Kruger ControversyPart 2 by Ron Thomson

The Kruger Controversy PART II

Mis-Management of the  Kruger National Park

In Part I of this extended article, I made mention of the fact that any elephant management programme – to be effective – must be based upon solid foundation facts; and I believe the KNP elephant culling programme (1967-1994) was not based upon such a reality.

It is also important to take note that wildlife management, in any context, can only be applied to single populations, one at a time. The elephants of Kruger National Park, however, represent one biological population. So, the KNP elephant population can be managed as a single entity! No problem there!

For the 27 years duration of the culling era, the KNP elephant population was religiously reduced to 7000 animals every year; and that figure has seemingly been accepted by everyone – even to this day – as the game reserve’s original elephant carrying capacity. But there is no proof that that is true. In fact, it is NOT true.

The figure 7000 was derived from a simple and arbitrary comment made in conversation. It had, and has, no basis in science. And it was because 7000 was nowhere near the correct elephant carrying capacity figure for KNP, that the culling programme never achieved its objective.

NB: The annual reduction target for the KNP culling programme, should have been equal to (or less than) the game reserve’s elephant carrying capacity at that time! But nobody knew what that figure was.

Nevertheless, I find it incredible that, even though the rate of demolition of the Satara trees by elephants was religiously recorded right throughout the culling era, not one of the scientists concerned ever thought to question the validity of the figure 7000.

Surely – when it was recorded that the Satara trees were being significantly and continuously reduced in number – and that when before the culling came to an end (1994) all the Satara trees had been eliminated – that someone must have realised that the elephant culling target figure of 7000 was far too high? But, seemingly, nobody did notice, because the culling carried on regardless and without change.

 I reiterate, 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.

So, why am I so adamant that 7000 was and is not the elephant carrying capacity for Kruger National Park? I know that – for sure – because, despite the fact the elephant population figure of 7000 was maintained throughout the 27 years of the culling era, there was, concomitantly, continuous and progressive destruction of the Satara top canopy trees – until there were none left!

I repeat the rate of the Satara top canopy tree demolitions 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.

A fair question to ask is: what was the KNP’s sustainable elephant carrying capacity when the habitats were still healthy and not degrading.


Let me turn that question around. What we actually need to know is what the KNP elephant population size was in 1955 – because, whatever that number was, it was seemingly not doing any damage to the Satara trees. And THAT tells us what we really want to know. It tells us – as near as dammit – what the Kruger National Park elephant carrying capacity was when the habitats were still in a healthy state.

And that number is quite easy to determine.

Dr Ian White – another past large mammal scientist of KNP – tells us that throughout the culling era, the elephant population was growing at a consistent rate of 7.5 percent per annum. Which is greater than ‘doubling its numbers every ten years’. A population doubles its numbers every ten years when the incremental rate is 7.2 percent. So, for ease of understanding the mathematics – and because the numbers 7.2 and 7.5 are so close – I am now going to assume that, throughout the culling era, KNP’s elephant population was ‘doubling its numbers every 10 years’ (but being trimmed annually throughout the process).

Now, if an elephant population is doubling its number every 10 years, to find out what its population number had been 10 years before any given date in its history, all you have to do is to halve what the standing population was on that date.

And the KNP scientists told Dr Rocco Knobel that the KNP’s elephant population, in 1965, was 7000. If that figure is correct (and I have no reason to doubt it), then the elephant population size in 1955 was half 7000 (which is 3500). And that number – 3500 – reflects, as near as we are ever likely to determine, what the KNP’s sustainable elephant carrying capacity was when the habitats were still healthy.


It was at about this time that IFAW and Professor Rudi van Aarde enter the picture.

IFAW, it is alleged, paid Dr Robby Robinson (Director of SANParks at that time) US$ 5 million to apply contraceptives to elephant cows in KNP to stop them breeding.

Many people – who have negative feelings towards elephant culling – want to know why applying contraceptives to elephant cows was not pursued. It was, in fact, thoroughly investigated and found to be wanting in many ways. To be properly effective, the cows must be inoculated every 6 months and, in wild and free-ranging populations numbering in tens of thousands of animals, this fact alone proved to be an impossible task. In addition, inoculated cows come into perpetual heat and they are hounded by sexually excited bulls in musth 24/7, to the extent that the cows become physically exhausted.

Applying contraceptives to elephant cows, therefore, is far more cruel than a culling programme ever was; and, although elephant contraceptives might have some application in small game parks, it has been ruled out as a general population control method in large national parks like Kruger.

