A giant’s wasteland

KWAZULU-NATAL, SOUTH AFRICA – Two decades ago, the elephant was the poster child for conservationists worldwide when the ban on ivory was initiated in 1989.
Today, the African elephant is again at the centre of another heated conservation battle that surrounds the culling of the world’s largest land mammal.
The culling of elephants means the highly supervised killing of entire herds in an effort to control their booming population.

The contentious issue has split the conservation, scientific and political worlds as alternative methods to the controlled killings of Africa’s giant are discussed.

A century ago, there were only 6,000 elephants south of South Africa’s Zambezi river. Karen E. Lange reports in her article published in last September’s issue of National Geographic that “while poaching continues to threaten elephants in Kenya and elsewhere, in southern Africa conservation measures have been so successful that populations are booming.”

She continues by using South Africa’s largest game reserve, Kruger National Park, as an example.
“In the 13 years since South Africa’s culling ban, Kruger’s elephants have increased from 8,000 to more than 13,000. The elephants, eating about 400 pounds of food a day, are transforming the landscape, tearing through vegetation, pulling down or uprooting trees and stripping them of their bark.”

Although the most recent debate surrounds the overpopulation of elephants in South Africa, the habitat destruction that elephants have caused over a number of the southern African states has been devastating for other species that share the elephant’s ecosystem.
“Botswana’s elephants, up from perhaps 8,000 in 1960, are very dense in some areas, such as along a 12-mile stretch of the Chobe River, where they’ve destroyed most of the trees,” Lange continues.

Zimbabwe’s government says the nation’s elephant population has more than doubled since 1980 and has reached numbers far greater than the nation’s ecosystem can withstand.
Both nations have discussed culling as an option for controlling their elephant populations. They now wait and watch to see how South Africa will manage culling with such worldwide attention and scrutiny.

A historic plight
Culling was halted in South Africa in 1995 after footage was shown on mainstream media and the practice was met with a global outcry.

According to National Geographic, Kruger National Park culled 14,562 elephants from 1967 until culling was banned in an ffort to keep their population size around 7,000 for an area the size of Israel.

Intense public pressure from animal rights groups like the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) forced the South African government to discontinue culling.

Now, Kruger’s elephant population rests above 12,500, up from just 65 animals in 1918, according to the International. NBC reports that Kruger officials have warned that if its elephant numbers aren’t controlled, it has been projected that their numbers will triple to 34,000 by 2020.

Issue at hand
On the heels of South African environment minister Martinus van Schalkwyks’ call for a 5,000 elephant cull in 2010 are the same groups that opposed the cull 14 years ago.
Legislation to perform the largest cull to ever take place passed as of May 1, 2008, though it has yet to begin.

National Geographic claims that government approval to carry out a cull could take months, even years, to be approved.

A guide at Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, Rick, explains how culling will be carried out in one of South Africa’s oldest parks, projected to happen in July.
“It’s done from helicopter, they dart the animals, [the] animals go down totally paralyzed, then a ground crew move in, [and kill them with a] bullet in the brain,” said Rick.

“We cull elephants because of you and me. We want to grow crops and graze cattle so we can feed the people. But we don’t want the elephants trashing our crops and we don’t want the lions eating our livestock. But we really want the lions and the elephants. So we put a fence around them and make an artificial environment,” he added.

Zoologist John Hanks, a consultant with International Conservation Services, agrees with Rick’s views. “We’ve created a highly artificial situation by restricting elephants to parks,” said Hanks.
This artificial environment is the primary cause for the South African governments’ call for cull. Pre-settlement, elephants in South Africa used to migrate over approximately two years through neighbouring Mozambique, Swaziland and Zimbabwe before returning to areas like the present Kruger National Park. This migration was based on food and water supply.

Naturalist Lyall Watson explains that “in East Africa in 1925, elephants ranged across 87 per cent of the land … but by 1975, elephants had become confined to just 27 per cent of the land.”
This demonstrates that the reduction in elephant habitat has occurred across the entire African continent.

