The late Dame Daphne Sheldrick stated: “No animal triggers more heated debate within conservation circles than the elephant, for no animal has greater impact on the environment or is more “human” emotionally”. One of the greatest debates surrounding the conservation of elephants is whether the most appropriate method of conserving them is through mass culling.
Culture of Culling
Despite being ravaged by poaching in the 1950s, pockets of elephant populations grew in national parks, such as Hwange in Zimbabwe, Tsavo East in Kenya and Kruger National Park, South Africa. Rather, than being celebrated and protected under legislation such as the Convention for the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), the growth of elephant populations was deemed to be a threat to biodiversity. As a result, culling became a popular method of controlling the elephant population. Between 1960 and 1998, 46,000 elephants were culled in Hwange and, in 1967, South Africa began a culling regime that lasted until 1994. Elsewhere, in Kruger National Park, 14,629 elephants were culled.
In 2008, South Africa’s Government revoked its 1994 ban and legislated to begin the cull once more through the National Norms and Standards for the Management of Elephants in South Africa. Further, in 2019, Frans Van Der Westhuizen, a Botswanan Government Ministers stated: “We recommend a legal framework that will enable the growth of a safari hunting industry and manage the country’s elephant population within the historic range.”
The lull in culling is clearly at an end, but it is not the answer to conserving Africa’s gentlest giants, in my view.
Culling and legislation: The impact on elephant herds
Culling for the purposes of the National Norms and Standards for the Management of Elephants in South Africa, is defined in the Threatened or Protected Species Regulations in Chapter 1, section 1(a) as, “an operation executed by an official, or other person designated by, the management authority of the area to kill a specific number of specimens of a listed threatened or protected species within the area in order to manage that species in the area in accordance with the management plan for the area.”
Section 2(2)(a)(vii) of the National Norms and Standards of the Management of Elephants in South Africa states, “the purpose is to set national norms and standards to ensure that elephants are managed in the Republic in a way that recognises their sentient nature, highly organised social structure and ability to communicate.”
However, section 19 (c) states:
An elephant may not be culled if it is-
(i) part of a cow-calf group unless the entire cow-calf group, including the matriarch and juvenile bulls, is culled; or
(ii) part of a group comprising only juvenile elephants, unless the entire group is culled.
This is almost impossible in practice to implement, increasing the chances of s.2(2)(a)(vii) being breached. Despite elephants clustering around their matriarch, who is normally killed first to anchor the herd, it cannot ever be fully guaranteed that this means the entire herd is in the killing vicinity. Due to the fact that elephants are so intelligent, many have learnt to fear helicopters and planes that signal the arrival of cull personnel. Consequently, many will often flee to safety.
Juveniles being left without their elders can have a catastrophic long-term impact, as discovered by researchers at the University of Sussex, who studied herds in Amboseli, Kenya, and South Africa’s Pilanesberg Park. The Pilanesberg herd had “’experienced terrible trauma’ and were unable to develop good decision making powers as there was a lack of passing on of social knowledge from elderly family members who had been killed before their eyes.” This inability to make and distinguish social bonds considerably impacts on the ability of elephants to make decisions essential for their survival, leading to concern for the long-term future of elephant herds. Culling may reduce a “target” number, but the long-term impact on survivors from that herd, or others, means that elephant populations lack the ability to survive and reproduce adequately to keep populations stable.
Africa’s Gardeners: Why leaving populations is better for biodiversity than culling
As Daphne Sheldrick explained, “The argument most commonly used to justify the large-scale killing of elephant herds is that they destroy habitats.” This is reflected in s.3(e) National Norms and Standards of the Management of Elephants in South Africa which states that any person executing a function that relates to an elephant has to do so with regard to the principle that “careful conservation management has led to the significant growth of elephant populations, and human intervention may be necessary to ensure that any future growth occurs in a manner that does not result in the loss of biodiversity or ecosystem function…”.
When elephants uproot trees, they provide food for smaller grazing animals that would otherwise be unable to access these foods, and their ability to detect water and create waterholes with their tusks and weight provides water for a plethora of species that would otherwise become parched. Therefore, it seems that there is a conflict in the legislation between s.3(e) and s.2(2)(a)(iii) of the National Norms and Standards for the Management of Elephants in South Africa, which states, “the purpose is to set national norms and standards to ensure that elephants are managed in the Republic in a way that does not disrupt the ecological integrity of the ecosystems in which elephants occur.” This is precisely what takes place when there is an elephant cull on a large scale.
Culling is not the way to conserve Africa’s gentle giants; its long-term impacts have a greater negative impact on their conservation and the wider ecosystem. Culling will not conserve elephants, in fact it will do the opposite and impact a wider biological system in the process. Legislation needs to reflect this.