The elephant culling programme remained in suspension – and under debate – until late in 2006 when five professors – who described themselves as being ‘a panel of scientists most knowledgeable about elephants and the consequences of their impacts for ecosystems’ published a joint report entitled: ‘A scientific perspective on the management of elephants in the Kruger National Park and elsewhere’. The report appeared in the South African Journal of Science (102, September/October 2006). The authors were: N.Owen-Smith; G.I.H.Kerley; B.Page; R.Slotow and R.J.van Aarde. It was addressed to the Hon. Marthinus van Schalkwyk, Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism in South Africa. The minister accepted the professors’ recommendation that elephant culling in Kruger National Park should be permanently discontinued.

There were several contentious issues in and about this report, however, that need to be discussed:

  • Whilst many of the old guard SANPark officials wanted culling to be resumed, the animal rights NGO lobby – led by IFAW (The International Fund for Animal Welfare) and Van Aarde, wanted culling to be stopped forever; and both the minister and the five professors gave the animal rights lobby (in my opinion) undue attention.
  • The five professors acknowledged that the South African parliament had mandated SANParks to consider the maintenance of Kruger’s biological diversity to be the KNP’s primary wildlife management objective. This point of view was not shared by them, however, because they contradicted its purpose with two astounding and unsupportable statements:
  1. The ultimate objectives of natural resource management are decided by society at large through democratic processes; and
  2. Society must ultimately judge the balance between the local disappearance of some rare plants or the loss of a more substantial component of ecosystem diversity, and the lives of the elephants killed to prevent this loss (Owen-Smith et al, 2006)

These two remarks are totally unacceptable to anyone who believes in the wisdom and sanctity of science-based wildlife management; and who believes in the importance of maintaining biological diversity in our national parks. Regrettably, society at large does not have the biological capability to determine what is right and what is wrong in any field of wildlife management. It is unconscionable, therefore, that these five professors should prescribe that wildlife management decisions should be made by way of public referendums.

Indeed, anyone with any modicum of common sense will realise – following these two remarks – that, in their report, the five professors were pandering to the heavy pressures exerted upon them, and the minister, by the anti-elephant culling and anti-hunting animal rights lobby. Nevertheless, the report held sway at the time of its publication.

The professors’ report also states: “There is no benchmark against which to judge an ideal vegetation state for KNP”.

Maybe not – in specific terms – but parliament, long before van Schalkwyk, had provided SANParks with its primary benchmark management objective: ‘To maintain species diversity at all costs’. And THAT was a point of reference of far greater significance because it requires that ALL the KNP habitats be maintained in a viable state. Animal (and plant) species cannot be ‘maintained’ if their habitats have been extirpated by unsustainable wildlife management practices. And allowing the park’s top canopy trees to be extinguished throughout the park’s deciduous woodland complexes – by too many elephants – as but one example of gross mis-management – is an unsustainable wildlife management practice. That fact, however, did not seem to be of any concern to the five professors.

Furthermore, in this dissertation I have provided KNP elephant managers – with full supporting rationale – with another important benchmark: the KNP elephant carrying capacity calculated at a time when the habitats were healthy. This is something that the five professors should have been able to ascertain – but didn’t.

Finally, they stated that: “Density feedbacks must ultimately curtail the growth in elephant population numbers” – and I must remind you that Professor Rudi van Aarde was one of those professors.

This statement can be interpreted as meaning that there will be a gradual but continuous reduction in available nutrition – per elephant – which will happen when elephant population numbers increase continuously and exponentially. It will happen because the continually increasing numbers of elephants will cause each and every elephant – because they are starving – to over-utilise the limited food resources of their finite habitats. And that, theoretically, so Van Aarde says, will ultimately cause elephant population numbers to stabilise.

Perhaps one of Van Schalkwyk’s biggest errors of judgement was that he asked the five professors to provide him with scientific information that he could use to “solve the elephant problem” in Kruger National Park. That was unfortunate – given the animal rightist tendencies of the five professors – because Kruger National Park did not have “an elephant problem.

It was the professors who created the so-called elephant problem.

The problem that Kruger National Park faced – and still faces – was/is a very serious challenge to the maintenance of its biological diversity – caused by the fact that there were/are far too many elephants. All that was needed to resolve that biodiversity problem was a reduction in the elephant numbers to a level that was within the sustainable carrying capacity of the KNP habitats. And that the professors were reluctant to talk about. They, too, seemingly, didn’t have any idea what the elephant carrying capacity for KNP was. They were also reluctant to suggest a resumption of elephant culling.

Through the process that culminated in this ‘learned’ report, many of the professors’ peers were vocal in their condemnation. From one of them – a renowned wildlife management expert (who shall remain nameless) – I received an unsolicited letter of encouragement. In part, the letter read:

“I have received a copy of the paper (on the subject of the professors’ report) which you intend to publish soon. I agree totally with you. However, I think that you are missing the vital argument that none of these so-called ‘Big Five Experts’ has any or much training in wildlife management. As far as I know, they are either mammologists, zoologists or, at most, general ecologists…

“Keep at it,” the author concluded. “These experts are pure fakes when it comes to wildlife management.”

