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An Update on Africa’s Rhinos

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Several weeks ago I posted a blog about the poaching crisis with Africa’s rhinos. Except for the elephants rhinos were our biggest topic during my recent study trip in Africa so I thought it was time to return to the topic here.

According to the official numbers released by South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs 251 rhinos have been poached in South Africa alone as of June 20, 2012 (Department). This is roughly 1.5 rhinos per day, which is actually slower than it was when I posted the original blog about rhinos. Still, at this rate South Africa stands to lose over 500 rhinos this year possibly even as high as 600.

This decrease in poaching rates is thanks to the dedication of rangers, conservation officials, and the South African military. Before I arrived in South Africa I kept hearing about how nothing was being done to save the rhinos, your typical doom and gloom stories. However from my personal experiences over the last  month I can say without a doubt this is not true. During the trip we spent 2.5 days in the Kruger area. In this time we were stopped on three separate occasions by anti-poaching units. Twice in Kruger and once just a few miles outside of the park after we had left to continue our trip. One of the stops in the park involved members of the South African military who were standing by with machine guns and helicopters while the rangers checked us.

Yet people claim nothing is being done since Kruger has experienced the most poaching casualties. To this I must point out that Kruger is a large area. At 2.2 million hectares for the official park Kruger is roughly the size of the country of Israel. This is a huge area to patrol for so few people. Obviously many poachers are going to slip through the cracks. Again I must point out the valiant efforts of officials to save rhinos by stating that 170 arrests have been made so far this year in relation to rhino poaching or attempted rhino poaching (Department).

To finish out my update on rhinos and my time in Kruger I want to share a personal first for me. During one day of driving through Kruger we spotted the entire Big 5. But what made this great is that this included three separate rhino sightings, including the only black rhino I have ever seen. I have visited South Africa three times for a total of nearly 50 days in the field and two trips to Kruger. To date I have seen a little over 30 rhinos but to finally see a black rhino was huge. Unfortunately the only photo I could get was rather far away and is posted below. These are magnificent creatures and we must all work together to do whatever we can in order to protect them.

 

References:

  • Departement of Environmental Affairs, Republic of South Africa.      http://www.environment.gov.za/q=content/rhinopoaching_statistics_update_20june2012

 

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Balancing the Numbers: Thoughts on Elephant Management

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To finish out elephant week I would like to take some time to discuss the different methods of managing elephant numbers. On the study trip I just came back from we discussed elephant management heavily and there were five main methods the professors went over: translocation, vasectomies, contraceptives, culling, and hunting.

Translocation:

For all parties involved in the discussion on elephants this is probably the most appealing option. The elephants are moved to repopulate areas they once roamed or to boost populations already established. This allows overpopulated areas to sell off or give away their excess elephants to preserve the habitat without killing the animals. The biggest problem with this is that there is no more room for elephants. When speaking with Ralf Kalwa, retired ranger from Kruger National Park, he stated that Kruger has run out of places to send their excess elephants. All areas suitable to host elephants with proper habitat and protection already have to many elephants themselves. In fact, he went as far as to say Kruger will give away their elephants at no charge so long as the recipient covers the cost of transportation. Unfortunately there is very little opportunity to use this option.

Contraceptives:

Once a year, or once every two years depending on which contraceptive is used, cows are darted with a contraceptive drug to prevent pregnancy. This has proven highly effective for small populations of elephants. However, areas like Kruger cannot afford this option as they have too many elephants to inject. Aside from cost there are concerns over psychological effects which are not completely understood at this point in time.

Vasectomies:

Yes it is possible to give an elephant a vasectomy. The procedure has proven to be very effective at controlling elephant numbers. More importantly there have not been any visible psychological effects on the bulls that have undergone this procedure. They still behave naturally and compete for females, just without resulting in pregnancies. The downside to this solution just like contraceptives is cost. For smaller reserves it is very effective and efficient but for places like Kruger which have so many elephants it is not possible due to financial constraints.

Culling:

This is the least appealing option for both the preservationists and the conservationists alike as typically entire herds are wiped out to reduce elephant numbers quickly. Traditionally this meant using a team of gunmen to sneak within range of a herd or pushing a herd towards the gunmen who would then shoot down all members as quickly as possible. The modern method used in Kruger before preservationists groups stopped the culling involved tranquilizing all members of the herd and quickly finishing them with rifles once the drugs put them under. As unappealing as it is this is also the most effective, and possibly the only, way to manage elephants when they become as overpopulated as they are now. There were some benefits that came from culling operations though. Before the ivory trade was banned parks could sell the ivory to raise money for conservation. The meat was also used to provide a cheap source of protein for local villages. During the days of culling elephant numbers were low enough in surrounding areas that the young were normally spared and relocated to other reserves.

Hunting:

Trophy hunting can be a very useful tool for the control of elephant numbers. Unfortunately it will not be able to drastically reduce elephant numbers in areas like Kruger, but if the numbers are reduced by culling efforts hunting could be used to help maintain the elephants at a sustainable level. Trophy hunting would provide great benefits as hunters would pay high prices for the chance to hunt an elephant, which could replace the funds lost when the ivory trade was banned, and the meat would once again be a source of cheap protein for local villages. Also, hunting provides the least amount of stress on the resident elephant herds as only a few select individuals will be taken out as quickly and cleanly as possible. However restrictions are needed on how many elephant can be hunted, the ivory must be watched to make sure it is truly used by the hunter as a trophy (as opposed to winding up on the black market which has happened with some rhino horns), and restrictions must also be placed on how large of an elephant may be harvested in terms of tusk weight. It is rare to see large ivory these days and this is a result of over hunting for the ivory markets during the colonial days of Africa. Any tusker that still carries the genetics to produce exceptional ivory must be protected in order to conserve those traits for future generations to see and enjoy.

