Culling: Elephant Population Control Discussed

Kruger National Park’s history of elephant population management began as an ecological movement during the late forties, fifties, and early sixties, when analysts found that the potential growth rate of this animal stood to outweigh the park’s capacity as home to it, around one-hundred other species of animal, and five-hundred odd birds. Experts noted critical factors should be analyzed and considered for their implications on affected surrounding habitats. This trend appeared in parks across Africa around this time, including Uganda and Kenya.Being as the Kruger Park is, unlike nearby areas and in spite of its impressive size, still a wildlife reserve, and therefore fenced in, the issue of grazing capacity can and often does come up - understandable when a herd of animals with a potential size of around 5,400 kg each congregate in specific areas to eat, marching in-line from place to place in search of water or shelter, and trampling their way through kilometers worth of underbrush when frightened or lost. The elephant is, in itself, a natural part of the landscape which the Kruger and other reserves have set up, but in undertaking to preserve animal species and allow them the chance to partner up and breed, game reserves also face the tough task of deciding when this natural instinct has stopped being sustainable.

1960 saw ecologists recommending that the elephant population in the Kruger be examined in terms of “actual numbers of elephant in the South, number of breeding herds, herd composition…as well as aspects such as how and where control should be applied”. The best method to conduct such a census was decided to be from an aerial vehicle, such as a helicopter, which could monitor movement patterns and herd densities to see where and when elephant damage to the surrounding bush would be at its most prominent.Species traditionally considered for culling purposes are either large in stature and therefore a physical hazard to the environment in large numbers (elephants, buffalo etc), or heavy consumers of natural resources when too numerous. 1966 saw the Kruger Park’s first decisive move towards elephant number control, based off of findings made in the 1964 helicopter census, around which time estimates put the elephant population at somewhere in the reason of 6500. A decision was made to conduct yearly censuses of the elephant population, culling the population down to somewhere-in-the-region of 6000 animals. In later years, this number would be dropped and policies shifted in favor of progressive animal management ideologies, which would include large-scale relocation and a foray into animal contraceptives.Culling constituted part of official park policy from 1964 to 1994, whereafter a moratorium was placed on culling elephants. During this time, elephant populations within the park maintained an average of between 6000 and 8500. Since then, there has been a documented and dramatic rise in elephant populations, with numbers increasing at an average rate of around 7% per year - alarming when considered in the context of the larger park ecosystem of which they form a part.

The need for population control can be seen in the growth of this species within the park, from just 65 in 1918 to 11,672 as of 2010. This population grows at a rate of 7% per year. The park faces a balancing act of conservation and land management, always at odds with the obvious need to protect and nurture the long-standing elephant families that live there, and the rapidly consumed land on which these elephants make their lives.South African National Parks chief executive, Dr. David Mabunda, put a final word on SANParks’ standpoint on culling as it stands now, saying the organization was not planning any mass culling of elephants in the near future, a “heartless, impossible and unaffordable” idea as he called it. SANParks will need to cull animals in the future, he added, to control their numbers and preserve the park for future generations. When this decision comes it will “be informed by scientific research, management imperatives and prevalent trends as an option of last resort.”

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