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Soukous

Hwange's Dilemma

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Hwange's Dilemma

 

(Please excuse the fact that this is a terrible over-simplification of the issue, but I've strived to keep it concise)

 

Hwange is the largest Park in Zimbabwe occupying roughly 14 650 square kilometers. It is one of THE places to see elephants in Africa.

According to the 2015 African elephant census it is home to 44,000 elephants, roughly 50% of Zimbabwe's elephant population.

 

And therein lies the dilemma.

Actually it is not Hwange's dilemma. What to do about Hwange is a dilemma for the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA).

 

On their website they set out their Vision and Mission Statement:

 

VISION

TO BE THE WORLD LEADER IN SUSTAINABLE CONSERVATION

 

MISSION

To conserve Zimbabwe's wildlife heritage through effective, efficient and sustainable utilisation of natural resources for the benefit of present and future generations and stakeholders.

 

It sounds good but is that really what they are doing?

"effective, efficient and sustainable utilisation of natural resources"

In the case of Hwange I think not.

 

From its inception, Hwange (then called Wankie) was established on land not suitable for agriculture because it had not reliable source of year round water.

 

The first warden – Ted Davison - found is the dry season his new domain had few animals. Those that frequented the area in the wet season departed as soon as the waterholes dried up. If his new reserve was going to attract visitors it needed animals, throughout the year.

Davison saw that the only way to entice animals in and to persuade them to remain through the dry season was to provide permanent water.

To achieve this Davison created a series of pump driven boreholes. His strategy worked. Animal numbers rose steadily; elephants and buffaloes in particular.

 

post-43899-0-33786700-1444038831_thumb.jpg

 

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“In 1960 it was estimated by the then Department of National Parks and the Game Department of Rhodesia that there were 32,000 elephants n the country. In 1989 the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Management of Zimbabwe estimated that there were between 40,000 and 60,000 elephants, and in 1996 it was judged that their numbers had increased to between 60,000 and 73,000. At this time of writing (mid 1998) the Department estimates that there are 80,000 elephants in Zimbabwe.

 

Elephant populations increase at between 4% and 5% per year, with a calving interval of 4.3 years (In Hwange / BR Williamson 1976). In 1997, by way of an aerial survey carried out for the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management by World Wildlife Fund, paid for by USAID, it was estimated that Hwange National Park carried an elephant population of 31,613 animals (In fact between 24,651 and 38,575 with a confidence limit of 22%). In 1987 it was estimated that there were 19,264 elephants, whilst a decade earlier it was estimated that there were 10,563 (Bulawayo Chronicle, 23 December 1979, quoting the late Basil Williamson, Wankie NP ecologist). Researchers and biologists judge that Hwange can hold, in terms of vegetation food source and destruction, and water supplies, about 14,000 elephants. At this time of writing (1998), 45% of the country's elephant population is within the Hwange and neighbouring Matetsi region, this also taking into account the cross-border movement with Botswana.

The 'islands' of protection show signs of bursting at the seams.”

 

 

(source Keith Meadows – Afterword in Ted Davison's book “Wankie – The Story of a Great Game Reserve)

 

In earlier times, the way that this burgeoning elephant population was kept under control was through culling.

 

"The first organised culls of family breeding units took place in Wankie National Park in 1966, whilst sporadic population reduction had already been taking place, focussing essentially on bulls, since 1960.

After the Wankie '66 operation, other culls followed,in Mana Pools in 1969, 1970 and 1972, and subsequently in the Sebungwe and Gonarezhou areas. Since 1960 culling, together with elephants killed in the course of day to day business for a variety of reasons, notably via tsetse control, sport hunting, problem animal control, crop protection, ration provisions, etc, some 50,000 have been killed within Zimbabwe. 20,322 of that figure were killed within Hwange and its environs.

There has been no culling since 1987. This is because the relevant Management Unit had its hands full with the capture and trans-location of black rhino out of poacher-threatened areas, for almost five years, and then, from 1992 up until this time of writing the Department of National Parks and Wildlife Management has simply not had the funds, leadership or infrastructure to continue with culling tasks, along with many other duties.”

