I ask this question now with a lot more hope than when I asked it previously. And for full expression, this report should be read together with my African Wildlife Initiative Programme (AWIP). I have to add, however, that although the AWIP report is somewhat out of date, it still contains major principles which hold true. A copy of my AWIP document will be sent to
you both separately. You say you are looking for new and innovative ideas to create a turnabout policy for the management of Kruger National Park? You will find the kind of new ideas that you seek, and that will work, in the AWIP document.
I have just finished reading a report, written by Ms. Helena Kriel and Mr Don Pinnock, on the subject of Kruger National Park and its many woes. The report to which I am referring appeared in the Daily Maverick Newspaper in late January 2022. I am as unimpressed with the Daily Maverick as I am with Mr Pinnock (because he is a fanatical animal rights extremist and I am opposed to such people’s destructive doctrine) but this time, some of what Pinnock and his co-writer reported, was refreshing and very welcome to my ears. And those parts of the report that interested me the most were attributed to Messrs Dziba and Coleman.
There were also, however, several statements and attitudes ascribed to SANParks that gave me cause for concern. The first of these relates to the fact that SANPark’s will “struggle to access third-party funding”. In this regard I can foresee the very affluent animal rights movement in the First World offering to provide the scarce private finance for such things as the upgrading of Kruger’s existing tourist accommodations and infrastructure throughout the park. SANParks has used this avenue several times before but they should beware doing so (again) in this regard. Going to bed with the Devil is not a wise thing to do because ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune!’
My credentials: Please let me introduce myself. My name is Ron Thomson. Briefly: For the first 30-odd years of my adult life (starting in 1959) I was employed in various government national parks and wildlife management departments in southern Africa. Thereafter, for the next 30-odd years, I was self-employed and operated as an investigative wildlife management journalist. Altogether, therefore, for 62 years, I have been involved within the ambit of national parks and wildlife management.
One of my past posts was that of Provincial Game Warden in charge of Hwange National Park in what is now Zimbabwe. Another was Director of the Bophuthatswana National Park Board. I am a university-trained Field Ecologist (cum laude). My hands-on experience in big game management hunting, in general game management, and in national park administration, is as vast as it is varied.
My special interests are elephant and black rhino management. I have written some 20 books on big game hunting (and related stories) and several tertiary-level university text books on wildlife management.
The pioneer black rhino capture team that I constructed and led in Rhodesia in those days (1964 – 1971) included the donation of 15 black rhinos to Kruger National Park. So the fortunes of Kruger’s black rhinos are of very great personal interest to me.
I also conducted and headed the only elephant population reduction programme ever (to my knowledge) to take place in Africa during which we reduced the Gonarezhou population from 5000 to 2500 inside a period of just 2x1months (in 1971 and 1972). In other words, we did not just remove the population’s annual increment (culling), we cut the population in half (first step population reduction). I believe full scale elephant population reduction is what all the elephant sanctuaries in southern Africa should be contemplating at this time because they are all carrying far too many elephants.
I am currently CEO of a South African NGO called THE TRUE GREEN ALLIANCE (TGA)
The TGA’s Vision is: To create a southern African (and ultimately global) society that understands and supports the principles and practices of science-based wildlife management; that recognizes and supports the wisdom of sustainably using our living resources for the benefit of mankind; that supports animal welfare; and that denounces the animal rights doctrine the purpose of which is to abolish all animal uses by man.
SANParks, therefore, should have no problem associating with the aspirations and the objectives of the TGA. And the TGA certainly supports SANParks. TGA is a founding member of SUCo-SA (The Sustainable Use Coalition.
I have to tell you, however, that Kruger National Park’s overall elephant carrying capacity is some 3500 (+/- 500), calculated at a time when the habitats were still healthy (1955). And you, yourselves, admit that Kruger’s current elephant population now numbers 31 527, which is 9 times greater than the national park’s sustainable elephant carrying capacity threshold.
That fact is why Kruger has lost ‘more-than’ 95 percent of its top canopy trees since 1960. And the fact that Kruger has carried an ever-growing and always grossly excessive elephant population for the last 60-odd years MUST have resulted in Kruger National Park losing the bulk of its species diversity.
And maintaining the park’s species diversity has been Kruger’s primary parliamentary mandate since 1926!
