Lessons on elephant management from Kruger

Elephant management is a major debate in Southern Africa PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
Elephant management is a major debate in Southern Africa PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES

Professor Rudi van Aarde’s elephant management plan for Kruger National Park has been officially in operation since 2006. But it actually began its process in 1994 = since the day the elephant-culling era came to an end.

The Kruger scientists call their new plan: “A Landscape Management Approach” to the so-called elephant management “problem”.

At the end of 1994, Kruger’s elephant population stood at 7000; and since that year they have bred “without constraint” – that is, without being annually culled. Today the greater Kruger elephant population stands at plus-or-minus 5000. In a previous blog I explained how I came to the conclusion that, when the habitats were healthy (c.1955), the sustainable elephant carrying capacity for Kruger National Park was 3 500. And the habitats are no longer “healthy”! They are a far cry from what they looked like in 1960.

In another previous blog, I reported that Van Aarde had asserted that: “Elephant culling had been tried and it didn’t work”. It did not achieve its objective of stopping progressive habitat damage! “The only way to stabilise elephant population numbers,” he said, “is to reduce the number of calves that survive their first 12 months of life.”

The Landscape elephant management plan is the way he proposes to achieve that goal. Unfortunately, one of the plan’s major flaws is the fact that it concentrates on creating a stable elephant population whilst completely ignoring what happens to the habitat during that process.

NB: The Kruger elephant culling programme (1967 to 1994) did not affect even the rate of habitat damage that it was supposed to stop. This happened solely because of its annual culling target – maintaining the population at 7 000 animals – was too high. Had that target been dropped to 3 500 its purpose would have been achieved.

The Landscape plan is based on the assumption that if a population of elephants is allowed to breed “without constraint” they will eventually become so numerous they will eat themselves out of house and home during every six-months long dry season. That, in effect, means they will ultimately and purposely be forced to endure dry-season-long starvation conditions every year – and these consequent, annually repetitive, nutritional deficiency regimes will reduce the population’s breeding capacity.

When the plan kicks into gear – that is, when the starvation regime finally begins to have a negative biological effect – a number of things are expected to happen: The age at which young cows conceive for the first time will increase from 10 or 12 to (perhaps) 15 or 20 years; the interval between calves will increase from four years to (perhaps) five or six years; and older cows will stop producing calves at (perhaps) 40 years of age instead of 60 – whereafter, or before which, they will die a natural death of old age. In their lifetimes, therefore, a constant lack of adequate nutrition will induce breeding-age females to produce very much fewer calves.

A reduction in nutrition greatly and adversely affects the production of milk in lactating cows. And when lactation stops, starving young calves that are dependent on their mother’s milk, are abandoned because they lack the energy to keep up with their dams on the breeding herd’s long daily treks in search of food – to and from the water. It is “nature’s way” that adult breeding females should save themselves – because they can breed again in later years; and that weakened babies that have no chance of survival be sacrificed.

Added to all the other problems associated with lack of food, when the programme is well-advanced, the elephants will expend an extraordinary amount of energy walking up to 25 kilometres from their watering places, every day, to those areas where they can find enough food to keep themselves alive; and then to walk another 25 km, that same day, back to the water. As this process gets more and more intense – as the years go by; and as the elephants progressively eat up every morsel of edible vegetation that exists within that 25 km zone from the water, so the amount of energy they get from the food they are able to find, is less than the energy they need to walk those prodigious distances every day. Consequently, the entire elephant population will then first suffer the loss of all the fat it was able to accumulate (from eating lush green grass) during the previous rainy season. And to stay alive, each animal will be forced to then convert the protein in its muscles to usable energy. The elephants will then start to look like walking bags of bones.

Elephant calves up to the age of two years are entirely dependent on their mother’s milk, and they are partly dependent on this milk until the age of three. Nevertheless, many calves (up to the age of five) continue to suckle from their mothers until her next calf is born. The impact of a nutrition-stressed elephant population, on calves up to the age of three years, therefore, is devastating.

The abandoned babies die of starvation or of thirst and/or of heat fatigue or they are ripped to death and eaten alive by hyenas and lions. Even some quite large juveniles – that unconsciously separate from their maternal herds when nutritional-stress forces them into a state of malaise and despair – as singletons – become easy prey to a pride of lions.

NB: When elephant herds are fat and healthy, lions and hyenas do not predate upon their calves at all.