 

 

(source Keith Meadows – Afterword in Ted Davison's book “Wankie – The Story of a Great Game Reserve)

 

Unsurprisingly, once the culling had ceased, the elephant population grew unhindered and the food supply became more depleted each year, with animals having to walk further and further between food and water as the vegetation was pushed further and further from the water holes.

 

As large mammals, the elephants can move with relative ease over the increasingly large distances between food and water, but other, smaller, animals cannot.

Even when they can get to the waterholes they do not have free access as the elephants keep other species away until they have drunk their fill.

 

Consequently, species diversity is declining in Hwange.

 

What to do?

To answer that we must first decide what we want Hwange to be.

Do we want a natural sustainable habitat for animals or do we want a national park where the animals are a spectacle for tourists?

 

(This of course begs the question of whether tourists really want to see elephants clustered around a pumped waterhole that sits in the middle of a desert?)

 

post-43899-0-37186600-1444038738_thumb.jpg

 

Start (resume) culling?

The situation has been allowed to slide for so long that, right now, the number of elephants that would need to be culled to achieve a sustainable population is huge. The international outcry would be deafening and it is hard to see this happening.

 

So what else could be done?

A decision could be made to turn off some or all pumps? This would force the elephants to move elsewhere and allow time for the vegetation to recover. Certainly elephants would die as a result, but other species would benefit.

 

Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area

Hwange is part of the massive Kavango Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area – a Peace Parks Foundation initiative.

Can elephants be enticed to move elsewhere within the park? Or have their migration routes been effectively blocked by human settlement? But although the KAZA TFCA looks great on paper, has it actually achieved anything? There are certainly areas within the KAZA TFCA that could accommodate more elephants but although It encompasses several National Parks they are divided by large areas of human settlement that prevent any significant animal movement between them. I could not even get through to them by phone and emails I sent just bounced back.

 

I have not bothered to mention trans-location as the number of elephants that would need to be moved and the cost involved makes it unworkable.

 

Doing nothing is not an option

One thing seems certain – if we do nothing, the elephants will eat Hwange out of existence.

Once they have devoured the food supply to a point where it is unable to regenerate during the wet season they will either die or move elsewhere. If we let that happen Hwange will be finished as a viable National Park.

 

The question for the cash strapped ZPWMA is whether to take action now and risk alienating tourists (and the 'armchair and social media conservationists') in the short term to save their resource or do nothing and watch their National Park decline until tourists no longer find it attractive; at which point it will cease to be a source of revenue.

 

Impact on local communities

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that many businesses and communities are dependent on Hwange's continued existence for their livelihoods - not because of handouts but as a source of employment and education.

Many of the communities around Hwange NP are models of how communities can become involved in and benefit from their country's wildlife and tourism.

If the tourists stop coming then the lodges and safari operators will go out of business and then all the local communities that rely on their support will suffer too.

 

And that will create yet another problem for Zimbabwe's government.

Edited by Soukous
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To silently and without fuss close down half of the artificial waterholes?

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I don't think that would work.

Elephants are mobile. If you shut down some waterholes they will move to others and then they will be overcrowded, giving other species even less access to the water.

 

The other problem is that whilst the elephants can go in search of water over long distances, other species cannot. Species like warthog would suffer badly.

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To silently and without fuss close down half of the artificial waterholes?

 

The problem with that is it would worry the elephants the least. The impact would be felt (as @@Soukous quite correctly states) by other species. Warthog - for sure, but there are probably many other more scarce species like sable and roan who could suffer.

 

Even if the warthog, and other common species are only affected, then what will the lions eat? - so the impact will have a way of filtering right down the food chain.

 

I have had some responses that I have shared with @@Soukous outside of this thread. I am not sure if we are at liberty to share, but Ted Davisons son has given us some interesting insight and some old photos, that I wish we could share.

 

What I would like to establish - though game count information, is what the impact is on other species. We can readily accept that habitat is vastly affected, - its then goes without saying that other animals have been affected.

