The Kruger Controversy PART I

Mis-Management of the  Kruger National Park

I have written many times and in many ways regarding my concerns about what I consider to be the MIS-management of Kruger National Park’s (KNP’s) living resources; and, particularly, about the MIS-management of the Kruger National Park’s Elephant population. This has been clearly expressed in a long series of blogs on The True Green Alliance’s (TGA) website (www.mahohboh.org). No matter what we said or wrote about, however, it was studiously ignored by the Kruger National Park administrationAND by SANParks. We are now, however, resurrecting our misgivings and will be making recommendations to the Minister with regard to her doing something about these concerns.

And we would like the public’s support for this important endeavor.

The new lease of life into these arguments has come about because, in the last year or two, Dr Salomon Joubert, has made public his own misgivings about MIS-management in Kruger National Park; even though he has also had zero response from the park’s administration AND from SANParks.

Dr. Salomon Joubert

Dr. Salomon Joubert has given 40 years of his life in service to the Kruger National Park. He has been both the park’s Chief Large-Mammal scientist AND the Executive Director of Kruger National Park. He is, therefore, the right person to advise the public on this vexing subject.

The reports by Dr Salomon Joubert, to which I refer, include:

3. KRUGER NATIONAL PARK ELEPHANT POPULATION (Current situation and management considerations). (2 July 2016).
4. ELEPHANT MANAGEMENT ISSUES (30 October 2018).

All these reports are being released to the public via the TGA’s social media platforms.So, they will be available for public consumption, verbatim, via this medium.

This is the biggest challenge that SANParks has ever had (about the mis-management of the KNP) from its ‘inner circle’.

In general, I support Dr. Salomon Joubert’s approach to what has been termed, by many people, as The Elephant Problem in Kruger National Park – but the mis-management claim has much broader implications than just elephants. There are, however, one or two ‘issues’ in which Dr Joubert has offered a different interpretation for specific events – compared to those that I understand to be correct – which I shall expand upon later within the body of this extended exercise.  But, generally speaking, my viewpoints and those of Dr Salomon Joubert, are 100 percent compatible.  

Those of you who read this dissertation will be wondering just what this controversy is all about. Well, let me tell you: ‘What this article is all about’ and those articles that will follow this first one, is actually expressed in the introduction to Dr. Joubert’s report entitled ‘Elephant Management Issues’ (30 October 2018).  He writes:

“Since 2010 this is my fourth submission to Skukuza on the topic of elephant management.  For the first three no response was received. They were also submitted for consideration in the revision of the Kruger National Park Management Plan and, in particular, also the (KNP) Elephant Management Plan.  There is no indication that they (these reports) received any attention.

In 1994 a moratorium was placed on elephant culling. In circa 2007/8 it was announced that ‘there was no point in trying to census elephants and that culling would not be reinstated as the park could accommodate a much larger (elephant) population, with the assertion that it (the elephant population) would stabilise at a certain density and perpetuate itself in harmony with its environment. Ever since, I have feared that the management of the elephant population (in KNP) (had) entered unchartered waters at extremely high risk and with no guarantees that the ‘promised land’ could (ever) be realised.

I am more than convinced than ever that the intrinsic values and ecological integrity of the Kruger National Park have been, and are being (still), sacrificed by a policy that has no interest other than “hands off elephants”.

My views may, of course, be wrong.  But in this, hopefully, my last report to SANParks (Skukuza), I outline why I believe the elephant policy is unsubstantiated folly and also point out the missed opportunities of employing a rational, carefully planned and fully controlled course of action in developing and improving the policy related to elephants.  The elephants are, after all, an integral contributor to the rich and internationally acknowledged biodiversity of the Kruger National Park.

It is my considered opinion that there is a direct link between the progressive deterioration of the science-based elephant management principles and practices that have been applied in KNP since 1960, and the involvement of the animal rights NGOIFAW (The International Fund for Animal Welfare). Indeed, after the cessation of elephant culling in KNP in 1994, IFAW are on public record as saying it will keep its Johannesburg office open if, for no other reason, than to make sure that elephant culling never again happens in KNP.

There are also links between the SANParks’ elephant management staff and a South African animal rights group CAT (The Conservation Action Trust) which continually offers the general public reasons why elephant population control measures should never be applied in KNP. And SANParks bends over backwards to make sure it does not offend anti-elephant-culling international animal rights groups everywhere.  So much so is this liaison with the animal rightist NGOs apparent, that it would appear SANParks listens to them more than it has listened to pro-elephant culling South Africans – like myself and the TGA (True Green Alliance) – or to their own highly experienced elephant managers from a previous era – like Dr. Salomon Joubert.  