SANParks, therefore, has a lot to answer for. And I make no apology for making such a bold and terrible statement. I do so because that fact is true!
Without apology I am being very blunt. And I am being blunt, purposefully, not because I wish to be offensive but because my experience with the Kruger scientific community (since 1960) has taught me that there is no other way to get these points through to the SANParks hierarchy. I trust, therefore, that you will forgive me my audacity! I have no wish to make the staff of Kruger National Park my enemy. Indeed some of them are my much respected friends. But it is important that the Kruger staff take me seriously, and that they give serious thought to what I am trying to tell them. You two members of the Kruger hierarchy (Messrs Dziba and Coleman) are the first, in my experience, to demonstrate that you are starting to recognize where the REAL Kruger problem lies.
Firstly, I must point out that in my opinion, the Kruger wildlife management staff has not managed the park’s elephant population properly over the last 62 years. By that, I mean, Kruger’s elephant numbers have been excessive since 1960 and nobody has bothered to reduce their numbers to anywhere near the sustainable carrying capacity level.
Secondly, nobody in the SANPark’s hierarchy has yet made any real attempt to integrate the needs of the national park with the needs of the local rural communities.
Both these deficiencies are fundamental to the mire in which the national park now finds itself.
There has, apparently, recently been talk of a rethink; of a rescue plan (which, it is said, is starting to take shape); and of “Coleman’s Internal Turnaround Plan” that, apparently, takes a hard look at the problems that need to be solved. This gives me hope for the future. It means that if Messrs Dziba and Coleman keep an open mind as they seem to be doing – there is still hope for Kruger National Park’s resurrection.
One of the constant bones-of-contention between me and the scientific staff in Kruger, has been my insistence (and their denial) that the elephant carrying capacity for Kruger National Park is 3500. Had they listened to me 40 years ago, Kruger National Park’s current and progressive ecological collapse (and it is now, most certainly, in a free-fall break-down) would not have taken place. They didn’t listen. Indeed, they ridiculed me. And so the rot set in. But this is not about me! It is about the fact that Kruger National Park is in a state of self-destruction that nobody seems to be worrying about. It is about me only insofar as you can be assured that I will continue to worry this bone!
Nevertheless, for as long as it takes you to read this report, I am going to ask you to accept my assurance that the elephant carrying capacity for Kruger’s (then healthy) habitats, circa 1955, was 3500 +\- 500. Only if you do so, will this report make any sense.
Unfortunately, because the Kruger habitats have been allowed to be so very heavily damaged (as indicated by the fact that the Kruger woodland habitats have lost more than 95 percent of their 1960 top-canopy-trees), the park’s current and sustainable elephant carrying capacity must be now much less than 3500!
You will want to know why I am so adamant about this figure! And I do understand that you might find this fact worrisome. So, I have provided you with my complete and very simple reasoning in the appendix to this report. Therefore, if you read the appendix with an open mind, I am confident that you will have no option but to accept the fact that I am right. My conclusions, after all, are based upon the Kruger scientists’ own and meticulously recorded annual data during the (1967-1994) elephant culling era; and the recorded facts surrounding the progressive and total destruction of the 1944 Satara top-canopy-trees during this same period. And don’t forget that, when the elephant culling programme was first discussed and approved in 1967, the fact that the Kruger scientists had no idea of the park’s sustainable elephant carrying capacity, also worried the National Parks Board Director, Dr Rocco Knobel. Furthermore, my own concerns about the fact that the Kruger scientists’ had had no idea, nor any apparent interest in, the park’s elephant carrying capacity, had its beginnings in several private and lengthy discussions I had with Dr. Knobel in 1984, 1985 and 1986.
The appendix not only explains how I came to this carrying-capacity conclusion, but why it is such an important wildlife management parameter. Indeed, I believe that without any knowledge of a habitat’s elephant carrying capacity, it is well-neigh impossible for any wildlife manager to properly manage an elephant population.
The definition of a sustainable elephant carrying capacity is:
The MAXIMUM number elephants that a game reserve can carry without them causing permanent and progressive damage to the sanctuary’s habitat.