To add insult to injury within this conundrum, most of the artificial water supplies in the park have been purposefully closed down. In 1995, Kruger National Park had 365 boreholes and 109 pipeline troughs, weirs, concrete and earthen dams providing water to its game animals. Today only 41 boreholes and 31 pipeline troughs and other such structures, are in active service; and most animals obtain their water requirements in the dry season from natural pools in the park’s river systems. So, compared to previous years, the amount of food that is available to the elephants during every dry season is now greatly restricted.

NB: Euphemistically, it is said that those areas of the park that are beyond the 25 kilometre range from water during the dry season, are now “rested” for the duration of the dry season every year; and they are only available to the elephants during the wet season – when water availability is not limiting. Many ecologists believe this to be a good facet of the new plan. 

This is how Rudi van Aarde’s elephant management plan for Kruger National Park (and elsewhere) is enabling elephant populations to stabilise their own numbers by “naturally” reducing the numbers of baby elephants that survive their first 12 months of life!

 My mind boggles with a thousand-and-one questions that challenge the desirability of this Landscape idea.

Rudi van Aarde’s principle objection to the practice of elephant culling is that, he says, “it is incredibly cruel”; and he argues that allowing nature to manage elephant numbers, in its own way, is much preferable.

There is no doubt in my mind that this assumption is very wrong.

A common thread that runs through every definition of the words “cruel” and “cruelty” is the use of one or another of the accompanying words: “purposeful”; “deliberate”; and/or “with intent”. Cruelty, therefore, is not just the act of inflicting pain and suffering on an animal or a person. It includes, also, the purposeful intention of causing the pain and the suffering.

“Neglect” can also result in cruelty – especially when it is combined with the words “callous indifference”.

None of these definitions, however, can be applied to elephant culling, hunting, or the killing of an animal in an abattoir – because in all these practices there is no “purposeful intent” to cause pain and suffering. So I guess Van Aarde’s objections to elephant culling would be better described as: “He personally finds the practice of elephant culling distasteful”. And that is ok. Many people would agree with him. Even hardened wildlife managers would be sympathetic, but the professionals cull when necessary because they know it is the right thing to do. Culling elephants is a good example of a tough-love and essential management action when it is carried out in the correct manner, under appropriate circumstances and for the right reasons.

The act of killing – in itself – is not cruel. Nevertheless, causing an animal’s death under any circumstances is distasteful to many people. And those who regularly cause the deaths of animals – because it is their job to do so – have inured themselves to the act of killing.

Now I want to compare the Landscape elephant management approach to the so-called elephant “problem” in Kruger, with the alternative culling option.

First of all, everybody has to acknowledge the fact that the Van Aarde philosophy of controlling elephant numbers (as he calls it) “from the bottom” (by reducing the number of yearling calves that survive their first twelve months of life),and the alternative old-style culling “from the top” (total herd elimination), BOTH require that elephants should die. This is a sad imperative that is rarely exposed when the orchestrators of the Landscape elephant management approach explain their rationale to the general public.

In the Landscape model, baby elephant deaths are described as occurring in “a natural way” – that is, in the way that nature intended such animals should die. This is a very vague, benign and designed-to-be-acceptable expression that avoids the necessity to explain to the public the much less-acceptable facts of the matter: that these mainly very young animals, often in considerable numbers, are abandoned by their mothers, and they die of starvation every year; and/or of thirst; and/or of heat fatigue; or they are torn-to-pieces, and often eaten alive, by lions and hyenas.

It takes many decades of uncontrolled proliferation for the combined elephant herds in a game reserve like Kruger, to become so numerous that they literally destroy their own habitats – which they will ultimately do within a 25 km radius of all permanent water. It also takes many years for the food resources in a game reserve to be so totally depleted that this so-called “natural way of dying”phenomenon comes into play. But when the plan finally comes together, and baby elephants start to die in large numbers, it is probably too late to apply any kind of worthwhile remedial action.

A major additional tragedy of this state of affairs is that all the other animals in Kruger National Park have not been given very much attention in the Landscape equation. I have already provided a separate blog explaining that Kruger’s black rhino will become locally extinct because of elephant induced habitat change alone. But every other herbivorous animal in Kruger is also adversely affected one way or another.