 

In his various papers, Dr Joubert exposes the fact that the personal preference opinions of many senior research officers in SANParks are influenced by animal rights rhetoric and propaganda; and by animal rights money. So are several senior wildlife research people associated with our universities – like Professor Rudi van Aarde of the University of Pretoria’s CERU (The Centre for Ecological Research Unit) who has been responsible for guiding KNP into its current strange, new and unproven elephant management strategy which van Aarde calls ‘Landscape Management’. This strategy insists that there should be no elephant population control interventions by man.  

For the time being, I would like to leave that situation ‘as is’ – and come back to it later in more detail. Suffice it to say – quoting but one example of many – during the first ten years of their close association, Professor Rudi van Aarde, and his CERU, benefitted from IFAW sponsorships to the tune of R 9.2 million. And to earn that kind of money -ostensibly – all Van Aarde had to do was to stand up in public (on television and on radio) and tell South Africans that there is no need to cull elephants in Kruger National Park. And THAT is only ONE situation where IFAW has extended its largesse to South Africa’s wildlife institutions (and/or individuals).  One cannot help wonder just how these kinds of beneficent funds have influenced the opinions of individuals within our wildlife authorities; or whether those donations have influenced the design of official policies to fit the needs and the desires of their deep-pocketed animal rightist donors.  It is my belief that through such connivances – international animal rightists NGOs have ‘purchased’ their way into controllingpositions within our wildlife authorities.

But, for the time being, I will leave Dr Joubert’s reports to speak for themselves.

My initial interest in these matters started with my concerns for the fact that the parliamentary mandate handed down to SANParks a long time ago, was ‘to maintain KNP’s biological diversity’; and I believe that SANParks have wantonly abandoned their duty in this respect.  This kind of government instruction to maintain species diversity at all costs – was, at that time, in line with the exact same mandates handed down by other governments to their national park and wildlife management authorities all over the world.  And, simply put, no other management objective was considered to be of greater importance.

To understand how species diversity can be, and is, maintained in a national park, one has to be cognizant of the fact that animal species exist because they are adapted to specific habitat types. The way to maintain man-desired animal species diversity in a park like Kruger, therefore, is to maintain all the habitats in a heathy, dynamic and vigorous state. If you look after the habitats, the animal species that are dependent on them, will look after themselves. But if those habitats degrade (or become extinct) so will the animal species that are adapted to them. And in KNP the most widespread and most important habitat – the deciduous woodland complex – has been totally destroyed.

From 1960 onwards, the elephant management programmes that were applied in KNP (1967–1994) were deficient in many ways.  That fact was not apparent at the time but, in retrospect, their deficiencies have become all too obvious. And they gave influential animal rights orientated academics, like Professor Rudi van Aarde, the excuse to say that ‘elephant culling’ – as a means to stop habitat destruction does not work.

Van Aarde is wrong.  Culling does work – but only when it is understood in all its dimensions; when it is applied properly; and when it is constructed on the correct foundation information. It is very obvious that its primary dimensions were not correctly determined, nor properly applied, during the KNP culling era (1967 to 1994).

The loss of ‘more than’ 95 percent of the top canopy trees in the park’s once vast deciduous woodland habitats, is HIGHLY significant.  The fact that this was the result of 27 years of ineffective elephant culling, does not mean that ‘elephant culling’ as a management tool does not work.  It means that the people responsible for the implementation of the culling programme did not know how to MAKE it work.  They used all the wrong baseline parameters from the very beginning. (This we will discuss in the next article in this series). The ultimate conclusions, however, cannot be denied:

1. That KNP lost species diversity (of both plants and animals) consequent upon the failed elephant culling programme; and  
2. The SANParks mandate, to maintain species diversity at all costs, was not attained.

And, by implication, this means the SANParks staff at KNP have mismanaged the parks living resources.

One of the biggest problems encountered by scientists during the culling era in KNP was an apparent inability to determine the park’s correct elephant carrying capacity.  There has been a lot of talk about the KNP elephant carrying capacity being 7000; and/or that it varied between 7000 and 8500.  

The net result is that the elephant culling programme failed to stop the habitat damage caused by too many elephants – which was the whole purpose of the culling exercise. The damage caused to KNP’s top-canopy-trees (trees with a canopy spread of 15 metres and more) is now assessed by the KNP scientists at ‘more than 95 percent’. This has resulted in MASSIVE changes to the physiognomic character of KNP’s general landscape; it has caused MASSIVE and highly deleterious plant losses in a variety of important habitats; and it MUST have caused MASSIVE animal species losses too (including mammals, birds, invertebrates, insects and reptiles).  

When trying to understand these discrepancies, one has to first understand what we mean by ‘elephant carrying capacity’.  In the most simple of terms:

Elephant carrying capacity means:

The maximum number of elephants that a game reserve can carry without the elephants causing irreparable and/or progressive damage to the habitat.

One has to question, therefore, how the KNP scientists came by the so-called carrying capacity’ figures of 7000 and/or between 7000 and 8500?

So, now let me tell you a little story.

