Elephant Management in Kruger National Park (1).
Elephant management in Kruger has been a perpetual worry for me because I intensely disapprove of the national park’s current elephant management programme; and I watch and I listen for information that will tell me that my fears are groundless. But no such reports have ever come. The situation, in fact, is just the opposite. The more I hear and read, the more my fears are vindicated.
Why am I so worried? Firstly, because I know that what is happening in Kruger is the result of animal rightist interference – political pressure – (not honest science); and because I know that that influence is still great and that it is continuous. In my opinion, therefore, all South African nature-lovers should also be very worried about this state of affairs.
If you want to really understand my worries you will have to listen to a long story. You will fail to grasp even the fundamentals of the situation if all I give you are brief superficialities which, I am afraid – coupled with a great deal of animal rights propaganda – is all that South Africans have been constantly fed (with respect to Kruger’s elephants) over the last 20 years and more.
Yes, it has been that length of time – 23 years – that the current Kruger elephant management programme (no culling) has been in operation. And, in my opinion, it is time that programme be reviewed by honest scientists who understand the principles of wildlife management; who are not connected in any way to SANParks (The South African National Parks Board); and who are not contaminated by any kind of involvement with the animal rights movement. It is time, also, that a properly informed public has the opportunity to make its voice heard, too.
My objective in writing this series of blogs is to turn YOU – my readers – into that “properly informed public”. To do that, I will give you as much information as I think is necessary about the history of elephants and their management in Kruger, and enough understanding about the general principles and practices of wildlife management, to enable YOU to make up your own mind on this vitally important subject.
Gird your loins. You are about to become an “expert” on elephant ‘conservation’.
There were no elephants in what is now Kruger National Park at the beginning of the 20th Century (in the year 1900). In those days the habitats were untouched by elephants. There are records, here and there, of hunters having shot elephants in the general lowveld area of South Africa during the 1800s – of which Kruger is a part – but, by and large, the Kruger habitats in 1900 were pristine. So the habitat baselines, on which this history is constructed, were not affected by any kind of elephant activity at that time.
The first elephants known to have taken up permanent residence in Kruger after 1900 – one group of six, another of four – arrived in the Letaba-Olifants river junction area (in the middle of the park), in 1905. I have no record of their sexes. It is thought these animals were escapees from intense hunting pressure in nearby Mozambique to the east.
These, however, could not have been the only elephants to start living in the park at that time, because even at what is considered by many to be a very high rate of annual reproduction (7.2 percent) 10 elephants could not have accounted for an elephant population of 3500 in 1955 – which is my calculated tally.
NB: To determine the doubling time of an elephant population, all you have to do is to divide the annual incremental rate (annual rate of population increase) into the ‘magic’ number 72. An incremental rate of 5 percent, for example, will double the population number in 14.4 years; 6.8 percent doubles it in 10.5 years; and 7.2 percent doubles it in exactly 10 years.
To make up the numbers that were in the park in 1955 (c.3500), at least another 100 elephants must have come into the park, and resided elsewhere, at about that time (or even more if they came in during the years after 1905). Although these calculated statistics are interesting, and although they are not really important to the management story that I am about to tell you, they do, at least, provide you with the kind of management aura you need to have if you want to “think elephant management”.
What we do know is that, in 1967, Kruger’s elephant population was considerably in excess of 7000 because, that year, several hundred were removed, by culling, to reduce the number to 7000. And THIS after-culling number – 7000 – is absolutely accurate! The incremental rate of the Kruger population, at that time – determined by biological autopsy – was concluded to be 6.8 percent (not too different from 7.2)! Many people – who have another agenda – will tell you that both these figures are impossibly too high.
NB: The numbers of breeding cows in an elephant population is, actually, the factor that determines just how many calves are born into each population every year; and it is quite possible that an elephant population could increase at a rate as high as 15 percent per annum if the right majority of cows are present. This figure (15%) was actually quoted by a highly qualified scientist at an open meeting of Private Elephant Owners in Pilanesberg Game Reserve about 10 years ago. So I don’t pay too much attention to people who insist that my incremental assumptions are wrong.
Let’s look at an actual case in point!
In Botswana during the 1990s decade, that country’s elephant population was reported to have increased from 54 500 to 120 600 (between 1990 and the year 2000). This represents an average annual incremental rate of 8.3 percent! So it is very possible for elephant populations to double their numbers every 10 years! All sorts of excuses were offered at the time, suggesting that the Botswana calculations were inaccurate. So, even the scientists were unsure that their figures were correct. I believe they were correct, however, because for many, many years, large numbers of elephant bulls have been shot on licence in Botswana when elephant cows were never killed. So the bull-to-cow sex ratio in Botswana’s elephant herds – instead of being 1:1 – has always been greatly skewed in favour of the cows.
Now I am going to do some guessing, and I am going to make some assumptions. I ask you – in the absence of more definitive figures – to consider and accept my rationale. And, anyway, you will come to understand that it is really not important for these figures to be absolutely correct – because the main theme of my story starts in 1967 after which the Kruger elephant population was reduced, by culling, to 7000 every year, and pegged at that number over the next 27 years (until 1994).
If we can accept that, however many hundreds of elephants were removed in 1967 during the park’s first cull, they represented (roughly) the combined two year increment of the numbers of elephants that were extant in the park in 1965. We can now make some confident extrapolations. We can, for example, reliably presume that the Kruger National Park elephant population in 1965 numbered (roughly) 7000. And THAT figure enables us to calculate that the elephant population in 1955 was 3 500.
NB: If an elephant population doubles its numbers every 10 years – going forwards – we can calculate that 10 years before 1965 (in the year 1955) – going backwards – the population was half what it was in 1965.
So now we have established a very rough – but reasonably accurate – elephant population figure for the year 1955. In 1955 there were plus-or-minus 3500 elephants in Kruger National Park! This is something of a yardstick!
Blog by blog, I will now take you through the process of understanding just what has happened to Kruger’s elephants from 1955 to the present time.