HAS KRUGER BECOME JUST ANOTHER BADLY MANAGED ELEPHANT SANCTUARY ?

Introduction: 

In the never-ending debate on the elephant carrying capacity of the Kruger National Park, and the results of habitat destruction due to the over population of elephant in the park, it seems no-one has considered that Kruger is not really different from a very large game ranch within which the numbers of animals have to be constantly managed in order to maintain healthy habitats on which the diversity of wild animals in the park are dependant for sustainable survival (Kruger is after all, a totally fenced area !). 

Kruger (including its later land extensions due to dropping of fences with neighbouring conservation areas) certainly does not constitute an area where animals can freely roam in a wild state as was the case in the area between the Drakensberg and Lebombo mountains and between the Limpopo and Crocodile rivers in the late 1800s.  Why is Kruger then not managed as just another wildlife management area ?   Or is it that present day scientists and ecologists in charge of managing Kruger just cannot see the “trees from the woods”, when it comes to the wildlife management the so-called larger Kruger necessitates ?

In this context it is important to understand that the health, vigour and diversity of a national park’s habitats is, actually, more important than any consideration about the animal species that use them.  It is just as important to take head of the statement of an authority like Prof Kobus Bothma, when he states that healthy soils produce health habitats; which produce healthy animals.  And, if the different habitats of a game reserve are in prime state, the animal species that are adapted to those habitats will need little or no management at all. 

If the above statements are true, then the continuously changing elephant management systems in Kruger have, over time, resulted in a situation where one could with right ask; has the destruction of healthy habitats by the over population of elephant resulted in Kruger deteriorating into just another badly managed elephant sanctuary?

Consider these facts: 

In 1944, the Kruger Park authority set up a representative top-canopy tree study in the Satara area with the objective to over time, study any changes that might be taking place in the overall and, at that time, widespread deciduous woodland habitats of the park as a whole.  In 1944, it was determined that there were 13 top-canopy trees per hectare in the study area.  Due to increasing elephant pressure over 50 years, however, this number of top-canopy trees per hectare in the study area, showed a steadily drop:

  • 1955 - 13 top-canopy trees/ha in the study area
  • 1965 - 9 top-canopy trees/ha in the study area
  • 1967 - 6 top-canopy trees/ha in the study area
  • 1974 - 3 top-canopy trees/ha in the study area
  • 1981 - 1,5 top-canopy trees/ha in the study area
  • 1994 - 0 top-canopy trees/ha in the study area

There is no reason to believe that the figure of 0 in 1994, has again icreased upwards to 2019 - in fact the destruction of habitat by elephant has over time become visible to even to the "scientific uninformed" (the ordinary concerned nature lover) throughout the whole of Kruger.

If these figures represent the nature of the wildlife management of a national park (thus belonging to all South Africans), then the scientists and ecologists in charge of the wildlife management of Kruger have to stand to be accountable for what constitutes serious bad management of the future of a national park, which is understood by concerned nature loving South Africans to be a national treasure.

Now, below, read Ron Thomson’s take on this very important issue in reply to a Mr Proust’s comments on the not so serious and actual non-damaging influence of elephant on habitats in Kruger:

It is the True Green Alliance’s job to educate the public about the principles and practices of science-based wildlife management; and about the wisdom of sustainably utilising of our wild living resources (plants and animals) for the benefit of mankind.  I will now, therefore, run Mr Proust through a few simple mental exercises so as to make him better informed about the factors that affect elephant management decisions. 

1.    The elephant carrying capacity of a national park is the maximum number of elephants that the park habitats can carry without causing irreparable damage to park vegetation.   This latter criterion is the key to determining whether or not the elephant numbers in a national park are above or below the carrying capacity.  Maintaining the numbers of an elephant population and/or the numbers of any other animal species population, however, is NOT the ‘issue’ in national park management. The ‘issue’ is whether or not the elephants (or any other species) are permanently damaging the health and vigour, and diversity, of the park habitats; because it is the health, vigour and (especially) diversity of a national park’s habitats that determines the safety of the parks biological diversity (which, remember, is the park’s primary purpose).  So, we always have to keep our objective priorities at the forefront of our management concerns. The health, vigour and diversity of the national park habitats is, actually, more important than any consideration about the animal species that use them.  Healthy soils produce health habitats; which produce healthy animals (Koos Bothma).  And, if the different habitats of a game reserve are in prime state, the animal species that are adapted to those habitats will need little or no management at all. 

2.    In 1944, the Kruger Park authority decided to set up a top-canopy tree study in the Satara area of the Kruger Park – with the objective of studying any changes that might be taking place in the overall and, at that time, widespread deciduous woodland habitats of the park as a whole.   The study area selected was deemed to be representative of the woodland habitats that occurred all over the national park in those days.  And it was determined that there were, on average, 13 top-canopy trees per hectare in the study area. 