 

Sadly - animals recover very quickly, but habitat takes lifetimes to restore.

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One more point - there is an argument that elephant numbers grow and decline naturally, and they are architects of the African savanna.

 

This is something that some people are selling, but I am not buying. There is no doubt - even in a system as large as the greater Zambezi transfrontier park, that elephants are confined to ranges, and natural expansion of their population is restricted to a smaller area. What I am saying is that - a thousand years ago, elephant over population could have spilled over to a vast range. So while we may accept that elephants are architects of the savanna, their architecture is fast tracked by the fact that they are confined.

 

So the impact on the habitat may be in cycles of thousands of years is now reduced to 100 year cycles, and this doesn't give the habitat time to recover. Its all messed up, and culling is the only option.

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@Soukous:

 

I think you have started an extremely interesting and worthwhile subject for discussion. I am surprised, therefore, at the lack of attention it has received. I had hoped to read a wider range of responses before wading in myself, but have decided not to wait.

 

From my perspective, it is self evident that Hwange's elephant numbers need to be controlled unless there is opportunity for them to drift into other areas of lower density where they are wanted. However, I suspect that many ST readers are totally antipathetic to any form of wild animal population control for ethical reasons. Others are motivated by photography and seem to favour NPs and concessions where the wildlife is so habituated that individual animals become as approachable as those in zoos.

 

I have just finished reading a paper by McNaughton et al, entitled "Comparative Ecology of African and South American Arid to Subhumid Ecosystems." It is free online and can be found by entering the title on Google (my links usually don't work). The comparison is interesting due to the lack of large native mammals in the latter continent. However, I will focus on some of the authors' conclusions relating to Africa. In areas that have the potential to carry the most biomass (usually those with water availability rather than soil quality), there is usually reduced biodiversity of herbivorous mammals because, in such circumstances, elephants make up a highly significant component of the biomass and their presence threatens the existence of other species. I saw evidence of hippos in QENP (Uganda) doing the same thing in the mid 1960s. Heavy culling resulted, in this case, in both increasing biomass and biodiversity. I conclude that wildlife, certainly in environments impacted by man (which are nearly all environments on the African Continent - due to human rates of population growth) will benefit from active management. I would suggest that animal densities can thus be enabled to reach the maximum that can be sustained by natural annual plant productivity. However, one could go even further and use artificial measures to increase plant productivity. This may involve the seasonal introduction of cattle to graze down what would otherwise become surplus, indigestible herbage or could be even more interventionist and involve the supplementation of limiting minerals. In fact, given water availability and mineral provision, one could expect to increase biomass by a factor of ten. Clearly, this would not necessarily be economic and it most certainly would not if no income could be derived from the extra animals.

 

Interestingly, while artificial water holes have upped elephant numbers in Hwange and probably decreased biodiversity, Geogiardis (ex director of Mpala Research Station, Laikipia, Kenya) has suggested that growth in lion numbers has had similar consequences in those parts of Laikipia where mixed game/cattle have replaced cattle ranching - think Grevy, Hartebeest, Hirola, Oryx.

 

I would argue that, if one is going to intervene with the intention of improving upon what would otherwise be available, there has to be a purpose. There will undoubtedly be a cost. The purpose should be to enhance both the welfare of the wildlife and the local human communities. The additional costs of active management must, one way or another, be covered. Tourist income derived from photographic safaris is not adequate and neither is that derived from trophy hunting. Even a combination of the two is likely to fall well short of what is needed and neither is it entirely simple to create a successful combination. For this reason, I consider that it would be necessary to crop( cull/kill) animals for meat and to control predators when it is deemed that they are in damaging surplus. In theory, I would also like to see legalisation of horn, tusk and hide trading, but I can also certainly understand and appreciate the counter-arguments. I like the South African concept of a Central Selling Organisation, but I can also see that it could be potentially damaging to the interests of other range states. If the concept were to become an international one, agreed by all selling and buying nations and tied to foreign aid, it could, in theory, be hugely beneficial for wildlife conservation in Africa. However, it would require accurate traceability of traded products and I'm not sure whether this would be possible.

