park we calculated (in the previous blog on this subject) to be “about” 7 000. This – read together with the fact that Satara trees had been reduced, since 1955, to 9 – was the first ecological warning that should have told the scientists that the standing elephant population at that time (c.7 000) was far too many.
(3). When culling commenced in 1967 there were several hundred more elephants in the park (from two years of breeding) than 7 000 – and the culling teams removed these surplus animals to reduce the population to 7000. By 1967, another two trees (another 15 percent) had been removed. So by 1967, the percentage of trees lost at Satara had risen to 46%). That left 7 trees out of the original thirteen.
(4). During the first seven years of the culling era (1967-1974), the elephant population in Kruger was religiously maintained at 7 000 animals by culling. That year (1974), however, it was determined that the trees at Satara had been reduced still more – to just 3 trees per hectare. This meant 77% of the top canopy trees that had once occurred in the Satara area had been removed by elephants over the previous 20 years. And, still, the same studious adherence to the culling quota continued. Nobody put two and two together. Nobody ever voiced the opinion that 7 000 elephants was far too many for Kruger to carry.
(5). By 1981, the Satara trees had been reduced to 1,5 trees per hectare (representing just 11.5 percent of the original thirteen). So 88.5 percent of the original top canopy tree population in Satara area was gone by 1981.
(6). By 1994 – when elephant culling was stopped in Kruger National Park – due to exceptionally heavy animal rights pressure – the counting of trees in the Satara area was stopped (probably because there were so few left to count), and the state of the park’s top canopy trees was thereafter expressed as a thumb-suck percentage of the whole. Furthermore, no further reference is made to the Satara top canopy tree study and, for the first time, we start hearing about the top canopy trees (of the park as a whole), having been reduced “by 95%”.
(7). And today, what we hear are constant utterances to the effect that Kruger’s top canopy trees have been reduced by “more than 95%”.
This is all a very sad state of affairs and it does not reflect the great pride and enthusiasm that South African nature-lovers once had for their beloved Kruger National Park! I hope that this series of blogs will reawaken their lost spirit and make them come to understand the exciting prospects that lie ahead for everybody to help reinstate the park’s one time glory.
In our fight to achieve public understanding about the best way to manage Kruger’s elephants, we seem to be constantly fighting an uphill battle. But, in the end, we will win because the facts we present are indisputable! And the way we present them is understandable.
Nevertheless, there are charismatic professors in our universities who are very heavily sponsored by animal rightist NGOs – and they have been telling South African society, for a long time, that “elephant culling was tried” in Kruger National Park and “it proved to be a failure”.
And the culling era was a failure – but only because the SANParks culling quota (1967 – 1994), was far too high. Had they chosen to cull the Kruger elephants down to 3500 (starting 1967) and to maintain the population at that level – instead of keeping them at 7000 – the end result would have been very different.
These academicians have proposed – instead of the culling option (which they describe as being “cruel”) – new, more humane and more ‘natural’ ways for elephants to control their own numbers. Unfortunately – as I will prove to you in due course – their experimental ideas (now in operation) pose very great dangers to the national parks’ biological diversity. And it is the Park’s biological diversity we should be focussed on – not ways and means to stop the killing of elephants.
We will be examining these ‘natural’ ways in other blogs later in this series, and I am confident that – when you have mulled over all the facts – you will pronounce the TGA’s opinions right and those of the animal rights-orientated professors, wrong.
Was the culling era in Kruger National Park really such a failure? Yes it was. A dismal failure! And I have just explained the reasons why!
I state the number 3 500 – as being the probable elephant carrying capacity for Kruger National Park when the habitats were still healthy (mid-1950s) – with total confidence. And I came to that conclusion from two directions:
- Fortuitously we, together, discovered this figure almost by accident. We calculated, by backward extrapolation, that the elephant population in 1955 was 3 500; and we just happened to know that, in 1955, the elephants had not yet had any negative impact on the number of trees in the Satara study area. Lucky circumstances! Lucky indeed! But the exact right number truly just landed in our laps.
NB: The elephant carrying capacity of any wildlife sanctuary is the maximum number of elephants that the habitats can sustainably support without incurring permanent vegetation damage.
- Over many, many decades of mulling over many elephant management programmes, and putting into practice elephant population control measures myself, I came to two conclusions:
- When conducting elephant culling programmes only the exact number of that year’s population increase (its annual increment) should and needs to be removed. If this is done religiously every year, the manager will establish and be able to maintain a stable elephant population. The incremental rate is expressed as a percentage of the standing population! I also concluded that, in order to maintain the proper sex ratio in the surviving population, it is desirable to count the number of mature cows that are culled, and then to take off the exact same number of mature bulls. This latter practice has been rarely – if ever – carried out, anywhere.
- When conducting a “population reduction” programme on an “excessive” population of elephants, however, knowing the annual increment rate does not help you in your deliberations. An excessive elephant population is one that grossly exceeds the carrying capacity of its habitat; that is causing great and permanent damage to the habitats; and that is causing massive species diversity loss.
- So the removal of only the population’s annual increment is not enough. Your purpose in wanting to “manage” such a population is governed by your need to drastically reduce its numbers to a level that the remaining habitats can sustainably support. So population reduction management calls for the removal of very large numbers of elephants. That being the case, just how does the elephant manager determine how many elephants he needs to remove? This is actually not too difficult to work out!
A good rule of thumb is that – with excessive populations – you remove 50% of the standing population (whatever that number may be) as a first phase operation. In extreme situations, second and third phases may be necessary – all based on the same criterion: take off 50 percent of the remaining standing population! During the year after every such phase is concluded, botanists should be employed to determine when the take off is enough. They come to that conclusion by measurably detecting that the damaged habitat is starting to recover.
Kruger National Park’s elephant population was definitely excessive in the 1960’s – but not nearly as excessive as are many other elephant populations in southern Africa today. Nevertheless, just as soon as they had determined that their bench-mark tree study at Satara was being seriously damaged, the responsible scientists should have reacted by reducing the culling target substantially. But by how much? In my opinion – in 1967 – by 50 percent! And 50 percent of 7 000 just happens to be 3 500! And when the elephant population stood at 3500 (c.1955), it just so happens that we know the Satara top canopy tree population was unaffected! However we looked at this problem, the same figure kept coming up!
In the next blog in this series, I will offer my rationale in support of my recommendation that excessive elephant populations should be reduced by 50% in the first phase; and again by 50% in all subsequent phases, too, of population reduction programmes – until the damaged habitats start to recover.
Ron Thomson. CEO TRUE GREEN ALLIANCE
In the next several blogs I will prove to you that culling does work – and at that culling is vital and an essential tool of elephant management – but that it was applied incorrectly during the culling era (1967-1994).