6 000 tuskers in firing line

The Kruger National Park wants to shoot up to 6 000 elephants as part of a national culling programme that could start next winter, the Mail & Guardian has learnt.

Thousands of elephants in other state and private reserves around the country will also be culled, if a South African National Parks (SANParks) report on elephant management submitted to Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism Marthinus van Schalkwyk is endorsed by the public.

Van Schalkwyk said this week that culling — stopped more than a decade ago, mainly because of local and international opposition — had been approved by the Cabinet as a solution to growing elephant numbers.

‘I would rather not do culling, and this is the view of the government as well. But there comes a time when not doing anything is not good enough,” he said.

A recent census in Kruger recorded close to 12 500 elephants in the park itself, and there are about 2 000 more living in private reserves on the park’s western boundary.

According to SANParks figures, the Kruger population is increasing at 7% a year and could reach 20 000 by 2012. If the culling plans are approved, culling could start in the middle of next year — the cooler winter months being the most suitable.

Before Kruger closed its abattoir in Skukuza in 1995, its annual culling programme aimed to keep the elephant population at about 7 500. SANParks officials are loath to discuss figures now, but scientists working with the organisation say high-ranking officials still support the original ‘carrying capacity” figure and are known to want to almost halve the present population over a number of years.

In its report to Van Schalkwyk, released last week, SANParks avoided mentioning the park’s ‘carrying capacity”, but referred to a management plan drawn up in 2000 by scientists that divided Kruger into six zones.

This plan recommended culling between 400 and 1 000 elephants a year over five years. In zones of envisaged ‘low impact”, elephant numbers would be reduced; in ‘high-impact” zones around the central section of the park, numbers would be left to fluctuate.

‘We envisage that in those areas where maximum population management will be needed we will be looking at a reduction level of about 7% annually, a figure which will be revised year on year,” David Mabunda, chief executive of SANParks, said in response to M&G questions last week. At current numbers, this would mean culling up to 900 elephants in the first year.

Mabunda denied the plan was to get rid of 6 000 elephants. ‘It is irresponsible and untrue because SANParks has not put a figure on numbers of elephants that need to be culled in the national park — The issue of numbers is one that is often miscommunicated to the public, resulting in several unnecessary misunderstandings.”

SANParks says in its report to Van Schalkwyk that culling is needed to conserve biological diversity in protected areas and support sustainable use of natural resources for the benefit of communities.

Communities would be involved in processing carcasses, canning plants and butcheries, and in carving tusks and bones, elephant hair products and other by-products.

Van Schalkwyk announced on Tuesday that national guidelines for elephant management would be drawn up by early next year and published for public comment. The national framework will be adapted to the individual needs of different national, provincial and private reserves.

There were about 17 000 elephants in South Africa’s 80 nature reserves and ‘some commentators suggest [this] is at least double the carrying capacity”, he added.

Critics, including scientists who formerly favoured culling but now reject it, have questioned the accuracy of SANParks figures and the impact SANParks says elephants have on biodiversity.

‘While the concept of a static carrying capacity within a dynamic environment has no scientific basis, the idea that Kruger can only support a population of 7 000 elephants has nevertheless become deeply entrenched within the minds of the general public,” Michelle Henley of the Associated Private Nature Reserves, on the western border of the Kruger, recently wrote for an international NGO called Save the Elephants.

She said misconceptions were being fuelled by statements such as ‘there is an overpopulation of elephants” or ‘elephants have exceeded their carrying capacity. The majority of scientists do not agree with these perceptions.”

Scientists attending a workshop in Johannesburg in July said the impact of elephants on biodiversity should not be considered in isolation. Factors such as the closing of waterholes in the Kruger, fire and the impact of other browsers such as impalas had to be taken into account.

Where elephant numbers had to be reduced, the workshop concluded, there were alternatives to culling such as expanding parks, elephant ‘corridors” between reserves, translocation and contraception. Van Schalkwyk said he was considering these non-lethal reduction methods.

Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod

Fiona Macleod is an environmental writer for the Mail & Guardian newspaper and editor of the M&G Greening the Future and Investing in the Future supplements. She is also editor of Lowveld Living magazine in Mpumalanga. An award-winning journalist, she was previously environmental editor of the M&G for 10 years and was awarded the Nick Steele award for environmental conservation. She is a former editor of Earthyear magazine, chief sub-editor and assistant editor of the M&G, editor-in-chief of HomeGrown magazines, managing editor of True Love and production editor of The Executive. She served terms on the judging panels of the SANParks Kudu Awards and The Green Trust Awards. She also worked as a freelance writer, editor and producer of several books, including Your Guide to Green Living, A Social Contract: The Way Forward and Fighting for Justice. Read more from Fiona Macleod

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