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Back from South Africa; elephants may be culled

Posted Jun 03 2009 12:24am

I'm trying to pick up the threads of everyday life at home after a June trip to South Africa. Nothing seems quite the same.

My husband and I went with another teacher; our purpose was to plan a student trip for the future. I knew the impact of Africa on my own psyche would be huge - I knew the continent would spin me around and spit me out a different person. It did. So much so that it's taken me two weeks to find some way to even start writing about it, to find a point of entry - some little angle that will allow me to begin to describe it.

Elephants are a good place to start. Elephants are a source of heated controversy in South Africa. We met a lot of people who are either very angry about elephants, or very defensive of them.

Much of this controversy is related to Kruger National Park, the flagship park of South Africa, a park almost twice as big as the state of Connecticut. Kruger is home to 12,000 to 14,000 elephants right now. It was easy for us to spot elephants there, even from the roads. We saw lone bulls, as well as small groups of mothers and babies. A male in musth (a hormonal state) almost ran me down (just outside the park) when I wandered off behind a clump of small acacias by myself one evening. I couldn't see him coming because of the bushes. My companions yelled to me - I stepped around the bushes and saw the bull with his long tusks trotting briskly right at me. I ran, and my companions yanked me back in the jeep with seconds to spare. That was definitely my own fault. Wandering through the bush on foot is not recommended, in or out of the park. It's strictly prohibited within the park. In fact, even sticking your head out of your car window can draw a stiff fine within the park.

Although the thousands of elephants in and around the park make them easy to spot, many scientists believe that in the long run the park can support only about 7500 elephants.

The problem with overpopulation, if the elephants in the park are indeed too numerous, is that these huge herbivores can be very destructive of habitat. They eat tree bark, among other things, and can easily rip a tree to shreds to get at the bark. In Swaziland (a tiny country surrounded by South Africa) we visited a park where almost all the trees were dead due to elephants' foraging. This Swazi park is fenced though - its elephants are unable to move outside the park, unable to cover the range of territory they would normally forage over. In the past, this roaming would have given damaged trees time to recover.

But Kruger is much bigger than the Swaziland park, and most of Kruger has no fences around the perimeter. Most of the different areas and habitats we visited in Kruger showed no obvious evidence of elephant damage. The exception was near Shingwedze in the northern part of Kruger Park, where we saw big areas of torn up and dead trees.

Tree damage at Shingwedze

Besides habitat destruction, another problem with large numbers of elephants is that they leave Kruger (and other wildlife preserves) to forage on crops outside the park, which is a serious issue for rural villages that rely heavily on their crops for day-to-day subsistence. We spent a day in a rural village next to Kruger, hearing about their frustrations with elephants in their crops, something I'll write about in a later post.

At the moment, SANParks (South Africa National Parks) is undecided what to do about the elephant issue. There's a lot of clamoring for them to cull the elephants of Kruger National Park in order to protect habitat for the other herbivores in the park. I think the cheapest and most likely method of culling is to shoot entire herds all at one go, from helicopters and the ground. Elephants live in protective family groups and are highly intelligent, so this would obviously be a traumatic and not very humane death for them, because it would take some time to kill one entire herd. This has been done in the past, and I've read that it's a very disturbing scene, not only for the elephants targeted, and for nearby elephants, but also for the shooters.

Others have proposed darting the elephants with birth-control drugs, an option that would be extremely expensive. Many object to spending millions of dollars to deal with the elephant issue in this more humane way, when millions of people in South Africa are living in extreme poverty.

Still others argue that the elephant population in Kruger National Park may very well regulate itself if we just wait. Some of the most knowledgeable scientists support this perspective, including Laurence Kruger, a biologist who conducts research in the park, whom we hired to help us design our student trip.

I tend to believe Laurence, simply because he is a scientist who specializes in studying the impacts of elephants on habitat in Kruger, and he's a recognized expert on the subject. In July he attended a conference in Johannesburg on the issue of elephant management (to cull or not to cull), and is co-authoring a book based on the conference proceedings and current research.

But....time will tell what the government and the SANParks officials decide to do. We'll stay tuned.

The fact that elephants are numerous in Kruger National Park does not mean that elephants are flourishing everywhere. The number of African elephants crashed during the 1970s and 1980s due to uncontrolled slaughter and poaching for ivory. Then in 1989, the UN Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) banned the international commercial ivory trade. This led to a reduction in poaching in some African countries, including South Africa. But the UN has no enforcement of the CITES treaty - the adoption and enforcement of the CITES agreement is up to each country's government. So poaching has continued unabated in many African countries, often due to nonexistent enforcement of the ban. Many countries lack the money to hire patrols to capture poachers - work which is highly dangerous.

In June of 2007, African countries attended a meeting of CITES again and agreed (at least on paper) to a further 9-year suspension of ivory trading. But the meeting of the convention also agreed to allow four southern African countries to sell some of their stocked ivory through a permit system, including South Africa. This could give South Africa an incentive to cull the herds in Kruger National Park.

Keywords:: elephants poaching cull Kruger South Africa ivory
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