I received another letter, written by Professor J du P (Koos) Bothma, formerly Director: Centre for Wildlife Management, University of Pretoria, in which, in part, he wrote:

“I retired in 2005 and do not involve myself in these disputes anymore. However, I recently did write an extensive module on ecosystem health for a new graduate course for the University of Pretoria’s Veterinary Faculty, as part of a worldwide new approach known as the ‘One Health Concept’. It can be summed up as: healthy ecosystems produce healthy animals (wildlife and livestock) and healthy people. In it, I discussed the concepts of ecosystem dynamics with the healthy soil and vegetation as cornerstones of ecosystem dynamics”.

Unfortunately, after he had accepted the report by the five professors, the Hon Marthinus van Schalkwyk, Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism in South Africa, officially withdrew culling as the wildlife management practice of choice for Kruger National Park’s elephants. And Kruger National Park started its downward spiral towards becoming a desert.

One would think that this would be the last anyone would hear about the contentious issue of elephant culling in Kruger National Park. But that has not been the case. The five-professors’ report merely closed the elephant culling chapter in the park’s history, but it opened up a whole new can of worms that we shall now examine.

Sometime – at about the time when the culling programme in KNP was abandoned – IFAW and Professor Rudi van Aarde joined forces. IFAW provided sponsorship monies to Van Aarde’s CERU organisation; and Van Aarde introduced his ‘Landscape Management’ programme for the management of elephants in the KNP.

Landscape Management requires that no elephant population control should ever again be undertaken in Kruger National Park. Mathematically, this would mean that the elephant population would, theoretically, have increased from 8 000 in 1994, to 16 000 by 2004; to 32 000 by 2014; and that it will reach 64 000 by the year 2024.

These kinds of absolute figures, however, could not possibly be attained because – year by year – as the elephant population increased in number – the finite annual food mass would have to be shared by each and every elephant in the greater population. So, year by year, each elephant is now required to exist on an ever-smaller share of the available food. This is what the professors referred to when they said that: “Density feedbacks must ultimately curtail the growth in elephant population numbers”.

The implications of this reality are better explained if we use Botswana as our example. In Botswana, over the last 60 years (or more), the elephants have been (theoretically) doubling their numbers every ten years; and they have been repeatedly eating up all edible plants within 25 kilometres of their dry season water. But the elephants have to both eat and they have to drink, every day. So, each day, they spend their time commuting from the water to wherever it is that they can find enough food to keep themselves alive, and back to the water again. En route, there is nothing now left for them to eat. They have eaten all the edible plants! And in Botswana, those resources – food and water – at the height of the dry season – are said to be 25 kilometres apart.

The amount of energy the elephants get from the food they eat, however, is less than the energy they use, commuting (25 kms each way) between the water, their food, and back to the water again, every day. And by October, the elephant breeding herds start to look like walking skeletons.

Lack of adequate nutrition destroys the elephant cows’ fertility; foetuses are aborted; calves at foot starve – and die – when their mothers’ milk dries up; starving calves lack the energy to keep up with their mothers on the long daily treks between water and food; large numbers of baby elephants are abandoned; and lions and hyenas kill and eat the abandoned calves. The result is that – as this syndrome advances – fewer and fewer calves survive their first twelve months of life. So, recruitment of calves into the population declines. And older animals die before their time. All these increased mortality factors – all the result of enforced starvation – cause the population numbers to so-call ‘stabilise’. But the age-class structure becomes totally out of sync with normality.

Never-the-less, with fewer babies and juveniles – and fewer old animals – the elephant population ultimately (theoretically) ceases to grow. And this happens by design – by the design of scientists such as Professor Rudi van Aarde – who claim that this kind of elephant population ‘control’ is less cruel than ‘culling’; and that it should be acceptable because it is ‘natural’!

One way or another, when you are managing elephants, elephants have to die. And they do die. But it is a moot point which death is the most cruel: the quick shooting of an elephant with a bullet through the brain; or the slow and purposeful starvation-of-baby elephants… until they die; or until they are torn to pieces and eaten by lions and hyenas. But there are other things to consider.

Rudi van Aarde and his ilk, are silent about what happens to all the other animals which share the game reserve habitats with the elephants. They make absolutely no mention of species diversity in their explanations – which they clearly consider is of no consequence. As long as elephants are not ‘culled’ nothing else seems to matter. So, both Dr. Salomon Joubert and I agree on that assumption.

We will discuss this aspect of ‘the management of KNP’ in next article (Part III) in this series.

Ron Thomson

One thought on “The Kruger Controversy PART II

  • Allowing one species to destroy the habitats that many other species depend on, is gross negligence and constitutes a failure by SANPARKS to fulfill its mandate. It seems that sentiment or politics has taken precedence over conservation biology.


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