Most people agree that elephants are wonderful animals, but would
you want to own one? South Africa's Kruger National Park owns 8,400
and has for years been at wits end about what to do with them.
Although the free-ranging elephant herds are undoubtedly one of
the park's greatest tourist attractions, the long-term damage they
can cause to the environment has in the past endangered some of the
other rare species that the park was set up to protect.
When their numbers grow, elephants push over trees and uproot
shrubs, clearing the bush on which black rhinoceros and some rare
antelope and birds depend for food and cover from predators.
Even though the Kruger National Park now covers an area the size
of Connecticut, rampant growth in elephant population has ensured
that, since the 1960s, the park's scientific management has
considered that there were simply too many pachyderms to go around.
"The Kruger National Park is not an elephant reserve, it's a
biodiversity reserve," explains Leo Braack, the park's director of
science. "We've equal responsibility for all the other species, as
Their solution to this problem has proved highly controversial.
Beginning in 1966, game rangers set out to control the population by
culling up to 10 percent of the park's elephants each year, wiping
out entire family groups with high-velocity military rifles. In the
peak year of the cull, more than 800 elephants were shot.
Although South Africa's own elephant population is not in danger,
international media coverage of the cull coincided with the attempt
to impose a world ban on the ivory trade early this decade. Animal
rights groups, particularly in the West, bitterly condemned the cull
and began campaigning for a halt.
In 1995 the park authorities agreed to suspend the annual
slaughter temporarily and seek other ways of solving the problem.
Now, after three years of studies and international consultations,
they think they may have found one: As far as possible, they plan to
let nature take its course.
According to Dr. Braack, the real trouble with Kruger Park is not
too many animals but not enough space. The introduction of boundary
fences in 1959 meant that the resident populations could no longer
follow traditional migration routes in search of water and grazing.
In order to rectify this, the park management drilled bore holes
and built dams to provide dry season water holes. It also started
the controlled burning of "blocks" of grassland and bush to prevent
catastrophic fires wiping out large swathes of land for grazing and
The result is that however much the park may look like wilderness,
it has for decades been partially protected from the region's
10-year wet/dry cycles, and from longer term natural cycles whose
existence is now suspected by scientists.
"What we discovered when we studied the various ecosystems is that
together with fences and the problems of human encroachment, we've
negated or dampened the natural fluctuations which are part of the
natural system," Dr. Braack said.
The elephants, which have no natural predators and can eat both
grass and leaves, have taken advantage of the guaranteed water
supplies to thrive. …