Too many elephants in South Africa?
ADDO ELEPHANT PARK, South Africa ” The majestic male elephant ambled through the dense bush to the water hole, extending his trunk in greeting to two young females, April and Aqua, their mother Aran and grandmother Agatha.
The captivating scene is repeated in parks throughout South Africa, where the elephant population has catapulted from near extinction to explosion ” prompting the government to reconsider its ban on killing the mighty beasts.
Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said Wednesday that South Africa might have to resume slaughtering elephants as part of a package of measures that also includes contraception and relocation to try to prevent the world’s mightiest mammal from wreaking havoc on more delicate animal and plant species.
The idea of reversing a 1995 ban on killing elephants in South Africa is especially striking given that populations in other countries are low, and that, globally, the elephant is classed as “vulnerable” and trade in ivory has been banned since 1989 to combat poaching.
“The government will never give a blank check to culling,” van Schalkwyk said Wednesday, but added that South Africa had to preserve the balance of nature in the flagship Kruger National Park and other wildlife reserves.
“We have about 20,000 elephants in South Africa, more or less 14,000 in the Kruger National Park. In 1995, when we stopped culling, we had around 8,000 elephants. The population growth of elephants is 6 to 7 percent,” Van Schalkwyk said.
“This is the hard reality,” he told a news conference overlooking a watering hole in
Addo Elephant Park, where the elephant population is set to double by 2020 ” as is the population in Kruger.
Although this is good news for tourists hoping to spot the Big Five ” elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards and buffalos ” it is inflicting a heavy toll on vegetation and other animal species.
A single elephant devours up to 660 pounds of grass, leaves and twigs a day.
Van Schalkwyk said the elephant management proposals included moving them to other areas, creating special enclosures to protect other species, expanding parks, contraception and shooting selected animals.
“I would have preferred not to consider the options of both culling and contraception,” he said.
Interested parties have until May 4 to comment and then after that it may take many more months to bring the measures into force.
The initial reaction was positive.
The World Wildlife Fund said it recognized the problem posed by elephant overpopulation and hailed the government for consulting with conservation groups.
“Although WWF does not advocate culling as the preferred management alternative, we recognize that it is a management option and reiterate our view that all other options should first be explored,” said Rob Little, acting chief executive of WWF South Africa.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare welcomed the promise by the minister to invest in scientific research. “We dearly hope this indicates a long-term intention to ensure an ethical approach to elephant management,” it said.
There are still vivid memories of elephants being shot in a 1967-1994 campaign in which 14,562 were killed. Without that slaughter their numbers would have rocketed by now to 80,000, according to national park estimates.
Van Schalkwyk declined to predict how many elephants might die if slaughter does get the final green light.
Although contraception is an alternative, it is fraught with problems. A female normally breeds every four years and doesn’t mate while nursing. With contraception, a female goes into heat every four months but doesn’t become pregnant ” and so suffers the physical stress of frequent copulation with bulls four times her weight.
Moving elephants to different areas is expensive. Conservation experts say there are signs that elephants are beginning to move from the Kruger into Mozambique, where populations are more sparse because of the long civil war. The removal of national fences in a new trans-frontier park has made that possible, but space is limited.
South Africa, Namibia and Botswana all have booming elephant populations, while East African nations like Kenya are struggling from the impact of poaching and loss of habitat.
Rick Ostfeld, an animal ecologist at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, N.Y., said that “just in the last two years or so, the level of poaching has risen to an unprecedented rate,” after nearly two decades during which the international community had managed to get the illicit ivory trade under control.
Some African countries have called for the right to resume controlled sales of ivory, saying the proceeds can benefit local populations and help pay for conservation efforts. But Kenya and Mali are seeking a 20-year ban on all trade in raw or worked ivory.
Most ivory comes from the much larger populations of African elephants, with even Asian countries importing African ivory.
The Asian elephant ” smaller than its African counterpart ” is classed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Encroachment on its habitat by humans has slashed the population to an estimated 30,000 to 50,000 animals in the wild in countries like Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar.
African countries, too, faced extinction of their elephant populations. South Africa had just 200 elephants at the start of the 20th century.
Botswana has by far the biggest elephant population, with an estimated 165,000 elephants, according to van Schalkwyk. He said Zimbabwe had an estimated 80,000 and Mozambique some 20,000.
In Addo, the elephants feed on 146 different plant species ” of which 75 are classed as rare, he said. Addo is about an hour’s drive from the southern coastal city of Port Elizabeth.
Authorities have reintroduced the endangered black rhino into the park, where it lives in harmony with the elephant, but fear they could start competing for food.
Already, crowding is leading to tensions, according to Graham Kerley, an elephant expert who works with officials at Addo National Park, which currently has some 450 elephants.
While females live to about 65 years old, fighting among the bulls has reduced their average life span to 45 ” not long enough for them to grow the mighty tusks that are the trademark of other South African elephant populations.