The food – the grasses and the browse – that the elephants eat and demolish within that 25 km range of water, represents the food supply of ALL the various other herbivorous animals in the park; and when that food has all been eaten up by the elephants, there will be nothing left for all these other animals to eat. Unfortunately, these lesser herbivores cannot match the prestigious distances that the elephants can travel to find food every day at the height of every dry season. These other animals have to remain close to the water (which is their main comfort-survival consideration) inside that 25 km zone which the elephants are always busy turning into a desert. So I predict that we can expect a lot more casualties from the Landscape management debacle in the years to come. Many other species of herbivore – other than elephants – are poised on the brink of starvation, too. All it will need to trigger an ecological collapse of immense proportions is a very bad drought. And, mark my words, when that happens, the drought will get the blame for the disaster – not long-term bad management.

Consider the fact that excessive elephant concentrations, for the last 50 years, have been focused on the rivers and river pools in Kruger National Park. Consider the fact that the richest vegetation – the richest habitats – and the greatest concentration of biological diversity in any park – occurs on the alluvial soils of the river banks. Consider the fact that, in each and every game reserve where an excessive elephant population exists, the greatest damage to habitats occurs in the vicinity of the water supplies – in the Kruger case, the river pools – and that the damage radiates out from the water for distances that can exceed 25 km. Now think about all the damage that the inadequate elephant-culling programme (1967 to 1964) followed by this new Landscape plan over an additional 23 years – has done to the biological diversity of Kruger National Park.

And remember, a long time ago the South African parliament mandated SANParks, above all else, to maintain the park’s species diversity. What happened to that idea? It was seemingly discarded as being irrelevant because it could not be accommodated within the Landscape management plan! “Somebody” should be made accountable for this oversight because it is really important.

Maintaining biological diversity is (or should be) Kruger’s primary purpose for being! And when the richest habitats in the game reserve have been so totally destroyed, we can say with absolute certainty that the game reserve has already lost a most alarming amount of its formerly very rich biological diversity. And nobody seems to care! It would appear that this fact has been treated with “callous indifference.”

It would seem, for whatever reason, the scientists who have applied the Landscape plan have deliberately turned Kruger National Park into a pure elephant sanctuary. Today in Kruger, other than elephants, nothing else seems to matter (except rhino poaching)! Elephants are given preferential consideration in all wildlife management affairs – including the fact they should not be killed under any circumstances. This is also a desideratum of the animal rights NGO IFAW (The International Fund for Animal Welfare), which has had so much influence over Rudi van Aarde’s CERU (Centre for Ecological Research Unit) over the last two decades and more.

I can tell you from my own very extensive and personal experience, that the culling option presents a very different – far less “cruel” and much more acceptable – picture.

When conducted properly, a culling programme (beginning, in Kruger’s case, with a major population reduction exercise) can maintain the park’s elephant population within the carrying capacity of its habitat. Once the population has been trimmed to the right number, the population’s annual increment can be easily culled every year in order to create dynamically stable numbers that will always remain within the habitat’s carrying capacity.

During a culling programme, selected breeding herds are eliminated in their entirety whilst other breeding herds are left totally alone. This enables the untouched herds to carry on with their lives, as before, after every annual culling operation comes to a close.

Bulls are selectively shot separately. In my opinion, the number of bulls killed should at least equal the number of adult cows that are killed. Bulls live apart from cows so they have to be handled differently and separately. Cognizance must also be taken of the fact that bulls cause infinitely more damage to top canopy trees than do the cows! So they may have to be culled more heavily than cows! This is a judgment call that the responsible wildlife manager will have to make.

Culling is carried out by highly experienced game ranger marksmen – operating on foot – and every animal is killed instantly with an accurately placed brain shot delivered at very close range (normally between 1 and 10 metres).

An experienced culling team – with three expert marksmen using self-loading rifles and operating in unison – is capable of eliminating elephant breeding herds numbering 30 to 50 animals in less than sixty seconds. Normally administering one bullet per elephant! All carcasses are subjected to properly conducted biological examinations; their hides and tusks are recovered, and their meat is salted and dried by the sun in biltong-sized strips. If necessary, the bones and the remaining guts can be buried. A properly constituted culling team – carrying out all these functions – can contend with up to 50 elephants a day (without an abattoir).

In terms of the alleged cruelty factor, there is no comparison between the Landscape approach that has been applied to elephant population management in Kruger over the last 23 years and properly conducted culling operations. A culling-killing episode is all over within a few minutes – compared with years and years of horrible starvation that occurs with the Landscape option. Culling is far more efficient, effective and humane. It offers better options, too, for recreating different natural habitats and for maintaining them in good condition – because the elephant numbers never exceed the carrying capacity of the habitat. Culling ensures the maintenance of a park’s biological diversity compared to the Landscape approach which causes biological diversity loss.