Because fences have been put up to keep animals in parks, not only has habitat diminished but migratory patterns have been disrupted.

Rick explains why this has a devastating effect on habitat by comparing today’s fenced-in parks with the pre-settlement era.

Now, instead of returning two years later to grazing grounds, elephants find themselves back in habitats they travelled through often within weeks.

“That’s why they destroy habitat. And that’s why they have to be managed,” Rick argues.

Despite evidence that supports the devastation overpopulation of elephants can cause, Jason Bell-Leask, South African director for IFAW, claims that the international community will continue to see culling as “cruel [and] unethical.”

There are many alternatives to the giant cull that the South African government has initiated.
Bell-Leask thinks southern African governments should consider the creation of “megaparks” that transcend borders to accommodate larger elephant migratory patterns.

Rudi van Aarde of the University of Pretoria, among other experts, favours a combination of the reduction of artificial watering holes so elephant populations diminish as a result of drought, the destruction of park fences to create these “megaparks” and corridors between parks so elephants can migrate more freely.

Kenya’s Iain Douglas-Hamilton, a member of the recently convened Elephant Science Round Table, says that “in some cases I’d rather see a population collapse through starvation than see it culled.”

Tensions run high around the management of elephants, with some decisions leading to the inevitable demise of at least some populations of elephants, whether by bullet, starvation or dehydration.

Many conservationists and scientists believe that elephant contraception is the best alternative to culling.

However, the manpower and cost behind contraceptive methods and the mayhem of past trials leaves some doubt.

Lange agrees that female contraceptive practices “can cost more than $150 per elephant and must be done repeatedly.” Thus, these methods could be more successful in smaller game reserves, but would be impractical in a park like Kruger.

Rick also argues against contraceptive methods for controlling elephant populations, claiming culling puts a lot of money back into conservation and provides a once-off intervention that needs little management for the next three or four years.

Conservationist, scientist and co-director of the non-profit organization Utopia Scientific Caitlin O’Connell has studied contraceptive trials from the past decade, none of which were highly successful.

In her book The Elephant’s Secret Sense, O’Connell reports that one method placed time-release estrogen implants in the ears of a number of female adult elephants, while another used was protein injection that made females infertile.

Techniques were deemed too costly and would have to be carried out on too many elephants to prove credible.

Registered guide and South African Zulu local Xolani explained that one of the most effective methods of decreasing the crowding of elephants in some parks is translocation.
“Spread them all over because African elephant is quite interesting to have. They are taking a lot of trees down – but we still have a lot of places in Africa that is the elephant’s habitat so we must increase those habitats.”

Although an interesting solution, the translocation of elephants is costly and, according to National Geographic, the 30-some small game parks that have received elephants from Kruger National Park since 1979 are now struggling with their own populations.

The Independent also reports that groups of elephants that were moved into Mozambique have recently returned back to their herding grounds in South Africa.

An uncertain future
On the brink of hosting the World Cup next year, South Africa’s decision to cull elephants threatens to have a negative affect on tourism to the country.

The Humane Society of the United States has warned that it will advise its 8.5 million members to boycott South Africa as a tourist destination should culling proceed.

Many have warned that culling will tarnish the World Cup, as reported in the Independent.
A controversial issue for all sides, the culling of South Africa’s elephants will surely be scrutinized and provide a stepping stone for the actions of other southern African nations, whether the culling is a success or a failure.

Progress for other methods seems slow and costly, but there are many environmentalists and scientists who are working tirelessly to devise a solution that does not involve what some deem to be a “genocide” of the species.

While less than a century ago the African elephant was facing demise by poaching for their valuable ivory tusks, they now face man’s rifle for another more calculated and contentious reason.

Scientific, environmental and political decisions as to what to do about the overpopulation of Africa’s giant could mean that some elephants lose their lives in the hopes that Africa’s savannahs will not become wastelands.