Having spent the greater part of my life (60 years) working in and around national parks in Africa, and/or writing about the management of national parks and the management of the wild animal populations that live inside our national parks; and working closely with some of Africa’s top scientists in these fields for many decades, and having had, myself, top academic training in Field Ecology, I have a more than just layman’s interest in and understanding about the problems that face wildlife managers when they contemplate these subjects.
And now that I am the CEO of The True Green Alliance, a Non-Profit company (and Public Benefit Organisation) the purpose of which is: ‘
‘To create a southern African (ultimately global) society that is properly informed about the principles and practices of wildlife management; that understands the wisdom of, and necessity for, the practice of sustainable utilisation of living resources (both wild and domesticated) for the benefit of mankind; that supports animal welfare; and that rejects animal rights – the doctrine of which seeks to abolish all animal uses by man.’
… I feel obligated to pass on to nature-loving South Africans my understanding of all matters concerning the wildlife management of this country’s wild life resources; and the management of our national parks.
In this regard, I recently submitted a report to the Minister’s High Level Panel of Experts, in which I suggested that the Minister would be well-advised to institute an independent Commission of Inquiry into the mis-management of Kruger National Park (KNP). I contended that KNP had been inadequately managed on a number of fronts and that it was time that an independent inquiry be instituted to examine this mismanagement allegation.
It is not my responsibility to determine who should be appointed to that commission – THAT is the Minister’s prerogative – yet at a recent ZOOM conference with members of the High Level Panel I was very nicely and amicably questioned with regard to who I thought should be appointed to such a commission. I have just told you what my response was.
One other question was raised, however, that is highly pertinent to this whole subject. It came from Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, a sustainability economist with unique experience and understanding of the role that markets play in biodiversity management. He is undertaking PhD studies at Oxford University. Michael wanted more information on my ideas about elephant habitat carrying capacities. Unfortunately time did not permit for me to extend to him anything more than a cursory explanation. But I did say I would give him a better answer via email. Here it is comes now.
ELEPHANT HABITAT CARRYING CAPACITY
My criticism of SANParks and what I call its mis-management of elephants in Kruger National Park; and its mis-management of the national park itself, has various facets. One of those facets concerns the organisation’s total disregard of the fact that KNP has (or had) a meaningful elephant carrying capacity at one time that (1967), had that knowledge been applied at the time, would have given it a far greater insight into the elephant management conundrum in Kruger National Park over the following 56 years.
In fairness to SANParks, however, I have to admit that no other national park organization in the whole of Africa (to my knowledge) has given even one iota of thought to the scientific determination of elephant carrying capacities for their national parks; and whatever figures have been bandied around were never ever anything more than pure guesstimates. Indeed, it is probably true to say that a ‘good guesstimate’ is probably the nearest anyone will ever get to determining this important parameter for most national parks – except in the case of KNP. Most elephant carrying capacities that I have ever heard of were actually an individual game warden’s (or research officer’s) person preferences ideas on the subject.
Without knowing the elephant carrying capacity for a national park negates any possibility that the sustainable elephant population number can be calculated. Kruger National Park is 8 000 square miles (or 20 000 ha) in size. How many elephants (all other things being equal) can it sustainably carry? Even knowing the size of an elephant population, and knowing the population’s annual increment, cannot tell you the maximum number of elephants the national park can and should be carrying.
NB: A satisfactory definition of elephant carrying capacity is: the maximum number of elephants that a game reserve (or habitat) can carry without causing permanent (and progressive or irreversible) damage to the habitat.
How on earth can the scientists employed by any national park, anywhere in Africa, work out the elephant carrying capacity figure for any particular game reserve – without being forced to get involved in gigantic vegetation surveys with accurate measurements of plants, the size of which can be re-recorded, and verified, at the same time every year? Remember the deciding factor is that the elephant population – no matter what its size – should not cause permanent, progressive and irreversible damage to the habitat. So, the habitats would have to measured scientifically every year. Theoretically, it can be done. In practical terms such an exercise, however, is a pipe dream.
We had a lucky break with regard to KNP.
In 1944, a botanist called Albert Viljoen established a study area near Satara in which he determined there were, on average, 13 trees per hectare. The trees counted were selected because they had a top canopy spread of 15 metres or more. The purpose of the study was to ascertain expected tree damage by elephants in the years ahead. No tree damage was recorded by 1950, by 1955 or by 1960. In 1965, however, the undamaged trees had been reduced to 9 trees per hectare.
This caused a furore in KNP and a special meeting with the director of SANParks, MrRocco Knobel, was called for by the KNP scientists. Its purpose was to discuss the prospects for an elephant culling programme. It was agreed that elephant culling could and should commence – but Mr Knobel asked some very pertinent questions. He asked how many elephants were resident in Kruger that time (1965). He was told 7000. He then asked: And what is KNP’s elephant carrying capacity? Nobody could tell him. He asked what the population’s incremental rate was. Nobody could (then) tell him.
He then made a statement: How, in the absence of a carrying capacity figure, particularly, do you expect me to agree to an elephant cull? The annual culling target really should be no higher than the carrying capacity figure. And the elephant population, under any and all circumstances, should never be allowed to rise above the elephant carrying capacity figure. (Knobel/Thomson face-to-face discussion, Mahikeng, c.1985).
It was deemed necessary – to process the elephant meat for human consumption – to build an abattoir at Skukuza. It took two years for the abattoir to be constructed (although, in my personal opinion, an abattoir was not necessary. The meat could have been cut into biltong-size strips, salted and dried). The first cull, therefore, took place in 1967. And, that year, as a result of scientific autopsies on breeding cows, it was determined that the annual incremental rate was 7.5 percent. Ian Whyte, et al, also says that “the mean intrinsic rate of increase, for the 31 years between 1967 and 2000 was 7.5 percent per year. He also said: “Their numbers can increase rapidly, doubling their numbers every decade or so”. Mathematically, an annual incremental rate of 7.2 percent, will double an elephant population number in ten years.