 

At present, NPs are underutilised resources. It should be possible to manage them more actively while still conserving the wildlife, keeping tourists happy and, more importantly, enhancing the lot of local communities. Conserve, don't preserve.

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thanks for wading in @@douglaswise - I too was a bit surprised by the lack of contributions to this topic; particularly with ivory poaching and the consequent decline in elephant numbers everywhere else in Africa being such a hot topic. Do people not recognise this as a problem?

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Over 300 members have read this topic.I think we do realise the problem but don't really like the answer.

 

It seems to me that some of these elephants have to go.

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@@douglaswise , I quite agree, and in some publications I have seen the theme of 'elephants vs conservation' brought up, but lost such papers when my old harddrive died. Will see if I can find again though! With predators / lions I think it may be a trickier, more difficult and less argued topic, but certainly elephants should be culled in some areas and there is little way around it.

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Like Linda, I´d guess that most of us are interested in the problem but don´t know or don´t like the answers, hence the lack of participation.

 

I accept the necessity of culling of certain animals if they are harmful to the environment. Here in Austria, with most predators long gone, deer have to be kept in check that way. From everything I´ve read here on ST and elsewhere there seems to be a consensus that there are far too many Hwange elephants and some need to go. Most of us, as I´m quite sure since we all love elephants, would hate to see this, and only grudgingly admit it could be necessary as a "last resort". But if doing nothing amounts to them dying anyway AND lots of other animals suffering and biodiversity going down, it seems to be quite clear that doing nothing would be the most fatal way to go.

 

I´ve also read, however, that there are no "Hwange elephants" per se, since they are all migrating in the huge area of Botswana, Zimbabwe, Namibia, Zambia and that some collared individuals have even been tracked to Angola. So, are there herds who stay in the park all year long, or do all of them come and go?

 

My Zim travel guide (by Paul Murray) seems to suggest that part of the problem stems from Zim´s economic downfall, and that more and more pumps in Hwange´s remote areas unvisited by tourists have stopped working since then, so the environmental pressure on the other areas has increased. If that´s indeed the case (no idea how accurate those statements are), shouldn´t the efforts first focus on getting all of the pumps operational again first? Would it maybe even be an option to create more articifial waterholes? (I realize that´s highly improbable, since park authorities are apparently helplessly underfunded for even maintaining the status quo.)

 

But ... hasn´t Zim already begun to take steps? We´ve all read about the "abduction" of elephant babies this year, which resulted in quite an uproar on social media (and partly also here). This was justified by the authorities to avoid a cull, as stated here:

 

http://mg.co.za/article/2015-04-10-buy-our-elephants-zim-pleads-to-avoid-a-mass-cull

 

"Zimbabwean politicians have urged the country to find a way of exporting a large number of elephants to avoid having to cull the animals, which they say are threatening the livelihoods of people on the borders the country’s biggest game park."

 

The sale of elephants is said to bring revenues between USD 40,000,-- and USD 60,000,--, according to the linked article.

 

Emotionally, I find the thought of separating elephant babies from their mother revolting, and no one really seems to know where these animals are going and how they are being treated. And we can only hope that said revenues would really be used in the park´s efforts, and not for something else. And realistically, they can´t hope to export so many animals as are said to be "surplus" in Hwange.

 

But ... even if I don´t agree with this, I can certainly see that there have to be better alternatives than just kill the animals and let them rot. On principle, wouldn´t it make a lot of sense for Hwange NP to make some profit out of the whole thing if some elephants really have to go? Make some money which could then go into funding anti-poaching measures, pumps and more? Couldn´t there be some solution where the sad act of having to "dispose" of so fantastic animals like elephants could at least bring something good? Maybe even allowing to hunt them in certain areas? (And just to be clear, I don´t like and get hunting at all, but have come to accept that sometimes it seems to be the lesser of two evils, since it helps in preserving habitats.)