This means that if a wildlife manager permits too many elephants to live in a game reserve – in fact if he permits just one elephant too many – they will cause permanent damage the habitat; and that, concomitantly, will cause the loss of species diversity. And these two things have been happening continuously in Kruger National Park since 1960.
Elephant carrying capacity, therefore, should be the single most important guiding factor that determines just how many elephants a game reserve can and should be carrying.
The Kruger scientists, themselves, have told South African society that, since 1960, the game reserve’s top-canopy-trees, overall, have been reduced by more than 95 percent. And that is habitat damage. Another thing that these statistics tells us is that for every large tree that is still standing in Kruger National Park today, there were another 20 equivalent-sized large trees standing alongside it in 1960. And that reality – when visualized with open eyes – is the indisputable proof that tells us all that, since 1960, Kruger National Park has been consistently carrying far too many elephants. And you can’t get away from that reality. That is ‘the truth’.
So, since 1960, Kruger’s habitats have been degrading every year not just drastically and constantly, but devastatingly, because the park has been carrying far too many elephants for far too long; and because maintaining the park’s species diversity has been SANParks’ most important wildlife management objective since way back in history. So, Kruger National Park has been losing its biological diversity hand-over-fist for the last six decades.
The too many elephants problem must surely, therefore, be SANParks’ most important and most urgent wildlife management problem to resolve?
I am not going to offer any suggestions, criticisms or advice about the rhino poaching saga. I have my own points of view, of course, but my voicing them is not going to solve Kruger’s other current and terrible circumstances. It will only likely aggravate them – which is not my purpose. In this regard, however, I believe ‘how’ SANParks handles its deficient local-rural-people (AWIP-type) partnerships (see below) might offer the relief that you seek in this regard. I hope so.
The Pinnock article mentions: “The notion that the public feels Kruger is doing nothing to curb poaching” disturbs Mr Coleman. That may or may not be so, but I would suggest that you do not let such suggestions bother you. The mass of people in the public domain is totally ignorant about just what makes the world of Kruger National Park (or SANParks) go round. So, don’t get concerned when such purposeful mal-information is disseminated by your adversaries. It is part of the animal rights strategy to undermine your confidence. Such people have an agenda. Learn to identify such remarks for what they are, therefore, and ignore them.
As CEO of the True Green Alliance it is my duty to bring to your attention that the animal rights movement is not your saving grace, as they will claim ad nauseam, if you let them. The animal rightists are your enemy because they have designs to take-over places like Kruger National Park and to run them according to their own dictums FOR MONEY. Theirs is a confidence industry of great measure.
They use blatant lies in their propaganda campaigns to create emotional discord in the public domain. And they use those lies to trick gullible people in society into donating money towards their general cause. For example, they tell the public that the elephant is an endangered species and that it is facing extinction, both of which statements are not true. They then solicit money from the gullible general public ostensibly to stop the so-called extinction which has no substance in fact. And such monies are not used to help the elephant in Africa; they are deposited into the animal rights extremists’ own bank account to keep their executives in fat-cat employment.
When someone tells a lie (about anything) and makes money out of that lie, that action constitutes common fraud. According to the American RICO Act (The Racketeering Influenced Criminal Organisations Act), when someone commits the same fraud twice in a period of ten years, the repetition reclassifies the fraud as being a racket. And, according to the RICO Act, racketeering is organized crime. So that is the caliber of the people who criticize SANPark’s and hunters so severely, and on so many fronts. Know them for who they are and deal with them accordingly.
In 2009, I published a new wildlife management philosophy which I called “The African Wildlife Initiative Programme (AWIP)”. I did so because I felt so strongly that Africa’s old conservation ethos was unraveling at such a terrifying speed it was becoming self-destructive. It was pulling itself asunder for one reason and one reason alone. Conservation, in places like Kruger National Park, remained colonial in character insofar as the National Park’s Board (now SANParks) went to great pains to keep the destitute rural communities that surrounded the national park, completely at bay. I could sense rural rebellion smoking on the horizon. One result of that style of unsustainable administration has been the near local extinction of the once abundant white rhinoceros in Kruger which, in essence, was one of my 2009 predictions of what I believed then, was yet to come.
AWIP deals exclusively and extensively with stopping poaching in a national park by the people who live on the national park boundary. It involves creating partnerships between park authorities and the local communities to the benefit of both.
