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News Article

Proposed elephant cull leads to threats of tourism boycott

South Africa is considering culling elephants as the population soars and leads to worries of environmental degradation. But animal rights organizations are retaliating by threatening to call for a tourism boycott.

South Africa is considering culling elephants as the population soars and leads to worries of environmental degradation. But animal rights organizations are retaliating by threatening to call for a tourism boycott.

South African game reserves are the most intensely managed in Africa and some conservation officials and scientists have consistently argued that there is serious elephant overpopulation that needs to be reduced to limit the effect on habitats.

South African newspapers reported in mid March that Dr Hector Magome, the director of conservation services at South African National Parks (SANP), said SANP was "strongly leaning towards culling and we want the public to digest this hard fact". He says that Kruger National Park, with more than 12,000 elephants, is overpopulated by at least 5000.

Reasons for culling

Scientists are divided on the issue of elephant overpopulation and the ethics of culling. Some have argued there is no scientific proof of overpopulation and that more research is needed before any action is taken.

Some argue that alternative methods of control should be adopted if population growth is proved to be unsustainable. Yet others say that, unless elephant populations in Kruger, Madikwe and other parks are reduced, their feeding habits will devastate vegetation, and other species will suffer.

Among other destructive actions, elephants damage endangered trees by stripping them of bark. The trees subsequently die. The pachyderms consume vast amounts of vegetation. Food sources are shrinking and biodiversity is coming under threat. There is also often friction between local rural communities and elephants over resources.

An article in Courier (Brussels) in 1996 focused on the animosity felt by agriculturalists surrounding national parks in Kenya, and the concern from human deaths caused by elephants. Campbell et al. (1996), in a study of elephant damage in state forests in Zimbabwe, found that some 25% of trees of >9.5 cm diameter at breast height had been damaged by herbivores including elephants, and that 67% of larger Pterocarpus angolensis trees had been damaged by elephants, and 13% killed.

Botswana is also looking at culling elephants, and Botswana's president is seeking support from neighbouring Zambia for a proposal that would allow it to cull elephants and sell their ivory, officials said in early March.

President Festus Mogae was expected to ask visiting Zambian President Levi Mwanawasa for support to downgrade the status of elephants under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, or Cites, an unnamed foreign ministry official said.

The official said Botswana has an overpopulation of elephants and Mogae wants to move elephants to a different category under Cites that would allow them to be culled to "acceptable levels."

Botswana and Zambia are among southern African countries with huge elephant herds that are in some cases destroying the environment. The countries have argued that each year they should be allowed to sell a set amount of ivory from elephants that have died naturally or were culled under government-supervised programmes.

Southern Africa is now home to around three-quarters of the African elephant population, and some experts and environmentalists say the population is becoming unsustainable.

The conservation lobby

Elephants are one of the key species of interest to tourists, who tend to be more interested in large mammals than in other types of biodiversity (Kerley et al., 2003). This paper reports that self-guided tourists that had seen elephants in the Addo Elephant National Park expressed satisfaction with their wildlife viewing.

They are also an emotive animal for conservationists, partly because they have been so affected by ivory poaching in the past, and still are in other parts of Africa. Some lobby groups believe resorting to elephant culling in South Africa, where it was suspended in 1994, will damage the country's status as a responsible custodian of natural resources.

"If they go ahead it will be another black eye for the South African government's international reputation," said Dr John Grandy, senior vice-president in charge of wildlife at Humane Society International (HSI) in Washington.

HSI is part of the Humane Society of the United States and has a membership of more than 8.6-million. It has invested millions of dollars in South Africa since 1994 on the understanding that culling had been stopped.

HSI helped purchase land for the expansion of the Addo Elephant National Park and funded extensive research into the use of PZP (porcine zona pellucida) as a means of elephant contraception.

Dr Barbara Maas, the chief executive of the Britain-based Care for the Wild, argues that the talk of a resumption of culling, coupled with the recently published draft legislation on large predator hunting, presented a very poor image to the rest of the world. And the founder of a South African animal rights group, Xwe African Wildlife Investigation and Research Centre, has gone further by suggesting a tourism boycott.

Wanda Mkutshulwa, spokesperson for Sanparks, said on Sunday "that animal-rights groups are pre-empting the process as no final decision has been made on the elephants' fate". Scientists are currently compiling a report containing all the suggestions made during the elephant debate, which will then be considered before a decision on culling is made.

Further reading

Anon. Man and elephant in harmony? Courier (Brussels), 1996, No. 157, pp. 28-30

Campbell, B. M.; Butler, J. R. A.; Mapaure, I.; Vermeullen, S. J.; Mashove, P. Elephant damage and safari hunting in Pterocarpus angolensis woodland in northwestern Matabeleland, Zimbabwe. African Journal of Ecology, 1996, Vol. 34, No. 4, pp. 380-388

Kerley, G. I. H.; Geach, B. G. S.; Vial, C. Jumbos or bust: do tourists' perceptions lead to an under-appreciation of biodiversity? South African Journal of Wildlife Research, 2003, Vol. 33, No. 1, pp. 13-21