On a recent visit to the Greater Addo Elephant Park, now South Africa’s third largest national park, we wondered as to how long it will be before measures have to be taken to reduce the burgeoning elephant population. The latest population estimate is some 600 individuals and judging by the number of youngsters in the herds it is growing rapidly, at least in elephant terms.

The dropping of the fence between the original game area and the Colchester sector to the south has doubled the area available to the elephant and other species. Despite this at some point management of the growing elephant population will have to be implemented. There are in fact very few options available to reserve managers.  There are no suitable areas to where surplus elephant can be transferred, contraception is expensive and fraught with difficulties, cull and you have a national and international outcry!

Within Greater Addo elephant fencing could be expanded to incorporate the Suurberg range to link with the karroid Darlington section but carrying capacity in these areas would be low for the pachyderms and bring little relief to growing over population in the park as a whole.

Kruger National Park, the South African flagship conservation area, similarly has a major elephant problem, there are just too many of them and they are impacting on the favoured vegetation types and in turn affecting other animal species that rely on these habitats. Between 1967 and 1994 14 562 elephant were culled in Kruger but in 1994 a moratorium was put in place by SAN Parks, under pressure from various animal rights and other groups, to stop all elephant culling. This moratorium is still in place.

It was hoped that with the dropping of sections of the border fence between Kruger National Park and Limpopo National Park in Mozambique (part of a projected Trans-frontier park) elephant would move into the latter to relieve the pressure on the former. This has not occurred to the levels hoped for, in part because the Mozambique conservation area is poorly managed, minimally controlled and poaching is rampant. Elephants are intelligent beasts and they will try to avoid areas where they come under such pressure, or change their behaviour patterns accordingly. 

Because of the emotive nature of culling elephants, SAN Parks staff are reluctant to discuss this management tool, no doubt in part because they fear being criticised by the numerous anti-culling NGO’s that dot the planet. 

If they do not cull what will the results be, destruction of sensitive habitats (those who have observed the changes wrought by the elephant along the Chobe River in Botswana, and various riparian woodlands in Kruger, know this), resulting in decline or disappearance of other species because of habitat modification, and in the worst case scenario, elephant dying of starvation.

Elsewhere in Africa elephant poaching is rampant, with an estimated 20 000 being illegally killed each year, and images of elephant with tusks hacked out with chainsaw and axe are flashed around the world. That is one extreme, the other is over population of elephant in such parks as Kruger and Addo.

In our view national parks and most nature reserves are being (or should be) managed to protect all biota. South African parks are fenced and as such management is essential. To say nature must take its course- let us hear the outcry when the gentle grey giants start to die for lack of food.