Elephants to be Culled for Research

Elephants to be Culled for Research—and for Their Own Survival

Eleanor Momberg, Sunday Independent (South Africa)
May 3, 2009

Elephants are to be culled in national parks in the near future. This will be done as part of a controlled experimental programme undertaken by South Africa National Parks (SANParks) to determine the effects of culling, contraception and range expansion on social behaviour and the meta-population. Culling was listed as one of the management options available in terms of the norms and standards for elephant management that came into effect last year.

Under the regulations, owners and managers of national parks and reserves roamed by the country’s ever-expanding elephant populations must prove to the environmental affairs and tourism minister or their provincial MEC that killing mega-herbivores on their properties is necessary based on scientific research. Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister, said last year that culling may be used only as a last resort.

David Mabunda, the chief executive of SANParks, said this week that the planned cull formed part of the proper research required as part of each national park’s elephant management plan.

If we were just trigger-crazy, we would have already implemented it. But we want to implement all the options in a controlled, experimental context where we collect data, look at behaviour and cause and effect (before) deciding where each of these interventions will be the most appropriate,” he said. “We also have to determine preferred management densities—what we can cope with, what are the challenges that we face in certain parts of the park (Kruger National Park) where the impacts vary from one area to another.”

The research was not aimed at providing solutions, but rather to collect information to determine a response in terms of SANParks’ adaptive management framework. “If you are scared of experimenting and implementing, you will never learn. You will never resolve the problem. So we are looking at the basic things we can do,” he said, adding that no behavioural or other data was recorded by former park authorities during culling programmes between 1967 and 1994, when more than 16 200 elephants were killed. Mabunda said the conservation authority could not wait until elephants killed more people.

Range expansion, which had already been implemented through the opening of migratory routes in transfrontier parks, was a medium—to long-term option. It had not been successful in the short term, as most elephants that had moved to the Mozambican side of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park had returned to Kruger. Those areas are populated—not clean, empty, vast open areas. When elephants come across… villages, it is a threat, so they turn around. As long as the human population is exploding and continues to increase rather than decrease in those areas, we will have either human-elephant conflict or elephants coming back to Kruger.”

Another problem was that most of the country’s elephant populations consisted of animals born within the boundaries of national parks and reserves. There was thus no memory of past ranges. “They are territorial. To re-establish those ranges, we would need to allow another 100 years or so. But do we have 100 years? No,” said Mabunda.

Translocation was not an option, he said, referring to a proposal by the Sabi Sands Game Reserve management to move 500 elephants to Zambia . “How are you going to translocate 500 elephants?” Culling, he conceded, would not be easy. But it was quick.

“It will make us feel comfortable that the numbers are not that threatening, that it gives other species an opportunity, that they are not going to eat themselves out of home and range,” said Mabunda.

In terms of the country’s sustainable usage policy, the meat from dead elephants would be sold to local communities, SANParks staff and whoever wants it at a rate that would cover the cost of processing the carcass.

“We don’t want to create a dependency and a sense of entitlement in communities to the meat, nor do we want to create an impression that this is a commercial venture and we want money out of it. But there is a cost when you process a carcass, so we must offset that,” said Mabunda.

He refrained from saying when the pilot culling project would start, because the management plans for elephant-range parks such as Kruger, the Addo Elephant National Park and Marakele National Park were still being finalised. Different interventions would be introduced in each park, some with a combination of management options, he said. “Our priority is to understand the underlying effects of those interventions,” Mabunda said. “People will be making all kinds of noises about culling, (but) we are not going to bludgeon people to death simply because they… have an anti-culling view.” But there was no other option.

“Cull we will… I am not going to fool myself and South Africans and promise them what I can’t deliver and say I will translocate 1,000 elephants to somewhere. There is no somewhere. And in this current financial climate I don’t think there is anyone with money to back up that huge operation. How many elephants can you move by plane and how long is that going to take? For ever. We must be realistic… That is the truth; sometimes it is hard reality,” said Mabunda.

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