With this I close my discussion week on African elephants. I hope those of you who took the time to read these posting found them both interesting and educational.

On the Backs of Giants

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Staying with our theme of elephants I wanted to share more experiences I had with these giant animals while on my recent trip to Africa. During the trip we saw hundreds of elephants. Most of these sightings were in Kruger National Park, given that Kruger is so overpopulated with them this seems to be redundant to point out. Even the first elephants of our trip were located in a reserve connected to Kruger (several years ago Kruger and several surrounding reserves dropped their border fences to create a larger area for wildlife to roam).

Our first sighting was in the Balule Game Reserve, part of the Greater Kruger Park, on a game walk. We were hiking through Big 5 areas with professional guides when we spotted a group of elephants feeding. It took us several attempts to get to them but eventually we found ourselves less than 30 yards from the huge creatures. Being that closeto them, close enough to hear their ears flap, was a humbling experience. To be that close makes you realize just how small we really are. At that point in time I could not imagine what it would be like to get even closer to them.

 

However, towards the end of our trip we visited an elephant park near Thabazimbi where we had the opportunity to actually interact with elephants. First we were given a quick talk about how they got into the business of raising elephants and how they train them. After that we were allowed to give the elephants treats, take pictures with them, and even give them a few commands. Before that day I would have never thought I would have the opportunity to play soccer with an elephant. One of the bulls had a soccer ball he liked to kick around, and he would kick it back to you if you kicked it to him.

Once we had a chance to meet all of their elephants and interact with them we went for a ride on their backs. During the ride the owner wanted to demonstrate how elephants could be used to track people, which could possibly be helpful in fighting against the rhino poaching problem.  Three of our group, including my wife, left early to leave a scent trail. After giving them a 10-15 minute head start we rode out in search of them. It took the elephants less than five minutes to catch up to them, even though the handlers would not let them move faster than a normal walking pace. I can’t imagine a poacher being able to escape from an elephant that was allowed to move faster.

The whole trip was an experience of a lifetime. From the people we were traveling with to the interaction with Africa’s incredible wildlife we couldn’t have asked for anything better. On the backs of these gentle giants I was reminded of why I decided to go into the field of wildlife conservation.

 

African Elephants: The price of preservation

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I recently returned from a study abroad trip to South Africa focused on wildlife conservation and as such many of the upcoming topics will be focused on conservation in Africa. The trip was  incredible and as students we were allowed  interact more with Africa’s amazing wildlife than most tourists. We also had the opportunity to speak with some of Africa’s leading experts in wildlife and wildlife management. One topic they kept returning to was the elephant, Loxodonta africana, problem in South Africa.

Although elephants were once decimated by uncontrolled hunting and poaching, they have managed to recover quite successfully in southern Africa. According to the IUCN’s elephant specialist group southern Africa was home to roughly 320,000 elephants in 2007 (IUCN). Although they also stated 15,000 were recruited, generally recruited means they have reached breeding age, into the population in 2006 alone. Given this it is reasonable to assume a current population for southern Africa around 400,000 or more, and according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service there is an estimated 600,000 elephants across the entire continent of Africa (USFWS). One of our lecturers on the subject of elephants, Ralf Kalwa- retired after nearly 30 years of working in Kruger National Park, informed us that when Kruger was first established in the early 1900’s there were only 12 elephants in the park. Now the park holds an estimated 13,050 elephants according to a recent survey by Dr. Ian Whyte (Kruger).

At first glance this seems like a major success. However there is a darker side to elephant conservation in that too many elephants are a problem for the environment. As our lectures on elephants were focused on South Africa, and particularly Kruger, I will stick to this area for the discussion. While Kruger may have 13,000 elephants it originally could only sustain 7,000 elephants. Back in the day this was not a problem as park officials were able to maintain the parks elephant population at this level through translocation and culling of excess elephants. Then in the 1980s things got out of hand.

Elephant numbers started to become a problem in the 80s after parks officials were told they cold no longer cull elephants. Culling means removing excess animals by lethal means. Preservationist groups, which believe in hands off management of wildlife and as such are against killing as well, were behind this change. This left only translocation as a method of controlling elephant numbers. But suitable habitat is limited and Kruger has now run out of space to move their elephants to. As such, elephants have exceeded the carrying capacity of the park and are now destroying large areas through over feeding. We visited one reserve which had dropped its fences with Kruger only 18 months prior to our visit and found that the elephants had already destroyed nearly 25% of its trees, particularly marula, Sclerocarya birrea, and knob thorn acacia, Acacia nigrescens.

If nothing is done to prevent this destruction elephants may soon push their environment to far. Many experts we spoke to predict a population crash will soon take place in which 90% or more of Kruger’s elephants will be lost, not to mention all the other species affected by the habitat loss associated with elephant overpopulation. Elephant are magnificent creatures and something must be done to stop this. In order to prevent this disaster control must be taken back from the preservationist groups and returned to the wildlife experts so that they may practice proper, science based conservation techniques.

End Note: If anyone can provide more recent data on elephants from a reliable source such as IUCN or CITES please leave a comment here or send a link to okie_archer@hotmail.com.

References:

  • IUCN Species Survival Commission: Elephant Specialist Group. http://www.african-elephant.org/aed/pdfs/aesr2007s.pdf
  • Kruger Park Wildlife Encounters http://krugerparkencounters.wordpress.com/2012/02/17/elephant-census-proves-positive/
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service http://www.fws.gov/international/DIC/species/afe/afe_facts_current_cons.html