 

I can hardly imagine Zim really going forward with a full culling programme anyway. It would all be "Zim commits elephant genocide" on the internet, and that kind of public outcry could be a terrible blow for tourism in the country, which seems to just have been getting on its feet again for the last years.

 

 

 

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Given an apparently emerging consensus among correspondents on this thread that Hwange elephants need to be culled for the good of their own species and those of others, perhaps it is worthwhile to discuss the potential means to effect this objective. I would suggest that the following factors should be borne in mind:

 

1) Culling at the surplus stage must be relatively heavy until such time that numbers are considered optimum. Thereafter, culling will still need to take place at a reduced level to prevent re-growth of the population.

2) A culling method must be selected which doesn't detract from the potential of the Park to attract tourists.

3) Carcase products should be available for human consumption.

4) Income generated should be returned for Park management in the event that there was income in excess of cull costs and meat distribution.

 

I can imagine mobile or, possibly, a few fixed abattoirs that would deal with carcases. I am not sure what the best cull method would be. Should one select individuals from many breeding groups or eliminate some groups totally? I assume that concentration on bachelor groups would not suffice in the early stages, but may be the way to go later. Is shooting the only practical method? Should it take place only at night? Could extra income be generated from foreign trophy hunters without detracting from the overall plan? Is shooting, in fact, the method of choice?

 

As I mentioned above, there is at least one successful precedent for a large scale cull undertaken solely to protect an NP ecosystem that I am aware of (hippos in QE in the mid 1960s). However, hippos are a simpler proposition than elephants.

 

It has occurred to me while writing this that, where I wrote "Hwange elephants" as subjects for culling, I could, with similar logic, have written Zimbabwe people! - A sick thought, but an animal rights dilemma. I would, however, suggest that there is still just about time to reserve reasonable areas of wild environment provided human reproductive rates are curtailed and the burgeoning population consequent upon the demographic transition is urbanised.

 

Can anyone with more knowledge take this forward? It's easier to ask questions than to answer them. It does no good to duck hard problems if one has any concern for subsequent generations of animals, remembering, of course, that humans are animals.

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Even the suggestion of a cull provokes outrage so I cannot see the Zim government biting the bullet on this.

 

I do know that in the 'old days' when culling was carried out routinely every year, all the by-product was put to good use. Local communities got the meat and the ivory was sold to raise funds to keep the parks going.

That is no longer possible. I find it sad that because there is an illegal ivory trade that we are unable to curtail our solution is to ban a legal regulated trade in legitimately acquired ivory.

Isn't that an admission that the criminals have already won?

 

Instead of being able to sell ivory to raise much needed funds to finance anti-poaching and to finance the proper management of National Parks we burn it.

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I published former Game Warden-in-charge of Hwange National Park, Ron Thomson's 2014 letter to U.S Fish And Willdife about the elephant population issue in Hwange, which you can read in full in this topic.

Here are a couple of quotes

I know the 5000 sq mile Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe very well. I served three years in the park as a young game ranger (1960 to 1964). At that time (1960) there were only 3500 elephants in the national park (physically counted). They were then already demolishing their habitat & in the process they were eliminating various tree species - notably the Mukwa (Pterocarpus angolensis); and others. Many of those tree species are now locally extinct.

At that time it was determined the park should carry no more than 2500 elephants (one elephant per two square miles); and I was one of two young game rangers who were tasked with making the necessary population reductions. In those days there was no hunting (or culling) allowed inside the national park, so we were required to find and to destroy all elephants that left the park and that were living (seasonally and temporarily) in the Ndebele Tribal Trust Lands outside the park boundaries. The meat then went to the local people. I carried out this elephant population reduction – in addition to my normal game ranging duties – for three years (1961, 62 & 63).

 

Since 1987 NO elephant population reduction has taken place at all in Zimbabwe (or Hwange). Since the (Illogical and universal) CITES international ivory trade ban came into force in 1989, Zimbabwe could not afford to cull its elephants – because, prior to 1989, the sale of ivory paid the huge costs of the culling exercises.