3.    By 1955, it seems, there was no change to the tree population in the Satara study area.  THAT tells us that, in 1955, the number of elephants in the park was below the park’s elephant carrying capacity.  By 1965, however, it is recorded that the number of trees (on average) in the Satara study area had been reduced to 9 trees per hectare.  And, because of this observation, it was determined (in 1965) to start elephant culling operations in Kruger National Park.  Nobody was prepared to state what they believed the elephant habitat carrying was in 1965.  So, Mr Rocco Knobel - then Director, of the National Parks Board – made an arbitrary decision (pers.comm).  He commanded that the elephant population should not be allowed to exceed its (at that time) present number – which was said to be 7000.  NOTE: Nobody ever said that 7000 was the then elephant carrying capacity of Kruger National Park.  It took two years to prepare the ground (and to build an abattoir) for the first elephant culling operation that took place in 1967; by which time the elephant numbers were above 7000.  So, in 1967, the elephant population was REDUCED to 7000 during that first culling operation.  And from 1967 to 1994 (i.e. for 27 years) the elephant population fluctuated around the 7000 level – every year being reduced by the appropriate number to establish some degree of population stability.  It is important to record, however, that by 1967 the Satara trees had been reduced to 6 trees per hectare.

4.    Bearing mind that even though the elephant population had now been stabilised at +/-7000, the Satara trees continued to be reduced in number: to 3 trees per hectare in 1974; to 1.5 trees per hectare in 1981; and to no trees standing, at all, in 1994. At which time the Kruger scientists admitted that the top canopy trees throughout Kruger National Park’s once ubiquitous and extensive deciduous woodland habitats had all been reduced by “95 percent”.  This tells us that 7000 elephants were way above the elephant carrying capacity of Kruger National Park.  Why does it tell us that? Because despite holding the elephant population at 7000, the damage to the habitat (to the park’s Top-Canopy-Trees) continued to be permanently damaged by “too many elephants”. So, this left me with the job of trying to determine how many elephants were living in the park in 1955 – when no damage had by then yet occurred to the Satara trees.  I concluded that once we knew THAT figure we would have a baseline line carrying capacity figure on which to base future management decisions. I believed that the number of elephants that lived in Kruger National park in 1955, was as near as dammit, the number that reflected the true elephant carrying capacity for Kruger National Park as a whole – when the habitats were still healthy and undamaged. 

5.    Throughout the elephant culling era (1967 to 1994), the Kruger Scientists determined - by way of autopsies on dead elephants - that the Kruger elephant population had expanded, every year, by 7.5 percent (Ian Whyte).  That is, they increased by an amount that was 0.3 percent higher than the 7.2 percent figure which, mathematically, doubled the number of elephants every ten years. Using that solid information as my baseline, I concluded that the elephant population must have been (as near as dammit to) 7000 in 1965.  And, if the population was doubling its number every ten years going forwards, it could be halved in number, going backwards in time, every ten years – to determine what the population number was 10 years before.  This gave me the figure of 3 500 as the elephant population size in 1955.  And I concluded that figure was/is the elephant carrying capacity for Kruger National Park when the habitats are healthy.  This provides us with an optimum elephant population density of one elephant per circa 5 square kilometres.  And – from an elephant management point of view - until the habitats recover their former glory - no elephant numbers should ever be allowed to increase above 3 500 in Kruger National Park.  Indeed, if the habitats are to recover quickly, it would be beneficial to reduce the population size to (say) 2000 – and to keep the numbers at that level until the habitats have recovered.   The present elephant carrying capacity for Kruger National Park – with the woodland habitats now destroyed by “more than 95 percent - is infinitely lower than one elephant per five square kilometres.  But at least, now, we have a measure of elephant carrying capacity that can be used to determine the management realities of whatever the elephant numbers are at any time in the future.  

