Elephants, habitats and further lessons of life

Just after I left university I spent time in the Okavango and Chobe conservation areas in Botswana. There I was privileged to be in the company of people who had spent their lives living and working with wildlife. Simon Holmes A’Court was one of these people. As a Botswana ranger he had entered conservation straight from school and had cut his teeth in the field doing elephant control in the Tuli Block.

I vividly remember a story Simon told of the heroism of a young elephant cow that had rescued a young sibling during an elephant cull. He had been instructed to chase a herd of elephants off agricultural land and he had decided to fire shots into the air to get the elephants moving. He had just begun to shoot when a female elephant came from nowhere intent on attacking him. Having no option but to protect himself he shot the elephant and as it went down, the reason for her aggression became obvious as a very young calf emerged from the dust of her falling body – screaming and butting its head against its dying mother. And almost in the same moment – from the dust and noise of the retreating herd a young teen-age elephant came rushing back to rescue the calf. Screaming in terror, she pushed and prodded the youngster away from the danger towards the safety of the herd. An act that was heroic as it was symptomatic of the intelligence shown by this brave young sibling.

And so it is with mixed feelings that I write today about the culling of elephants. Animals of such obvious intelligence able to make higher-order decisions.

According to Tim Condon, a California based ex-South African who writes regularly on conservation issues facing Africa, both Zimbabwe and Tanzania have taken the decision to stop culling their elephants. In raising questions on this contentious issue, Condon quotes a lengthy letter written by Ron Thompson to the two conservation authorities warning them about the dire consequences of their ‘no-cull’ decisions.

Thompson, a wildlife specialist of 50 years experience both a as a hunter and as a field-guide, has much to say but since space does not allow for a full disclosure of the issues raised by him the following few points starkly characterise the situation that exists today in Zimbabwe’s premier game reserves – the Hwange and the Gonarezhou National Parks:

• Hwange National Park is a 14 thousand km2 park in the Matabeleland district. In 1963 there were 3 500 elephants in Hwange. 18 years later (1981) there were 23 000. Quoting a shortage of skilled hunters culling was stopped in 1987 by the Zimbabwean Parks and Wildlife Authority, and has not been continued since then. As a result the number of elephants has grown to the present total of close to 50 thousand. With a carrying capacity for elephants of 14 600 (1 elephant per km2) Hwange is now at 4 times the estimated carrying capacity of the Park.

• Gonarezhou National Park is a 5 thousand km2 park in the Masvingo district. As part of its culling program Thompson was directly responsible for reducing the elephant population in the Reserve by 2500 animals in 1971/72 – from 5000 to 2500 (the then estimated carrying capacity of the Park.) 10 years later the population had increased to 5000 before being again reduced by half in a culling program. .

According to Thompson “ Since then the elephant population in the Gonarezhou has increased without constraint and it now numbers in excess of 10,000 (again 4 times the estimated carrying capacity).
So – both Hwange and Gonarezhou now with four times the numbers of elephants that the habitat can support.

In ending his lengthy letter to the Zimbabwean conservation authorities Ron Thompson invites readers to re-consider their management concerns. He writes :
“The habitats will also now NEVER recover because the soil that once supported them has been washed down river into the Indian Ocean. ….. What caused the erosion (of the bare ground? Every drop of rain that has fallen during the last 40 years; desiccation of the naked soil by the hot sun; the wind that blew the loose soil particles away; and trampling by a myriad of elephant feet and other animal hooves over the years! The root cause? Too many elephants!”
Thompson’s letter concludes with these words:
(1). Our First Priority Concern: should be for the well-being of ‘The Soil’ – because without soil no plants can grow;
(2). Our Second Priority Concern: should be for the well-being of ‘The Plants’ (habitats & food) – because without plants there would be no animals; and
(3). Our Third (& Last) Priority Concern: should be for the well-being of the animals.
He ends by saying : “People who put their concern for animals FIRST are putting the cart before the horse.”

And for the people of the Midlands who wonder about the relevance of this article for their children consider the words of Tim Condon in introducing his lengthy article to his readers :
“If you can find the time to read this material – It provides a classic example of GROSS mismanagement of conservation issues in parts of Africa. Another good reason for working hard with your charges (family members or children that you teach) to think cleverly about ALL conservation issues, no matter how complex the situation or how difficult the decision-making. After we would hope that they would grow up to be caring WELL INFORMED citizens.