Kruger National Park (KNP) in South Africa is a conservation area the size of a small country. But even so, the resident elephant population, at more than 12,000 animals, is putting pressure on the ecosystem the park was designed to protect. Given the limitations of alternative management options, Kruger must surely consider implementing culling some of its elephant population, and soon.
The park's elephant management strategy is a truly modern dilemma. Kruger has too many elephants but human development in South Africa and other countries in the region means that the available space for accommodating excess stock is simply not there.
It is also an emotive issue. Contrary to the biggest challenge in Africa today, HIV/Aids, there are no human lives in danger, but people still feel incredibly strongly about the possibility of taking the lives of intelligent and highly social animals.
And, as with much of science, there isn't a right, or easy answer.
BUT CAN YOU REALLY HAVE TOO MANY ELEPHANTS?
South African National Parks (SANParks) remit is to protect South Africa's Natural and Cultural Heritage and to be the pride of all South Africans. As such, their aim is to maintain biodiversity and to ensure plant and wildlife species are protected. They also have stated aims to manage national resources for the sustainable use and benefit of all.
KNP has an escalating elephant population that has seen numbers double in the last ten years. Fences around the area mean the animals cannot move to other locations and, with no real predators, minimal poaching, and a long lifespan, there are no natural limitations on the growing population.
SANParks scientists believe that the increasing elephant population is a threat to Kruger's plant and animal diversity. If left uncontrolled, the increasing food demands of the population will destroy the food and shelter sources for other wildlife, depleting both the floral and faunal biodiversity of the area. Some external scientists challenge this point, and SANParks itself admits that "given the lack of knowledge and the inherent complexity of natural systems, it is difficult to predict in advance whether degradation of biodiversity will occur in a particular park".
But, if there is any threat at all to other species should we wait until the biodiversity has been lost before we take action? We may be able to reintroduce animals such as kudu (which have gone locally extinct in the elephant-filled Amboseli National Park in Kenya) into the park if they become extinct but they won't survive if their natural habitat has gone. And many of Kruger's bird species roost in huge baobab trees which can take hundreds of years to reach their prime. SANParks advocates following the 'Precautionary Principle' and recommends action before it is too late. At the same time, Kruger scientists are keen to do more research on elephant feeding behaviour and elephant impacts.
There are also concerns that rising elephant numbers cause an increase in the number of fence break-outs from the Park, resulting in potentially dangerous human-elephant interaction and the release of other animals into human populations. Of most concern is the threat of escaping buffalo (carrying TB, foot and mouth and corridor disease) potentially infecting rural cattle populations.
If KNP exists to protect elephants then there is no problem, no dilemma to be faced. But if, as currently, it aims to protect a wealth of plant and animal diversity, then SANParks staff claim the population needs to be reduced, and then artificially controlled to limit future growth.
Kruger scientists have a pretty good understanding of elephant populations in terms of growth rates and movement patterns but they admit they need to research further to see if these trends change as the population increases (e.g. as they compete for food elephants are vulnerable to predation and there may be a longer time between calves because of malnutrition). The proposed KNP management plan involves monitoring these aspects, alongside active population control measures.
HOW CAN THE POPULATION BE CONTROLLED?
There are a number of possible ways to control the elephant population but most are not currently viable.
CONTRACEPTION - As a reversible process that seems to have no adverse biological effects, contraception looks like an attractive option. It has been trialled in KNP and other wildlife areas and appears to be viable in small reserves. In KNP however, almost 5000 elephants would need to be vaccinated (initially with three inoculations within a 6 week period and then again once every two years). The sheer logistics of repeatedly locating each elephant in the expanse of KNP (by radio collar, each of which also needs to be replaced every 4 years) and cost of such an exercise precludes its current use. Contraception also cannot REDUCE an existing elephant population, it is only able to reduce the GROWTH of that population.
In the long term, a single dose version of the vaccination is being developed and this gives strong hope for the future use of contraception as an effective control strategy.
TRANSLOCATION - Moving elephants from KNP to other locations is time-consuming, involves a lot of manpower and is costly. There are ethical concerns about moving elephants away from their home area' (KNP elephants have been shown to stay in v defined areas and some of those recently translocated to the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique made their way back to their favoured location), and also on the impact of any animals left behind.
But the biggest challenge to this approach is simply the issue of where to relocate the elephants to. South Africa has no other large spaces that can accommodate them and most neighbour states are also struggling with over-populations.
CULLING - Culling may take the same manpower and resources as translocation but rather than costing money it pays for itself by the sale of by-products. Local communities may also benefit if they become involved in the process itself or in the handling and selling of elephant products.
Obviously there are serious ethical issues with taking the life of any animal, and particularly of one that seems highly sentient and is often imbued with human characteristics. However, the ethical debate is not just restricted to killing itself. There are different levels of ethical discussion, from Is culling acceptable in any form?' or Is it acceptable if it is proven to be done humanely'?' to Who, if anyone, should benefit financially from the death of elephants?' and Is culling OK' if the local community can make some money from it?'
Outsiders are concerned that there has been little research on the actual method of culling, and of the effects it has on the dying animals as well as those who witness the event. There is also concern from some scientists over whether removing animals in this way works at all since it historically stimulated local population growth rates in KNP. However, the previous policy was a blanket cull compared with the new zoned' policy which allows high elephant populations in some areas and removes animals from the most biodiverse and sensitive regions of the park.
Kruger is committed to a programme of adaptive management and their proposed policy incorporates opportunities for learning and changing strategy as necessary. Some observers would of course question whether it is right to take an animal's life as part of a learning experience.
DO NOTHING - This has been SANParks de facto approach for the last 10 years but it has not been an active decision. Doing nothing still has consequences as biodiversity degradation may occur and species may be forced locally extinct. Is it any more ethically acceptable to let that happen?
Overall, given the state of the current elephant population and the capabilities of current management options, culling on some level is, sadly, required to protect KNP's biodiversity. Combined with ongoing research that may alter future policy, this surely is the best compromise to a difficult and upsetting dilemma.