I believe the rural people surrounding southern Africa’s national parks, all of them, had by 2009 reached the limit of their tolerance towards poverty. And they had by then, begun to poach the park’s rhinos and elephants for money and other game animals for meat.
And it was happening in and around other national parks in southern Africa at that time, too, not just in Kruger. Zimbabwe, Namibia, Botswana and Zambia are faced with similar problems and/or opportunities. And I began to worry about the fact that, right now, there are approximately one billion people living in Africa south of the Sahara Desert. And it has been predicted by the United Nations, that by the turn of this century (in the year 2100) this number will have increased to over four billion. And, instinctively, I know that unless we begin to put AWIP-style national park partnerships into place soon, we will run out of time to save Africa’s wild animals for posterity – for Africa’s people. Time has become of the essence.
The Daily Maverick report suggested that nearly two million poverty-stricken rural people surround Kruger National Park. And, that being the probable case, I now make another prediction. Unless SANParks integrates these people, and their needs, with the needs of the national park, these desperate rural people will very soon start to destroy what is left of Kruger. If, however, SANParks does integrate Kruger with AWIP partnerships involving the local rural communities, those rural communities will become the Park’s salvation. They will see Kruger National Park as belonging to them.
SANParks must not shy away from this complete reversal of direction. If they do so all will be lost! The administration must also not talk about having no resources and no money to implement change for the better. In the short to medium term, Kruger National Park has a surplus of some 30 000 elephants, which can and should be used in the best interests of bringing to Kruger, proper wildlife management programmes. The judicious and sustainable-use of those surplus elephants will also financially benefit the park; will benefit the park’s biological diversity; AND will reduce poverty in the ranks of the local people. Those surplus elephants, in fact, are a short-to-medium term gold-mine of renewable and valuable assets, and of great opportunities.
They can be used to implement my proposed sustainable AWIP partnerships – which benefit both sides of the same coin. Sure, it would require the population reduction and selective hunting of elephants for a very high fee, inside Kruger National Park. The animal rights extremists will object, that is for sure, but honest thinking people will come to understand that such a new and innovative wildlife management dispensation will bring the local people on sides with SANParks; it will relieve the people’s poverty; and it will bring commercial poaching under control. In this process, the local people will accrue a tremendous emotional ownership over their elephants and their national park, and that emotional ownership is the only thing that can possibly save South Africa’s wildlife heritage inside Kruger National Park.
The implementation of an AWIP-style administrative/wildlife-management programme in Kruger, will help everybody all round; but cognizance must be taken of the fact that a reduction in elephant numbers will happen when the elephant herds begin to be properly managed. So, as the elephant numbers begin to fall, so the partnership must be compensated with an increase in the cost of an elephant hunting license.
Today’s give-away prices for an elephant hunting license, in places like Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana, when there are fewer elephants, each license-cost could eventually exceed US$ 1 000 000 (without the ivory); and if the hunter wants the ivory trophy, too, he could be given the option of buying the tusks for an additional high fee. And you will see in my AWIP document proposal that all other huntable animals in Kruger will appear on the AWIP hunting license document, too. Ultimately, including all the big seven animals: Elephants, Buffaloes, Hippos, White Rhinos, Black Rhinos, Lions, Leopards, (even Hyenas, Cheetahs and Wild dogs) could, periodically, appear on the AWIP hunting license list, too. As would a variety of common plains-game animals! Less pricey tuskless elephants could be made a permanent fixture on the list, without a quota. Half of all the game meat, and half of all the game skins (including elephant and hippo hide), so procured, would accrue to rural communities. The other half of all these by-products of the hunt would go to the national parks partner.
The AWIP document is full of other ideas that I propose should become part of the AWIP partnership deals with local communities. So, read the AWIP document thoroughly to see what the possibilities are. Parsimony is not an option!
The whole AWIP philosophy rests on the presumption that people who own something are the people who will look after it and protect it the best. This applies even when that ownership is just emotional. The local rural people that surround the Kruger Park, will never (and should never) materially own the wildlife of Kruger National Park, but because they will accrue equal and substantial benefits (with SANParks) from the overall sustainable use of Kruger’s wildlife through hunting, capture-and-sale and the sale of hides, skins, meat, tusks and horns (tusks), they will consider the national park to be their own. That constitutes emotional ownership. And that is all that is necessary to convert all of Kruger’s two million rural neighbours into an army of people who will then be defending the park against commercial poachers – because when the poachers operate inside the park they will be stealing from the people.