In 1944 a botanist called Albert Viljoen, began a study of KNP’s most ubiquitous habitat, its once vast and deciduous woodland complex.  As a sample of what Viljoen considered to be representative of the entire deciduous woodland habitat in KNP he selected a large study area in the Satara area.  And he counted, within that area, an average of 13 top-canopy trees per hectare.

By 1955 10/11 years later – there appeared to be no change in the Satara treenumbers.

By 1965, however, the growing elephant population had reduced the average number of trees per hectare in the Satara study area, to 9. This caused the Skukuza scientists to arrange a meeting with the South African Park’s Board Director, Dr Rocco Knobel, at Skukuza, to discuss the possibility of culling KNP’s elephants.

Dr Knobel told me, personally, that he had asked his scientists during that meeting, if any one of them could tell him what the KNP’s elephant carrying capacity was.  None of them could! To cut a long story short, he then (himself) in the absence of better data, agreed that culling was necessary and he told his Skukuza scientists that they should keep the elephant numbers at their present level (at least, until the expanded artificial game water supply programme that was underway at that time, was complete). And it just so happened that (in 1965) the elephant population numbered 7000. That is how the arbitrary number, 7000, came to be cited as the so-called ‘elephant carrying capacity’ for Kruger National Park.  

According to Rocco Knobel, however, nobody had ever mentioned to him that 7000 was the elephant carrying capacity for Kruger, and it was never his intention to imply that it was. It just so happened that that was the number his scientists said reflected the standing Kruger elephant population in 1965.  So, that was the number that Rocco Knobel stated should not be exceeded.

In the event, from 1967 (the year that culling commenced) onwards, Kruger’s elephant population was reduced to approximately 7000 every year throughout the 27 years of the culling era right up to 1994.

The history of the Satara top canopy tree study – which is central to this argument – is as follows:-

1944 (Average) 13 trees per hectare
1955 – No apparent change
1960 – No information
1965 – 9 trees per hectare
1967 – 6 trees per hectare. Elephant Culling commenced
1974 – 3 trees per hectare
1981 – 1.5 trees per hectare
1994.  – No trees left standing.  Elephant culling terminated

In 1994, the KNP scientists glibly claimed that top canopy trees throughout the deciduous woodland complexes of KNP, had been reduced, overall, by 95 percentToday they claim that figure is ‘more than 95 percent’

This, in effect, means that for every tree with a canopy spread of 15 metres or more, that is still standing in KNP today, there were at least 19 other trees of similar dimensions, standing in its close proximity, in 1960. It also means that 100 percent of the woodland understory habitats – because those plants cannot tolerate full sun – have been completely destroyed. This information should give you, the reader, a mental perspective of the kind of massive damage that the KNP habitats have suffered; and how many species of plants and animals have been lost as a consequence. And the cause has been, simply, the park has been carrying far too many elephants for far too long.

This is the first of a series of articles that will expose the overall mismanagement of KNP; particularly the mismanagement of the KNP habitats; the mismanagement of the park’s elephant population; and the abandonment of the KNP parliamentary mandate to maintain species diversity at all costs. And I would like the public to bear witness.

 

Ron Thomson

I am NOT a ‘trophy hunter’ - and never have been. I am not involved in the trophy hunting safari business. I am also not a game rancher. But I have ‘administratively controlled’ professional hunters and safari outfitters in my capacity as a government game warden. I am an 80 year old ex-game warden with 60 years of continuous experience in hands-on wildlife management, and national park management, in Africa (1959 to 2019). In breakdown, I have 24 years experience in the management of national parks in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe - and in the management of the wild animal populations that lived inside those national parks; one year as the Chief Nature Conservation of the Ciskei in South Africa; three years as Director of the Bophuthatswana National Parks Board in South Africa; and I worked for three years as a professional hunter in the South African Great Karoo (taking foreign hunters on quests for plains game trophies). I discovered, however, that professional hunting was not my forte. I worked as an investigative wildlife journalist for 30 years in South Africa. I have written fifteen books and hundreds of magazine articles on the subject of wildlife management and big game hunting in Africa. Five of my books are university-level text books on wildlife management. I am a university-trained ecologist; was a member of the Institute of Biology (London) for 20 years; and was a registered chartered biologist for the European Union for 20 years. I have VAST experience in the “management hunting” of elephants, buffaloes, lions, leopards and hippos (as part of my official national park work in the control of problem animals); and I pioneered the capture of black rhino in Zimbabwe’s Zambezi Valley (1964 - 1970). My university thesis was entitled: “The Factors Affecting the Survival and Distribution of Black Rhinos in Rhodesia”. Look at my personal website if you want any further details about my experience: www.ronthomsonshuntingbooks.co.za.

Ron Thomson has 194 posts and counting. See all posts by Ron Thomson

One thought on “The Kruger Controversy PART I

  • March 23, 2020 at 3:12 am
    Permalink

    Culling, the only solution.

    Reply

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