Too many elephants in S. Africa

Sun Journal

Dilemma: Officials at Kruger National Park say culling the herd may be the only way to keep it at a manageable size.

March 28, 2000|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SKUKUSA, South Africa -- To cull or not to cull Kruger's elephants, that is the jumbo-sized dilemma facing officials at South Africa's most famous national park.

Five years after they stopped killing elephants to control their numbers, the practice is again under consideration.

When public pressure forced a halt in culling in 1995, Kruger National Park had an elephant population of 7,806, not too much above what was then considered the ideal, 7,000. Today it has 9,152.

A new elephant-management policy, ready for implementation, opens the way for renewed culling by shooting the animals from a helicopter.

The policy states that "wherever possible, management of the elephant population should be conducted by nonlethal means (translocation, contraception etc.), but where these methods prove inadequate, culling must remain an option for use."

The problem for the South African National Parks Service is that it is running out of suitable conservation land for the relocation of elephants inside the country, and there is concern for the security of elephants against poachers in many foreign areas.

One potential solution is the formation of a trans-frontier park linking areas of neighboring Mozambique and Zimbabwe with Kruger.

This plan, which would allow relocation of thousands of Kruger's elephants to restock the war-ravaged areas of Mozambique, is under negotiation. Even if agreement is reached, South African officials still will have concerns: the number of war weapons in the hands of potential poachers and the thousands of land mines scattered across the terrain.

"Before we ever get to move elephants into Mozambique, we will need reasonable assurance that the majority of firearms have been removed," says Ian Whyte, senior scientist in charge of Kruger's herbivores, which include the elephants, rhinos, buffalo and hippos.

"What do we do? Do we kill elephants here in Kruger, or do we translocate them into Mozambique and hope they make it? It's a dilemma," Whyte says.

Moving such huge animals is expensive. With the national parks service already strapped for cash, any large-scale operation would have to be funded mainly by private animal-welfare groups.

Contraception, the other nonlethal option, is not readily available either. Experiments with estrogen had to be abandoned when the bulls misread the signals and thought the treated cows were constantly in season, subjecting them to continuous harassment.

A second contraceptive method uses a product from the ovaries of pigs to lay an impervious coating around the elephant's egg to prevent sperm penetration.

It has proved successful without negative side effects, but it requires an initial dose of the contraceptive, followed by two booster doses and then annual administration.

Trying to administer such a regimen to the 4,500 adult elephant cows free to roam a park the size of Belgium would be all but impossible.

This leaves culling.

"Culling is the quick, easy option, but it isn't the one we would go for if the other two were useful and logistically feasible," Whyte says. "Certainly, before we culled an elephant we would move as many as possible out alive.

"Realistically, the major portion of elephants that come out of Kruger will probably be culled, unless we can really get Mozambique [and the trans-frontier park] up and running."

Ian Macdonald, chief executive of the World Wildlife Fund of South Africa, expects culling to begin soon.

"It's very likely to come because the logic behind it is so straightforward," he says. "We have always been in favor of the control of elephant numbers in closed protected areas. It's a necessary evil in the wake of man disturbing nature."

But the Front for Animal Liberation and Conservation of Nature is calling for a 10-year extension of the culling moratorium for nonlethal control methods to be developed.

The new approach to elephant management at Kruger is based on the priority of protecting the park's biodiversity, rather than elephants specifically. Elephants have a major impact -- both good and bad -- on plant and animal life.

Their numbers, suggests the plan, should fluctuate so as to stimulate the ecosystem and enhance the diversity.

Under the plan, the park is to be divided into six areas: two botanical reserves in the extreme north and southwest of the park, two areas of low elephant density and two where the density would go uncontrolled.

Elephants among the 3,721 now in the two low-density areas face the greatest risk of being culled. But once the negative environmental effects of decreasing or increasing elephant herds are detected, the system can be reversed with the high-density area redesignated as low-density and vice versa.

"There is no ideal number of elephants in any particular area," Whyte says. "The old concept of one elephant per square mile is a redundant concept. It is our objective to try and retain all the species that occur here naturally in viable populations."

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