When you read the AWIP document, you will also see that AWIP partnerships will be executed on the basis of the carrot-and-stick philosophy. If the people play ball with SANParks, they will accrue their promised 50 percent payment-returns (the carrot). If they don’t play ball and poaching continues, they will be severely penalized (the stick). How? This is explained in the AWIP document.
It is my contention that the possibility of integrating the rhino-poaching communities in adjacent Mozambique into the AWIP plan, should be investigated, too.
Calculating the elephant carrying capacity of Kruger National Park
1. Dr Rocco Knobel, one time Director of the National Park’s Board of South Africa (now SANParks) told me, personally, that he was informed that the Kruger elephant population stood at 7000 animals in 1965. His source of information was the Skukuza scientific community on the occasion of his meeting with them to discuss the possibility of introducing an elephant culling programme in Kruger National Park. The culling programme was approved (see details below).
2. Dr Rocco Knobel also told me, on the occasion of that Skukuzu meeting, that he had asked the Kruger scientists if any of them had any idea what the game reserve’s elephant carrying capacity was. Nobody did! And nobody had any idea how they could determine the answer to that question. So, Dr. Knobel directed them to apply their minds to finding the answer to that question at the earliest opportunity. He actually said: “Before the culling programme is over!”
3. The existence of a botanical research project (originated in 1944 by the park botanist, Albert Viljoen) provided the foundation information that justified an elephant culling programme in the late 1960s. Over a very wide and demarcated area near Satara, in the middle of Kruger National Park, Viljoen set up his research plots. He called his programme: The Satara Top Canopy Tree Study. Viljoen selected the Satara area because he felt that the deciduous woodlands in that area were representative of deciduous woodland habitats all over the national park. The purpose of the botanical study was to determine, year by year, when and by how much, the game reserve’s growing elephant population was impacting on the local habitats. He determined that his research plots, on average, contained 13 top canopy trees per hectare. And to qualify, his top canopy trees had to have a canopy spread of at least 15 metres.
4. The first plant species to be completely eradicated by elephants in Kruger National Park (noted in 1959) was the succulent Aloe marlotii which once occurred in large numbers in the Sabie Valley area of the park. Despite the total disappearance of this aloe, however, throughout the 1950s, the Satara trees escaped any kind of elephant damage. So the elephants had been very selective.
5. When the Satara trees were surveyed in 1965, however, it was found that they had been, on average, reduced from 13 to 9 trees per hectare. There was then a seemingly fevered response from the scientists who summonsed the Director to a special meeting at Skukuza. This was why and when the culling programme was approved.
6. The decisions to initiate a culling programe, and to reduce the elephant numbers to 7 000 every year, were made by Rocco Knobel in the absence of any idea what the Kruger elephant carrying capacity was. The reduction of the elephant population to 7 000 every year, was also a frustrated Knobel thumb-suck, which seems to have been determined simply because he did not want the Kruger elephant population to get any bigger. He did, however, tell his scientists that he would adjust that 7 000 annual target just as soon as they could give him an elephant carrying capacity figure. In the event, however, he was never given that carrying-capacity figure and he never adjusted the annual culling target. So, the annual culling target (7 000) remained in force until the end of the culling exercise.
7. The culling of elephants did not start until 1967, because it took two years to build an abattoir at Skukuza. Another tree count in 1967 revealed that there had been yet further tree damage at Satara. In 1967, the average tree population had been reduced from 9 to 6 trees per hectare. And for the next 27 years the Kruger elephant population was annually reduced to 7000. Culling ceased in 1994.
8. By 1974 the Satara trees had been reduced to 3 trees per hectare. In 1981 they were down to 1.5 trees per hectare. And by 1994, there were no trees left standing. Today, the Satara Top Canopy Tree study area is virtually bare ground!