I hope this blog will give the TGA’s readers a better perspective of the facts, and the ecological arguments when elephant management options in Kruger National Park come to the fore again. I have no doubt in my mind that the correct management option for the elephants of Kruger is to reduce their numbers to 2 500 (not 3 500) and to keep them at that reduced level, by annual culling, for the next 50 years. And during that recovery time, every effort should be made to replant and reseed the habitats that have been so badly trashed by too many elephants for far too long.

A warning and advice to all southern Africa’s nature-lovers and true ‘conservationists’; and to all those inadequately informed but caring people throughout the rest of the world who genuinely want to see Africa’s wildlife managed properly.

Elephants – due to their strength, large size and voracious appetites – are capable of causing greater damage to game reserve habitats than any other animal.

Excessive elephant populations WILL destroy their own habitats entirely – over time – and they WILL destroy, too, the habitats of every other species of animal with which they share occupation of their sanctuaries. Thus excessive elephant populations – if left alone – will be the direct cause of massive local extinctions of many plant and animal species in the game reserves that they occupy.

NB: An excessive elephant population is one that exists in numbers that are above the sustainable elephant carrying capacity of the habitat.

In the game reserves of southern Africa, elephants occur in excessive numbers in all of Namibia’s north-eastern wildlife sanctuaries; throughout the wildlife sanctuaries of northern Botswana (and the Tuli Block); in Zimbabwe’s Hwange and Gonarezhou national parks; and in South Africa’s Kruger and Addo national parks. In many of these wildlife sanctuaries, the elephant populations are already grossly

Excessive elephant populations – if they are allowed to continue to breed without constraint – will quickly become GROSSLY excessive. This – without intervention by man – will lead to the desertification of the wildlife sanctuaries in which these elephant populations exist. During this process the elephants will enter into situations of inevitable and perpetual dry season starvation; and every other species of herbivorous animal that shares the wildlife sanctuaries with these elephants will be subjected to the same (or worse) starvation regimes, too.

Starvation, in any species, weakens the resilience of animal populations and makes them very susceptible to disease. Lack of energy, however, is the main problem and their environment can no longer provide it. In all the elephant-occupied game reserves of south≠≠ern Africa, therefore, their ecosystems are ever more precariously tottering on the brink of collapse. The crash may not happen this year. It may not happen next year. It may not happen in the next ten years. But when the next severe drought occurs it WILL happen. The most classical example of this occurrence happened in Kenya’s Tsavo East National Park in 1972 – a year of intense drought – when 15 000 (some say 20 000) elephants, and 5 000 black rhinos, died in a single episode.

When the crash occurs do not blame the drought! If you have to assign culpability, blame persistent bad wildlife management practices; blame the interference of First World governments in Africa’s wildlife management affairs; blame the animal rightists for pursuing their own criminal confidence industry agendas – to the detriment of sustainable wildlife utilisation practices in Africa; blame CITES for not allowing the well-government countries of southern Africa to sustainably harvest their own prolific wildlife resources as they see fit – and to sustainably market their own wildlife products (like ivory and rhino horn). Just don’t blame the drought!

The truth of the matter is that the first world is all the time imposing pressure on Africa to “save its elephants” – ALL its elephants – at ANY and ALL costs; and in total and criminal ignorance of the ecological facts and related wildlife management – and national park management – implications. The whole world – no matter how powerful many of its nations might be – CANNOT change the rules of the game in natural ecosystems. Our elephants; our other wild animals; our biological diversity considerations; and the plants and the animals in our national parks, cannot be controlled by the political dictates of man. The world of all these living organisms is a complex interaction that can only be guided, and nudged in the right direction (to achieve man’s desired objectives), by people who know how these natural systems work. And the animal rightist NGOs – who are the main drivers of all this First World pressure – and who have no accountability for the demands that they make on Africa – haven’t a clue about the realities of wildlife management. Their self-serving demands, therefore, are destructive and should be ignored.

Surely it is time that the governments of this planet learned these lessons; and that they learned, too, to identify and respect the truth. The survival of Africa’s elephants, its other wildlife, its national parks, and its constantly diminishing wilderness areas, are all dependent on the civilised world coming to honest grips with these realities.

*This article is part of a series on biological diversity in the Kruger Park. It originally appeared on the website www.mahohboh.org


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