South Africa Weighs Killing "Excess" Elephants in Parks

Leon Marshall in the Kruger National Park
for National Geographic News
November 5, 2004
South Africa's Kruger National Park elephant population has nearly
doubled in recent years, causing heavy habitat destruction and invasion
of adjacent farms.

Now conservation authorities are considering a plan to kill perhaps thousands of elephants to restore the balance of nature in the park.

A conference of specialists and stakeholders recently met to discuss the problem. They concluded that the only effective way out of southern Africa's elephant-overpopulation dilemma is to lift the nine-year moratorium on killing elephants.

The conference was named the Great Elephant Indaba, "indaba" being an African word for "meeting". It was convened by South African National Parks (SANP), in the Kruger National Park last week. SANP manages South Africa's 20 national parks, including Kruger, the largest.

It is in Kruger, South Africa's flagship reserve, that the problem of too many elephants is most acute. The park stopped killing elephants in 1995, in response to pressure from conservation bodies. Since then its elephant count has shot up from fewer than 7,000 to about 13,000. The park's carrying capacity is thought to be a maximum of 7,500 elephants.

Hector Magome, SANP's director of conservation services, said the effects of too many elephants on Kruger have become clear. It has reached the point where even tourists who are normally obsessed with seeing Africa's so-called big five—lion, elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo, and leopard—have started complaining about the scarred landscape, he said.

Magome showed the conference comparative photographs of areas where tall trees once stood. The elephants had killed the trees by uprooting and debarking them.

Magome said the incidence of elephant attacks on other animals has increased. One species that has fared particularly poorly is the black rhinoceros, the browsing species of rhino that is listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) as critically endangered. The rise in elephant attacks, Magome said, is because of the growing competition for food and space inside the 8,000-square-mile (about 20,000-square-kilometers) Kruger park.

Foraging on Adjacent Farmland

The same pressures were also thought to be the reason elephants were increasingly breaking through the reserve's game fences to forage on adjoining private and community land.

David Mabunda, chief executive officer of SANP, said killing the surplus elephants was a hard option. "But our first responsibility is to care for the biodiversity of our parks. It is our legal duty. We cannot favor one species at the expense of the rest."

The difficulty of the culling option was reflected in the generally somber mood of the meeting, which sporadically erupted into angry exchanges between the parks managers, game rangers, academics, community leaders, and the representatives of animal rights groups.

At the outset Mabunda asked that the conference to come up with "the most comprehensive and viable homegrown contribution that will embrace our real- life situation."

For far too long, he said, "Africans have entrusted the power to decide on the management of their protected areas to values that are outside of their own reality. The time has come to correct this. I urge you to use this indaba as a building block rather than a battlefield of emotions that may rob us of a golden opportunity to determine our future as Africans."

The moderator of the conference was Kenya-based conservationist Holly T. Dublin, who is chairperson of the African Elephant Specialist Group of the Species Survival Commission of the IUCN. She called for restraint and for the conference to adopt a learning culture.

Elephants Find Death Socially Traumatic

A professor of philosophy at the University of Pretoria, Alex Antonites, said research had shown elephants to have a higher level of self-consciousness than almost every other animal. It was not mere cleverness but, in fact, self-awareness, which made death individually and socially traumatic for them, he said. Thus the ethical dimension of killing had to be brought into the equation.

Steve Smith and Michelle Pickover, representing a South African animal-rights organization called Justice for Animals, warned the conference that the brutality of killing elephants would come to define the South African national identity and perhaps lead to tourist boycotts.

By contrast, leaders of communities living next to reserves complained that elephants breaking through fences were making their lives a misery.

Michael Masukule, leader of a community adjacent to Kruger, said, "They destroy our crops, occupy our drinking places, compete with our livestock for food, and are a danger to our people. Whatever decision you take, do not forget us people who encounter elephants every day."

Magome assured the conference that no decision would be lightly taken. "Kruger has a long and proud research tradition, and elephants are one of the most heavily researched species. Even so, we still think we have a lot to learn, which is why we have called this conference as a way of consulting further," he said.

The purpose of the gathering was to devise proposals for dealing with South Africa's elephant situation. But Mabunda said the outcome could be of help to other southern African countries which had similar, or worse, problems. Several of these countries had representatives at the conference. South Africa's northwestern neighbor, Botswana, has by far the worst elephant overpopulation problem.

The estimated elephant-population figure in southern Africa is 300,000, according to the IUCN. The region includes South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique, and Swaziland. An estimated 120,000 of the elephants are thought to be in Botswana's Chobe Reserve and Okavango Delta.

The conference considered several other options for relieving the growing pressure the elephants are putting on the habitat. These included: extending existing parks through more land acquisitions; moving more elephants from overpopulated to underpopulated parks; speeding up the region's ambitious transfrontier-park program; and opening corridors between parks to allow elephants to resume some of their old migration routes.

Neil Greenwood is a researcher at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which has its headquarters in Massachusetts. He said fertility control, such as through sterilization and contraception, was showing significant results. This could be particularly effective in places with smaller elephant herds, of up to about 65.

Magome said these proposals all had merit, but they were costly and would take too much time to deal with an urgent problem.

SANP director Mabunda said the agency would use the conference's proposals to draft a strategy. This would be submitted to South Africa's Ministry of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, which would open the final plan to public scrutiny before implementing it.

The consultative process, required by new laws adopted over the past two years, could take several months. Killing Kruger's excess elephant population, if approved, could start before the end of next year. The plan forwarded to the South African government called for the killing of hundreds of elephants a year over a period of five years.

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