Elephants Rule Game Management in South Africa's Kruger National Park
Edward O'Loughlin, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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 well." 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 browsing. The result is that however much the park may look like wilderness, it has for decades been partially protected from the region's roughly 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. …