The elephant population in Hwange now stands at between 30,000 and 50,000. I believe it must be nearer the 50 000 mark (or more) - because at a 7.2 percent incremental rate, the population was doubling its numbers every 10 years at the beginning of the 1980s. Dispersal has undoubtedly taken place also, however – out of the national park - induced by population pressure, and lack of food and water inside the national park. And calf mortality must have been horrific over the last 30 years.


I returned to Hwange in 1981 as the Provincial Game Warden-in-charge of the national park.

There were 23,000 elephants in the Hwange in 1981. This was because - for many years during the 1970s - the department’s expert ‘culling team’ was unable to keep up with the numbers that had to be removed. The last elephant culling exercise in Hwange took place in 1987. The reason for the culling team not being able to keep up with the culling task in Hwange, was because it was also responsible of culling elephants in every other major national park in the country

 

So, a new and very arbitrary elephant management target was determined for Hwange – one that was thought might be attainable. The new idea was to reduce the elephant numbers in Hwange from 23 000 to 14 600 (one elephant be square kilometre). (c.5 000 square miles = c.14 600 square kilometres). Even this reduced number, however, was never achieved.


In 1981 the habitat that I took responsibility for in Hwange National Park was nothing like the one I remembered from the early 1960s. All the Mukwa trees had gone. Very few large Mlala palm trees were left standing. Several Acacia and Combretum tree species - entire species - appeared to be locally extinct; and the once heavy undergrowth in the ecotones of the teak forests - on the edge of the forests where they joined the grasslands - was now sparse and straggly.

The grasslands were a mess. The thick cynodon grass swards that once grew on all the major grassland/drainage lines had been eaten into extinction. In many places, where there had once been thick grass, there was nothing but wind-blown and rippling Kalahari desert sand. This was all caused by too many elephants and too many other grazers. But the elephants caused the most damage. They eat practically nothing but grass during the six-month long rainy season – when the grass is green and palatable – and, at that time of the year, they eat grass in very large quantities.

So, the Hwange National Park I inherited in 1981 needed an awful lot of very careful habitat management; and the elephant population needed to be reduced (then) by 20 000 animals. And, I could visibly see that the national park was already (then) well advanced towards becoming a desert.


Ron's letter drove some discussion about the elephant population in Hwange and in 2014 @@Bugs and I met with Ron Thomson as we were close to where he lives, to discuss how conservation was in Hwange when he first started out, and the elephant issue.

gallery_1_1060_3565154.jpg

He was adamant that to preserve Hwange's degraded biomes and for them to begin reestablishing themselves naturally, culling was necessary and in large numbers.

The question being, is there any African govt who would undertake such an exercise now? Whether Zimbabwe would commit to it and we came to the conclusion that no govt would. Also, whose elephants are they? With migration between Botswana and Zim at various times of the year. Waterholes of course encourage resident wildlife.

When @@Safaridude and I visited Hwange in 2014, the issue of environmental degradation was an oft discussed subject:

The Makalolo Plains, where Big Mak is situated are broken by a number of pans - the flat areas surrounding them are dusty, stripped of all flora bar stumps and a few hardy fresh growths. The tree line is far back on the perimeter. Is this due to the pans being pumped all year round? The constant pressure of elephant herds coming to drink, eat? With a seasonal pan or vlei at least flora would have a chance to re-establish itself but like so many of the waterholes with their tuckatuckatuckatuckatuckatuckatuckatucka diesel generators, the degredation to the surrounding environment was clear to see. It was the focus point of many discussions we were to have whilst in Hwange, elephant populations, man made waterholes, seasonal water levels, stress on the ecosystem through a constant demand for water. But pumping started many years back and there is no way it can be reversed now without a mass die off of not only elephants but all the other species which have become dependent. So what is the answer? I really don't know and there are many opinions, some of which I heard voiced: but no one consensus.


(Taken from our Zimbabwe trip report here.)

 

Hwange is famed for its elephant herds which do attract many tourists, but are these big herds at the expense of other wildlife species? At the expense of the park's ecosystem?

 

Even if a laissez faire approach is adopted, even in the worst conditions there would never be enough "natural" die off to balance numbers, at least not the the extent that Ron Thomson's argument called for.