9. What continues to amaze me is that the Kruger scientists of that era were intelligent people yet not one of them, throughout the 27 years of the culling period, ever voiced an opinion that 7 000 elephants were infinitely too many for Kruger National Park to sustainably carry. Nobody queried it. Nobody suggested that the culling target of 7 000 should reduced. And yet most scientists, then and now, acknowledge the definition of carrying capacity to mean: The maximum number of elephants that a game reserve can carry without causing habitat damage. Surely someone must have noticed that the crash of the Satara trees was proof enough that the habitat was not just being damaged by too many elephants, it was being totally destroyed. But that is what was allowed to happen.
10. And since 1994, the Kruger elephant population must have continually and greatly increased in number every year, having demonstrated its capacity to regularly double its number every ten years. This knowledge made me distrust the statement that some Kruger scientists have voiced over the past ten years, to the effect that the Kruger elephant population had stabilized at 15 000. What poppycock! That figure cannot be true. But since 1994 there has been so much subtle subterfuge coming out of Kruger National Park that I now can’t believe a word that I am told about the park’s elephants. When people start crying wolf they turn the whole world of integrity upside down. Indeed, I can’t believe that Kruger is now admitting they have 31 527 elephants. That number, however, is probably closer to the truth than anything else that has come out Kruger over the last ten years. And I have to ask: Why the past deceptions? What is ‘who’ trying to hide?
11. But we must progress! Out of all this ggobbledegook certain facts emerge:
a. The Kruger elephant population was artificially maintained at 7 000 animals for 27 years (1967 to 1994).
b. It became very clear very quickly that 7 000 elephants were far too many for Kruger to carry because the Satara top-canopy trees were continually being ever more severely damaged (and finally eliminated) throughout the culling period. The figure, 7 000, therefore, does not fit the definition for a sustainable elephant carrying capacity.
c. Throughout the culling era, autopsies on the elephants killed, indicate that the Kruger elephants had a consistent annual incremental rate of 7.5 percent (ref. published Kruger scientific papers). This is slightly better than the 7.2 percent annual increment that doubles an elephant population in exactly ten years. With a doubling time of ten years the increasing size of elephant populations that are not being culled, can easily be projected going forwards in time. If you have 10 000 elephants in the year 2022, for example, you will have 20 000 elephants in the year 2032.
d. You can also extrapolate backwards in time. If you have 7 000 elephants in 1965 (which is on record for Kruger) to find out how many you had in 1955 (ten years earlier) all you have to do is to halve the 1965 population number. So, 7 000 becomes 3 500. This means, the elephant population for Kruger National Park in 1955 must have been c.3 500!
e. And why is that important? It is important because in 1955 the Satara Top Canopy Trees were still intact. The elephants had not yet (then) started to kill them. To my knowledge, the elephant killing of the Satara trees was not recorded at any time before 1959, which is when the Aloe marlotii was finally killed by elephants into local extinction. Although the scientists recorded the total destruction of the Aloe marlotii species in 1959, no mention was made at that time, of any damage to the Satara trees. So, I must presume that the elephants started killing the Satara trees after 1959 – let’s say in 1960 and immediately thereafter.
f. So, on or about the year 1955, we had 3 500 elephants living with the Satara trees without doing them any damage. And that pattern fits the definition for a sustainable elephant carrying capacity. It may not fit exactly, however, so I have hedged my bets. I claim that the Kruger elephant carrying capacity, when the habitats were undamaged and healthy (between 1950 and 1960) was about 3 500+/- 500. And I doubt that anybody can determine a better conclusion. 3 500 is also the number to which I believe Kruger National Park should reduce its elephant numbers (no matter what the real and current elephant population figure might be); and it is no more than that number that I believe they should be maintained.
g. And here I am being lenient because the current elephant habitat carrying capacity in Kruger National Park, due to the very severe damage to which all the park habitats have been subjected over the last 60 years, must be by now considerably less than 3 500.
CONCLUSION: I have been hard, even brutal, in this report but I believe that that has been necessary to get the message across. Rest assured, however, that The True Green Alliance (TGA) will be making no money out of this exposure and we will continue to support SANParks where and when we can.
When you listen to the sweet talk you will get from the animal rights extremists, should they choose to criticize what I have written, remember that their ONLY purpose is to make money out of their victims.
The TGA, on the other hand, only has your best interests at heart. And we wish you well.
If you require any further explanations please don’t hesitate to ask.
My kind regards to you both.
Ron Thomson CEO – TGA