Elephant culling a ‘last resort’

An elephant in the Kruger National Park
Image: Tanya Jeffrey

Khanyi Magubane

The South African government has announced breakthrough legislation for the control of South Africa’s burgeoning elephant population. Set to be published in the Government Gazette on Friday 29 February, the Norms and Standards for Elephant Management in South Africa is set to reintroduce culling as a last resort to curb the devastating effect elephant overpopulation has on conservation areas and other species.

With no significant natural enemies and if protected from hunting and poaching, elephant numbers can explode in the confines of conservation areas. Since culling was outlawed in 1995, South Africa’s elephant population has soared from around 8 000 to more than 20 000.

“Our simple reality is that the number of elephants per square kilometre of the current elephant range has risen so much in some Southern African countries that there is concern about [the] impact on the landscape, the viability of other species, and the livelihood and safety of people living in elephant ranges,” Environmental Affairs Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said when announcing the new measures on Monday 25 February.

Elephants are the world’s largest land animal, growing to four metres in height and weighing up to seven tons. A single elephant eats an estimated 170kg of grass, tree bark and leaves a day.

Not only do they consume vast amounts of vegetation, they do it destroying their habitat: flattening bushes and ripping up tree roots. Enclosed national parks such at the Kruger cannot let elephant numbers get out of control without serious degradation of the environment, which threatens not only the animals themselves but also many other species, large and small.

In the past, as the herd population increased, it would migrate to another, less populated region, allowing the grazed and degraded habitat it left behind to recover. But today’s elepants can no longer roam freely, so their damage is compounded in the fixed range they are allowed to roam.

The Kruger National Park, South Africa’s largest reserve, has an elephant population of 13 000 – and growing by an estimated 7% a year. If left unchecked, this might reach 20 000 by 2012 and 30 000 by 2019. Researchers say the ideal elephant population for the Kruger would be 7 500.

The final draft of the norms and standards follows several months of public consultation with scientists, conservationists and others. Implementation will begin in May.

“What has emerged is a thoughtful piece of legislation that balances the interest of elephants with all other aspects of biodiversity, and societal values, ” Van Schalkwyk said. “It includes a ‘toolbox’ of options for the management of elephants, both wild and captive.”

Rob Little, conservation director at WWF in South Africa, welcomed the announcement, saying the country’s rapid elephant population growth was unsustainable.

“All available options must be available to control the elephant population here and conserve the biodiversity of the national parks,” Little told the UK Guardian. “The new framework imposes a hierarchy of choices, and culling is right at the bottom. We are not going to see a mass destruction of elephants here.”

According to the Guardian, the WWF says there are good reasons to believe that culling is one of the ways to deal with the crisis of growing elephant numbers. It argues that South Africa’s national parks will not be able to support either elephants or many of the other large species if matters continue.

The measures

Culling is one of the new elephant-control tools, but not the only one. Van Schalkwyk gave the assurance that steps had been taken “to ensure that this will be the option of last resort that is acceptable only under strict conditions”.

There would be no “wholesale slaughter”, he said.

Culling would be allowed only in terms of a plan prepared by the reserve owner and management, in consultation with an ecologist recognised as an elephant management specialist.

The plan would have to show that the existing or projected elephant numbers were “incompatible with the agreed land-use objectives spelt out in the management plan and that a reduction in population numbers was therefore necessary”.

It would also need to show that all other population management options, such as reserve expansion, contraception and translocation, had been rejected by the ecologist.

In addition, the import and export of captive elephants will be prohibited, as will intensive breeding of the animals in captivity.

“The capture of elephants for commercial exhibition facilities, such as elephant-back safari industries or circuses, will as of May 1 be prohibited,” Van Schalkwyk said. The norms and standards would apply to all conservation areas, as well as to private land on which elephants were found.

Guiding principles

On 20 September 2005, Van Schalkwyk outlined the government’s approach to addressing what was considered the increasingly pressing challenge of managing both wild and captive elephants in South Africa. He formed a task team, comprising of representatives from the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, conservation authorities in the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, Northern Cape and North West provinces. The team also included various specialists in the industry.

Principles guiding the task team included:

  • Elephants are intelligent, have strong family bonds and operate within highly socialised groups and unnecessary disruption of these groups by human intervention should be minimised.
  • While it is necessary to recognise the charismatic and iconic status of elephants and the strong local and international support for their protection, proper regard must be given to the impacts of elephants on biodiversity or people living in proximity to elephants.
  • Elephants are recognised engineers of habitat change and their presence or absence has a critical effect on the way in which ecosystems function.
  • Every effort must be made to safeguard elephants from abuse and neglect.
  • Elephant populations in the wild should be managed in the context of objective based management of the complex ecosystem in which they occur.

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