 

Is it important for more waterholes to be pumped? To disperse the herds somewhat? That would take investment, donations, photo tourism companies investing in areas of the park which aren't as popular and are less visited. Will they do that and if they did, how long would it take for elephants to disperse?

 

As @@douglaswise states above, It's easier to ask questions than to answer them...

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Interesting observations from @@Soukous and @@Game Warden:

 

Outrage by the ignorant should not be a reason for not taking correct actions. It is a weakness of democracy that politicians are dictated to on all sorts of issues by voters who have no knowledge of the said issues themselves and are guided solely by emotions and prejudice. Ideally, I suppose one should attempt to persuade potential dissenters, but, in this case and many others, it would probably take too long and may not succeed anyway. One might have supposed that one advantage that African rulers may have is the luxury of not being too concerned about public opinion.

 

I suspect that Safaritalk has many correspondents who would oppose a cull. It seems a shame that none of them have stuck heads above the parapet to give an explanation for their opposition.

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thank you for reminding us of Ron Thomson's letter @@Game Warden

It is a while since I read it.

 

On re-reading it I can see why many self styled 'conservationists' would find his views hard to swallow.

 

I do think he is a bit gung ho about the culling and hunting, I also think he weakens his case by mentioning Tanzania when he seems to have little knowledge of how different the state of affairs is in that country. Furthermore, I am surprised that, given his self-professed love of Hwange, he has not taken the trouble to get his hands on up to date elephant numbers before composing his letter.

 

Nevertheless, the vast majority of what Ron Thomson writes makes great sense.

Bottom line: you cannot hope to save the species (individually or collectively) unless you save the habitat that is necessary for their survival.

 

Hunting vs no hunting is just a sideshow.

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I think Zimbabwe is in a difficult situation here. Damned if you do and damned if you don't.

 

A question for those who know better than I....If elephant numbers were significantly reduced. How long is it going to take for the habitat to resurect itself. Grasses I imagine would return quite quickly but what about the severely damaged trees.

 

Another thought...would it be worth shutting down the water pumps on a cyclical basis over the year almost forcing a migration within the confines of Hwange. Thus taking the pressures off areas for a few monrhs

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I think the problem with shutting off just some pumps would be that the elephants would simply move to and gather in larger numbers around those that are still running.

Other animals may not be able to do so.

AND, with fewer pumps operating the bigger gatherings of elephants would monopolise the remaining pumps for even longer periods of time, denying access to other species.

 

To answer your other question: it would take many times longer for the trees to recover than for the elephant population to bounce back.

 

But as we all seem to agree: damned if you do and damned if you don't.

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But as we all seem to agree: damned if you do and damned if you don't.

 

This accounts for my lack of input. I appreciate the education from such posts even if I don't comment.

 

Relocating is an option, but is expensive and not all survive the process.

 

There has been an effort at birth control in some of the managed parks of South Africa such as Phinda that involved darting from helicopters--another expensive proposition.

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What about giving them oral contraceptives in food?

 

Thinking out loud here:

Maybe wildlife managers could inject the contraceptives in fruit the elephants like, and give it to them in "Elephant Feeders" - perhaps 10 foot high wooden dispensers. The dispensers might need to be far enough from trees to discourage primates...

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In my view, and I'm used to being in a minority, sterilising animals is less humane than culling them. It will mess up normal herd behaviour. In any event, it is probably technically non-feasible, even if one disregards the economics. Even if applied successfully, it would take too long to have the necessary benefit to the ecosystem

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The effects of contraceptives for mares in feral horse herds in Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota, US are being studied. Don't know the results.

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I think contraception was discussed/tried some years ago in Kruger. @@Bugs can you advise if this was the case and if so what was the outcome?