6.    Today there is a dispute regarding the numbers of elephants in the Kruger population.  The Kruger scientists claim the number is 17000 and that it is remaining stable at this time.  I DOUBT THIS VERY MUCH.  Starting with 7000 elephants in 1974 – and knowing that their incremental rate was stable and above 7.2 percent for the previous 27 years, we can presume that we can just double the elephant number every 10 years to get some idea what the numbers SHOULD be right now. So, by 2004 the number should have been (theoretically) 2 x 7000 = 14 000; and by 2014 – 28 000.  I go along with this idea which makes me very sceptical when I am told by the Kruger scientists that the Kruger elephants have ‘stabilized their numbers’ at 17 000.   Dr Salomon Joubert, however, has another view – and he has worked out a more exact figure using biological statistics.  Dr Salomon Joubert spent his entire working life in Kruger. He was for some time the Chief Large Mammal Ecologist in Kruger National Park; and later he became Director of Kruger National Park – so I would call him an important authority on the subject of elephant management in Kruger National Park.  He (pers comm.) told me last year that there can be no fewer than 32 000 elephant in Kruger National Park (at that time).  So whether you accept what the Kruger scientists tell you – that the elephant numbers in Kruger have stabilised  at 17 000 – or if you accept Dr Joubert’s view point that the population is still expanding and that it currently stands at 32 000 – either way, if the real elephant carrying capacity is 3500 when the habitats were healthy (which I am willing to debate with anyone) Kruger National Park is STILL carrying between 5 and 9 TIMES too many elephants at this time IF THE NATIONAL PARK PRIORITY OBJECTIVE IS STILL TO MAINTAIN THE PARK’S SPECIES DIVERSITY.  And I must point out that today – because the habitat is now totally devastated – the elephant carrying capacity is currently just a fraction of what it was in 1955.  I shudder to think how much biological diversity we have lost in Kruger due to the lack of appropriate elephant management since 1960. Kruger, in fact, is now nothing more than an elephant sanctuary.  Nothing else matters in Kruger, it seems, other than elephants.  And I believe South African society has every right to get up in arms and demand an explanation for this state of affairs from the SANPark authorities.

7.    Mr Proust says that the “massive damage” (to the Kruger habitats) that was predicted 25 years ago “has not yet happened”.  Mr Proust… are you blind?  The Kruger scientists have admitted that “more than” 95 percent of Kruger National Park’s Top-Canopy-Trees have been totally destroyed by too many elephants since 1960.  And 95 percent destruction equates to the fact that for every tree that is still living and still standing in Kruger National Park today, 19 other trees of equal size have been totally destroyed.  Unfortunately, you cannot count the trees that are no longer there, but this statement is a FACT!

8.    I agree, that the growth rate of the Kruger elephant population, must - at some time - slow down.  Whether this is happening already I do not know.  It MUST happen ‘sometime’ because (to reach the point where the elephant population ‘controls its own population growth’ – which is the dubious management strategy for the elephants of Kruger National Park today) the number of baby elephants that survive their first twelve months of life has to be reduced to almost zero…. And, it seems, this has started to happen.  It happens (or will happen) because the (too many) elephants are having to live on a progressive regime of an ever-more-limited food supply during every dry season… which effectively puts every elephant in the Kruger herds on an annual dry season starvation regime.  That means their super large numbers (getting ever more every year) have resulted in them eating themselves out of house and home (since 1960).  When this happens, the nutrition levels for lactating mothers drops below a healthy level.  Mothers with baby elephants at foot – in a habitat that is thoroughly over-populated with elephants - have to FIRST find enough food to feed themselves, AND to THEN find even more food that they can convert to milk for their babies.  And those volumes of food, eventually, become totally unavailable.  The end result is that the babies become so weak from starvation that they cannot keep up with their mothers on their daily treks between the water they have to drink every day, and the places where they have to go to find enough food, every day, to stay alive (a distance of up-to 25 kms).  The starving babies are then abandoned by their mothers; and they die of starvation, or of thirst, or they are killed and eaten by lions and hyenas.  And this strategy is a planned design by the scientists who are responsible for elephant management in Kruger.   These same people will tell you they are opposed to elephant culling” because it is cruel”.  What do they call the purposeful killing of baby elephants by starvation?

9.    Whether you support the starvation of baby elephants method to control elephant numbers in Kruger, or you support the alternative culling option, it WILL and DOES require the killing of elephants. So, whatever you do to manage Kruger’s elephants – one way or another - elephants will have to die.  I, personally, would prefer the culling option because it results in entire breeding herds being eliminated in a matter of seconds (which is more humane); and it allows other breeding herds to remain intact and undisturbed (which is highly desirable). But there is more to this conundrum than that which meets the eye.  By not culling elephants and allowing them to (so-called) regulate their own numbers (by wiping out all food resources in all habitats within 25 kms of water during every dry season) causes the extinction of a whole range of plants (especially of big trees) and the extinction of a multitude of animal species, too.  Species like impala, kudu and warthogs, for example, will die because they have to live within the desert-and-foodless zones of the habitat that the elephants have created within several kilometre distances near all water supplies; and which the elephants  walk right through every day (because these smaller animals cannot walk the big distances that the elephants can move each day, to find food).  So, this kind of elephant management regime destroys the park’s biological diversity big time.

10.    Elephant culling, however, preserves natural habitats in a pristine condition and does NOT eliminate plant species, so a properly conducted elephant culling operation preserves the park’s entire species diversity.  AND THAT IS WHAT WE NEED TO ACHIEVE!