Actually, everyone loves elephants. Hence the justified outcry and horror at the ivory poaching which decimated the elephant populations to the north.
Elephants are voracious feeders. They need huge quantities of fodder every day to keep body and soul together. Their size gives them strength and power, but the engine room requires stoking practically all the time. And despite the long gestation period – almost two years – they are successful breeders. The whole herd will protect the calves with considerable aggression; my vehicle was chased some distance by an angry mother on that visit. They are not prone to serious epidemics. And they live a long time. Thirty years ago the Sabie game reserve was proud of its herd of 17 elephants. Now they have over 1000. Our own Balule game reserve has numbers around 500 from only a handful 20 years ago. Of course much of this is influx from the bordering Kruger National Park, but those elephants are moving in from somewhere.
In Tsavo National Park in Kenya, elephant numbers built up to the level where they converted forest into grassland. Fortunately, Tsavo has a geological structure and hence soils which are able to support both types of ecology. It is not clear that this is the case in the western Kruger National Park area. And the grassland couldn’t sustain the elephant population leading to a gruesome die-off.
Our second novel – A Deadly Trade – is set in the lush riverine Linyanti region bordering the Chobe National Park on the northern border of Botswana. It is a “forest” reserve but trophy hunting takes place there perhaps reducing its attraction for the large pachyderms.
If you move back from the river into the national park, the amount of tree damage is horrifying. Some areas look like a war zone. 120 years ago, hunter and explorer Frederick Selous wrote of the area: “we continued our journey westward along the southern bank of the Chobe... As we had been informed, we found that a dense continuous jungle interspersed with large forest trees, came down in most parts to the water. ... As we proceeded, traces of the presence of elephants and buffaloes became more and more frequent...” The area has had little human impact over the 120 years. This is how it looks today:
So what is the answer if there is an answer? Well, there is considerable support for serious culling and it already takes place. Some of the meat is made available to local people and the ivory used to be a revenue source for the national parks before the total ban. But no one likes it. So there have been experiments with various methods of contraception instead. (No, the condoms was a joke!) Hormone type contraceptives did not prove satisfactory, causing behavioural and other problems. But an immune contraceptive – porcine zona pellucid vaccine (pZp) is very promising, has moved out of the experimental stage, and is being used in several of the private game reserves. It seems safe, reversible, lasts for about twelve months, causes no behavioural problems. But, of course, it’s expensive. Bullets are cheap, even elephant bullets. So, as usual, it comes down to deciding what we want, and then being willing to pay for it.
Michael – Thursday.