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Though I’m undecided as to what the answer is I’ve decided to try and engage with this issue and present the anti-culling side. I ended up writing rather more than I expected so I won’t post this all in one go the following are my thoughts and also responses to some of the points raised by @@douglaswise, @@Bugs and others

 

Here in the UK we have to cull deer because we have wiped out all of our large predators also 4 out of 6 deer species that we have here were introduced, some conservationists have been arguing for some time that we are not culling nearly enough deer. To protect our native woodlands and allow for natural regeneration of trees and shrubs and to benefit other wildlife we need to kill far more deer than we actually are I would entirely support such a move, there isn’t really another way around the problem reintroducing large predators is in my view nothing more than a romantic dream on our overcrowded island and contraception is both very expensive and not entirely effective. I would personally rather see deer shot by marksmen with the appropriate qualification than have large numbers of them darted with contraceptive drugs without really knowing what consequences that might have.

 

However while I whole heartedly support the culling of deer I feel very differently about elephants given everything that we now know about elephants and their behaviour and social lives things that were perhaps not known when culling was common place. We know for example that elephants communicate over vast distances using infrasound that we cannot hear, when elephants were being culled in Hwange in the past I don’t think that anyone really knew this. In the book The African Elephant Twilight in Eden by Roger Di Silvestro he describes an incident in a (unfortunately unnamed) private reserve in Zimbabwe where they had a herd of 80 very calm habituated elephants that always hung around the lodge area. One day they decided to have a major cull of elephants in the adjoining national park and all of a sudden the elephants in the private reserve disappeared when they searched for them they eventually found them all bunched up together at the farthest end of the reserve as far away as they could get from the national park. The nearest cull had been 40 miles away and yet the elephants in the reserve had cleared picked up messages from the ones in the park. Thus when culling is taking place it is causing stress to elephants in the whole of the surrounding area even ones far away from the actual cull that are not being targeted.

 

When elephants were being culled initially all of the adults in a herd were killed and the calves left so that they could be captured and sold to zoos and such like however it soon became apparent that the calves were seriously traumatised by this experience it was then decided that the most humane thing to do was kill entire family groups. However for between 50 and 80% of the time families are not actually all together so it is very difficult when culling to ensure that you have killed every single elephant in the family. Although they are not actually together they will be in communication with each other so you will very likely still be leaving traumatised animals aware that the rest of their family has been killed. Certainly elephant calves orphaned by poachers that are raised in orphanages show clear evidence of being seriously traumatised by their experiences indeed it is suggested that they suffer from a form of PTSD. As far as I am aware humans and elephants are the only animals known to suffer from PTSD no one would suggest that a red deer suffers from PTSD because other members of the herd have been culled. Also there is plenty of evidence that elephants experience grief for their dead relatives, obviously one has to be careful when interpreting animal behaviour to avoid anthropomorphising but in doing so one shouldn’t go too far the other way and dismiss any suggestion that an animal is experiencing a similar emotion to a human. If we see elephants appearing to mourn their dead rather than say there must be some other explanation maybe we should accept that what they appear to be doing is exactly what they are doing. Ian Douglas-Hamilton when he was studying elephants in Manyara NP witnessed a cow carrying its dead calf around on its tusks for several days it is hard to conclude anything other than that the animal was grieving. Then there is also another concern about trying to kill entire family groups what does this do to the genetics of the elephant population if you are destroying entire bloodlines.

 

The point is that culling elephants humanely is a lot more complicated than culling deer, or antelopes or grey squirrels or whatever other species we may need or choose to cull. None of this changes the fact that the population of elephants in Hwange is almost certainly far too high or at least that they are too concentrated in specific areas, some of the areas surrounding waterholes in Hwange with all their stunted smashed up trees have come to resemble battlefields. However it does make the decision as to what to do a lot more difficult, when you’ve sat and watched elephants and seen just how intelligent and caring they are you don’t have to be a believer in animal rights (and I am certainly not) to have deep reservations about seeing them culled.

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In my view, and I'm used to being in a minority, sterilising animals is less humane than culling them. It will mess up normal herd behaviour. In any event, it is probably technically non-feasible, even if one disregards the economics. Even if applied successfully, it would take too long to have the necessary benefit to the ecosystem

 

@@douglaswise Unfortunately a cull messes up normal herd behaviour too.

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