Are we going to start culling elephants again? (South Africa)


Tony Weaver, Cape Times

Date Published

DOES Minister of Tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, know something that the rest of us don’t? I ask this in the context of remarks he is reported to have made at last week’s African Tourism Ministers’ meeting on anti-poaching in Berlin.According to travel website, eTN (eTurbo News), “Tourism Minister Marthinus Van Schalkwyk said South Africa’s elephant population has been on the increase and hence the need to crop them… He said South Africa will table these proposals at the next CITES meeting.”

So is culling of elephants back on the agenda? Surely not? This flies in the face of painstaking research carried out in the Kruger National Park by, among others, large mammal ecologist, Dr Sam Ferreira. Ten years ago, I worked with Sam and other scientists from the University of Pretoria’s Conservation Ecology Research Unit (Ceru) on a wide-ranging elephant project across southern Africa.

The project was part of a joint Ceru and Peace Parks Foundation operation to fit elephants with GPS satellite collars so that their daily movements and long term migrations could be plotted. The ultimate aim was to gather as much information as possible about elephant movements across Zambia, Malawi, South Africa, Mozambique and Botswana, and to facilitate the opening up ancient migration corridors.

But much of the discussion around the fires at night was about the damaging impact that the creation of artificial water holes had had on not just elephant populations (they tend to remain in areas close to permanent water, given the choice) but also the concomitant destruction of habitat by the elephants because of concentrated population numbers. Sitting around the fire one night after a hard day’s collaring in Zambia, Professor Rudi van Aarde, Ceru’s director, told me how he was vehemently opposed to artificial waterholes.

“The so-called elephant problem in the Kruger is man-induced. Nowhere in the Kruger does an elephant have to walk more than 2.8km without water, and so elephants have now occupied the whole of Kruger, even in those vegetation types that are not suitable and so the landscapes are being fundamentally altered by them.”

So Kruger has seen an explosion in elephant numbers – there were only five elephants there in 1900. Today there are around 16 000. Entire landscapes are being fundamentally altered by them.

Elephants are what scientists call “ecological engineers”; they modify their environment on a grand scale. They are also an “umbrella species” – you take care of their needs, and you pretty much take care of the needs of most other species. So if you fail in managing elephants, you also fail in managing entire conservation areas. They are also an environmental flagship species with a very high international profile.

In Kruger, where the authorities have been systematically destroying the artificial water points, a remarkable turnaround is happening. In November last year, Ferreira was quoted by my colleague Sheree Bega at The Star as saying that “if you want to manage the effects of elephants, what you’re really interested in is managing the landscape and restoring the natural variation in landscapes.”

He said that since 1997 Kruger had closed down two thirds of its water holes. And with this, as the scientists have been predicting, in parts of Kruger the numbers are stabilising and even levelling off because of declining birth rates directly related to the closing of the waterholes.

“Two things are happening,” Ferreira was quoted as saying. “The elephant growth rate is dropping. It’s now 2 percent and it was 6 percent when we stopped culling… By the time we stopped, cows were having calves an average of every three to four years. At the moment we’ve worked it up to every 4.2 years…

“Generally what we’re seeing is that elephants are using landscapes differently than they did before. They are actually going to some places often, some places sometimes and others very little, and that’s the variation we want to see.”

The science is there, and it is proving correct. Nature will cull the excess numbers when needed – and with the current continent-wide surge in ivory poaching, we need to save every elephant we can.

Van Schalkwyk’s comments perhaps indicate that since departing from the Environment portfolio, he has lost touch with current scientific thinking. One can only hope so, and hope his comments do not reflect a shift back to outdated policy.

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