Kruger Park’s biological diversity is in serious trouble! Part 1.

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.



  1. You make one very grave base error, and that is assuming there were no elephants in what is today the Kruger park before 1800 or 1900. The only reason there were no elephants in the 1900’s was because they were LITERALLY ALL shot out. Have you not seen the hunting reports from around 1840 onwards. Tens of thousands of elephants were shot for their ivory, hundreds of thousands of tons of ivory was transported by wagon from the lowveld to Delagoa Bay and others and from there around the world.

    This is well documented and it is very narrow minded to assume elephant history starts with the first westerners arriving in the area. The area by 1900 was not pristine by any stretch of the imagination, as it was literally littered with the carcasses of thousands of elephants. I quote from Cornwallis Harris’ book “Hunting the wild elephant”… – “(just) in 1855 it was estimated that 90 000 kg of ivory was exported from the Transvaal” and “as Jan Viljoen (210 elephants killed on a single expedition), Henry Hartley (1 000–1 200 killed in the course of his career), William Finaughty (95 elephants yielding 2 200 kg of ivory), Jakob Makoetle, and the Venda chief Makhado, are leading personalities in this regard (Delius, 1983; Wagner, 1980; MacKenzie, 1988)”. The hunting records aren’t “here and there” as stated but there are many, many that document the wholesale butchery that took place in that century.

    In 1860 there is a report of a herd of 300+ elephants in Magaliesberg. Can you really think that in 500AD or 1450AD there were no or very few elephants in the Lowveld. That is entirely incorrect. No-one will ever know how many but scientists estimate between 20000 and 50000 elephants inhabited the lowveld between the Drakensberg and the Mozambique coast. And well over 2 million in Africa. The acacias, boabab, marula, torchwood, dung beetles and countless others evolved WITH the untold thousands of herds of elephants in the millennia before they were ruthlessly slaughtered to the point that there were none left by 1900.

    While the elephants in the Kruger are now our responsibility because we have corralled them, (and will probably self regulate over time) one must not make broad false base assumptions just because there was no-one around who could take records.

    • Ron Thomson

      I understand this argument. And I don’t dispute it. But I am not undertaking a geological history of Kruger National Park. It is my purpose in these blogs to record and to discuss ONLY the elephant management programmes that took place in Kruger from 1960 to the present time…. and prehistory doesn’t affect ANY of that.
      Even sometime BEFORE 1900 – there were NO elephants in what is now Kruger National Park. So we have to accept that after the last elephants were shot out of the region in the late 1800s elephants had NO detrimental effect on the vegetation whatsoever. And THAT is my point. From 1900 to 1955 the standing elephant population over all those years had no detrimental impact on the sustainability of the elephant habitats. And in those 50 (+) years the vegetation must have reached near pristine climax. It was only in the late 1950s and into the 1960s (and onwards) that elephant-induced habitat degradation became noticeable.,, which is when the culling programme was orchestrated.

  2. Tom Dreyer

    Well written. I think the rest of the world thinks that the whole of Africa is an open piece of land where all animals roam free, and that is why they do not understand the management techniques applying to Africa, and to a greater extend South Africa. The dilemma we face is we want our wildlife to prosper, but to do that we have to fence them in, as the main problem is that wildlife clashing with humans, it is not white tailed deer or red stag, it is, to name a few elephants, lions, buffalo, rhino and leopard, these animals the big five if they clash with humans it comes down to killing the animals 99% of the time, and that is why we fence them in. Now if they can understand that then it is easy to understand why we have to implement managemand programs. And even the Kruger although it is almost 20000km2 it is still fenced in.

    • Ron Thomson

      Dear Tom, Thank you for your understanding response to my Kruger National Park elephant management blogs. There are a lot more to come…. so keep looking for them. They will take you step by step into the complete understanding that what has happened in KNP since 1960 – and what is happening there today – is nothing short of a disaster. The main thrust of the message I portray is, however, that we have lost a huge part of the old Kruger’s biological diversity already, and there are even greater losses to come. I mean…. can you visualise just WHAT we have lost already when you consider that “more than 95% of the parks top canopy trees have already gone” (and when you know that the greatest part of the game reserve’s biological diversity once existed in the layered and shaded habitats that once occurred below the canopies of those big trees).

      I will be explaining (in a later blog) that you don’t actually have to “fence” the elephants into Kruger to keep them bottled up. When the human population density that surrounds Kruger exceeds 15 people per hectare (or 40 people per square mile) their very presence will keep the elephants away from the perimeter zones (which is still relatively lightly populated). There are 750 million people in Africa, South of the Sahara Desert today, however, and by the end of this century that human population will have grown to over 4 billion! Can you imagine what the human pressures on Kruger are going to be like by 2100?
      We have no option but to manage the national park (as an entire ecosystem) – and to manage it with courage and determination – because very soon that management is going to require a great deal of understanding, tough love and hard action.

      Kind regards


  3. Wolf Cilliers

    When I worked as a student as part of the Kruger Park research team back in 1981 elephants were still culled to keep their number around 7,000. I am a great lover of nature and Kruger Park but realised it is a artificial situation with the fences and so the whole ecological setup must be resposibly and scientifically managed as well.
    The best solution is to control the numbers of species like elephants, hippo and buffalo as was done in those years. If not, vegetation will take the brunt and eventually be damaged beyond recovering. It is as simple as that. Elephants in particular are the biggest factor in the destruction of vegetation.

    Why on earth the SANParks leadership decided to terminate the culling of animals is something II simply cannot get my head around. Might it be that they are brainwashed by the animal rights agenda? Or what?

    If I could offer advice I would suggest that the SANParks Council consult with the senior research team members of those years like doctors Solomon Joubert, Anthony Hall-Martin, Ian Whyte, Willem Gertenbach, Piet van Wyk, Freek Venter, and also others like Tol Pienaar if he is still alive, etc.

    • Ron Thomson

      You are more right than you might think. But my blogs on the Kruger elephants would be spoilt if I answered all your ideas right now. All I can say is that you are on the right track. So keep checking out my blogs on the TGA website and they will fill you in completely.

      So good to see that there are more and more people with common sense between their ears – out “there” in the general public. By the time I am finished with this “episode” I hope that we shall have MOST people on our side.

      Kind regards

  4. Andre Veenstra

    As a regular Kruger visitor it does not take a rocket sientist to see the damage caused by the Elephant population!!!This is no surprize to me!!! Managment have this head in the sand attitude to exacatly this !! Not interfearing with elephant populations in Kruger is a tipical Greanpeace fiasco blown up politicly by perso s knowing nothing about nature! The day that the park was fenced off…. that day we enterfered with nature for good and for good reasons! So we have to enterfere to get a balance back!(sorry for spelling a am actually Afrikaans speaking) Good luck!! Save our heratige I will support!!!

    • You are exactly right! And THAT is the purpose of my blogs – to tell the rest of South Africa just what you have here pointed out.
      Don’t worry about your command of the English language – which, incidentally, is not at all bad. The language of “the conservation world” is universal. Everyone reading your letter will understand very clearly what you mean.
      Ron Thomson

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