No more elephant culling in KNP

Culling elephants in Kruger National Park for population control will never happen again.

Dr Sam Ferreira, SANParks' large mammal ecologist, says the new, "natural", methods of managing elephant have severely curtailed the population growth rate, bringing it down to just 2%, from a high of 6,5% when culling was stopped in 1994.

Managing the effects of elephants is not about controlling populations. It is about letting natural processes influence where elephants spend time and what they do when they are in particular places.

Culling did not work for managing elephant impacts, admits the Kruger's Elephant Management Plan, and the new method of imitating natural processes appears to be doing a much better job. Culling could, however, be used, in other scenarios, such as shooting a problem elephant.

The current elephant population is estimated at around 16,900, based on the last count in 2012. It was 8,000 in 1994. However, without natural methods of control, the population would have been over 25,000 by now, if the 6,5% increase rate had continued when culling stopped.

The new approach to manage the impacts that elephants have on various conservation values is a more "natural" one, largely through limiting access to waterholes.

Over two thirds of them were closed after 2003 starting in the northern areas. As elephants moved away from newly closed boreholes, the landscape and vegetation got respite from elephant use.

"So we're restoring natural patterns," explains Dr Ferreira. "We've closed boreholes and we're removing some dams, although that's a much bigger operation. We've also dropped fences between ourselves and Mozambique in the north and private reserves in the west, allowing more spatial range."

As expected, a typical natural process unfolded - with less easily available water, more calves and elderly elephants died and the birth rate went down. (The Kruger's last major drought was in 1992/3, so the impact of fewer waterholes during drought is still to be seen.)

An elephant cow could in the best circumstances have a calf every three years, said Dr Ferreira. But now, with the water restrictions, elephants are giving birth every 4.2 to 4,5 years. "It's a classic population response." Cows have to walk further to get to water and food and it takes its toll on body condition, hence reducing the rate of conception.

An elephant cow and calf. Picture: Francis Garrard/Conservation Action Trust.

The responses in the Kruger have been different in different areas. For example, in the north, survival rates have declined, while in the south the birth rate has declined. It's not yet clear why that's happening. "But basically, elephants are starting to look after themselves," says Dr Ferreira. Natural regulation is taking place.

Now that more boreholes are closed, for example, elephants have moved to the rivers, accentuating impacts on vegetation there, and such "lag effects" have to be studied and managed. "We've identified 32 places where lag effects are happening, and we're calling them 'areas of concern'."

Tourists have to be considered too. The main north-south road "historically was a military road and there weren't that many places to see animals, so they put in boreholes to bring the animals to the tourists".

Tourists have also always enjoyed the historic big trees at the rivers and preserving them is a concern for the park. One way to keep elephants away is by packing large, sharp rocks around them.

The data on vegetation effects is not conclusive in the Elephant Plan, published in 2012. "Limiting elephants did not prevent a decline in the structural diversity of the woody vegetation of Kruger," it says. In fact, "vegetation diversity increased with high elephant density in certain regions of Kruger". So it's an area that needs a lot more study and understanding.

One of the complexities is that the highest rates of damage are not necessarily where the highest densities of elephants are. The impact is not necessarily related to numbers.

As far as human-elephant conflict goes, in South Africa there's been a relatively low number of incidents with villagers on the edge of the park, says Dr Ferreira.

In effect, this is a giant experiment, to see how all the Kruger's animals, including the elephants, adapt to the changes. So far, so good. And if we never need to repeat awful scenes of herds of elephants being gunned down from helicopters, the scientists deserve a medal.

Glynis O'Hara lives in Cape Town and is a former editorial director for Media24 Africa, overseeing five publications in Kenya, Nigeria and Angola, as well as a former editor of Femina and The Big Issue. O'Hara now freelances as a writer and consulting editor and anything to do with nature, the wild, conservation and the planet floats her boat. She works with the Conservation Action Trust.