All the written records suggest that aerial counts in fixed-wing aircraft are unreliable. Only when helicopters were used for aerial counting does consistency in the numbers stabilize (w.e.f. 1966/7). In the report there was a lot of (understandable) guesswork involved when changing elephant population numbers could not be explained. Ultimately it was suggested that there might have been immigrations and emigrations between KNP and Mozambique. There might have been – Yes – but it was not proved.
My purpose in writing this dissertation, however, is not to be precisely accurate. My purpose is to provide the reader with a probable elephant carrying capacity for Kruger National Park when the habitats were healthy. The guesstimate culling target (7000) has no connection whatsoever to the real elephant carrying capacity. 7000 was the number that Rocco Knobel was given for the elephant population size in 1965 resultant from an aerial count. And, for me it is good enough. And he used that number – in the absence of an accurate elephant carrying capacity figure – as the yardstick culling target. He said that the population should not be allowed to exceed 7000 – until the REAL carrying capacity figure could be determined.
And, it would seem, nobody has bothered to make that determination – to date!
NB: Carrying capacities decline, of course, as the health of the habitat deteriorates. This is why we qualify the term ‘carrying capacity’ with the statement ‘when the habitat was in a climax state’; or ‘when the habitat was healthy’.
The KNP habitats were seemingly ‘healthy’ (undamaged) in 1955 – and they had started to become ‘unhealthy’ (damaged) round or about 1960. So, I assumed that if we could find out what the elephant population was in 1955, that number would be as near as we could ever hope to get to the real or original elephant carrying capacity for KNP. So, my first objective was to determine what the elephant population size was in 1955.
Elephant counts between 1960 and 1955 were hopelessly erratic; and totally unreliable. But the steady annual incremental rate (7.5%) suggested that within reasonable limitations Kruger’s elephants were consistently breeding at a rate that would result in their number doubling “about” every ten years. And, if that incremental rate would double the population numbers going forward in time, it could be equally well used to determine the population size, by halving the numbers, going backwards in time.
And using the parameter provided by a staff member to Rocco Knobel – which stated that the size of the elephant population in 1965 was 7000 elephants – if we half that number, that would (roughly) bring us to the elephant population size for 1955 (when the habitats were still healthy – undamaged). 3500 was that number. And THAT number reflects the elephant carrying capacity of Kruger National Parks when the habitats were still healthy (undamaged).
I am quite prepared to admit that 3500 may not be the exact number we are looking for; but it is closer to the truth than the 7000 animals that most people (still to this day) believe represents KNP’s elephant carrying capacity number. (It is NOT).
After the culling began the top canopy trees in the Satara study area continued to decline.
1955 – 13 trees standing (since 1944)
1965 – 9 trees still standing
1967 – 6 trees still standing (Culling commences)
1974 4 trees still standing (Culling in progress)
1981 1.5 trees still standing (Culling in progress)
1994 Zero trees still standing (Culling terminates)
This (continual damage) proves that 7000 was NOT the elephant carrying capacity for Kruger
In 1994 the KNP scientists assessed the Satara tree status and proclaimed: 95 percent of KNP’s trees, overall, had been eliminated. Today they say the figure is “more than” 95 percent. Another way to make this statement is to say that, today, for every tree still standing in KNP, more than 20 other similar-sized trees were standing alongside that remaining one tree, in 1960.
Using this number (3500) as our benchmark carrying capacity figure we can now determine when Kruger’s elephant population is UNSAFE (i.e. well below the elephant carrying capacity of the habitat and breeding poorly; SAFE (i.e.“at” the carrying capacity and breeding well); or EXCESSIVE (i.e. far above the elephant carrying capacity – and requiring drastic population reduction – 50% or more reduction). Without knowing WHAT the carrying capacity is means you cannot KNOW just what the elephant population SAFETY status is; and, therefore, you cannot give the population its appropriate management therapy.
So it would seem that Kruger National Park, as a whole, should be carrying no more than “about” one elephant per two square miles (or one elephant per five square kilometers.) I obtained a similar result for Hwange National Park (in 1960). Most people will find this number remarkably low. But, unless you want KNP to end up being a desert with minimal biological diversity, I would suggest that our Kruger scientists start checking the veracity of this conclusion – and then sticking to these low numbers; making sure that the elephant density never exceeds one elephant per two square miles (or five square kilometres)
By parliamentary mandate, Kruger National Park’s primary management objective is to maintain the park’s endemic biological diversity. Nothing is more important. Everything else, including tourism, has to be constructed on top of the park’s biological diversity foundation. And in this conundrum, the elephant is but one species of many, all of which deserve exactly the same management attention.
By allowing KNPs once very extensive deciduous woodland to disappear, in its entirety,is a very serious indictment on the quality of Kruger’s present day scientific staff. And the government authorities need to take a very close look at who has been sponsoring today’s KNP elephant management programme. The leading scientist, for example, had his research sponsored to the tune of R9.2 million Rands during the first ten years of his association with IFAW (The International Fund for Animal Welfare); and IFAW (arguably the biggest animal rights organisation in the world) has admitted that its purpose in keeping open its Johannesburg Office is “to make sure that elephant culling is never again practiced in KNP”. And the chief scientist – the man behind the scenes at Pretoria University – has the same desiderata. And IFAW has enough money to buy the whole of Kruger National Park if it has the mind to do so!