22 March 2005

'Culling is not the state's only option'

Animal welfare and environmental pressure groups supported by millions of people worldwide are gearing up for concerted campaigns to dissuade the South African government from using culling as a means to control the country's burgeoning elephant population.

Some also warn that recent draft legislation on the hunting of large predators, if enacted in its present form, will legalise hunting of "properly rehabilitated" captive-bred lions, cheetahs, spotted hyenas and wild dogs and is so inadequate that some of their members would rather not visit South Africa.

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.

This week 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".

Although South Africa prides itself on its environmental management skills and promotes wildlife as a major tourism attraction, many lobby groups believe resorting to elephant culling, which 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.

"South Africa is a sovereign state and can do what it wants, but we would view a return to culling as a betrayal of the philosophy that brought us to the country in the first place," Grandy said.

Dr Barbara Maas, the chief executive of the Britain-based Care for the Wild, argued 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.

"The concept of hunting captive-bred predators has sparked a major response from our members and over the past year we have delivered thousands of letters and petitions to the South African high commission in London," Maas said.

"Many of our members are outraged at the draft legislation and I know some have said they won't travel to South Africa again until all forms of canned hunting are stopped."

Hundreds of submissions calling for the rewriting of the proposed legislation have been submitted to the department of environmental affairs in Pretoria.

The United States-based International Fund for Animal Welfare, which has 2,5-million supporters worldwide, has also criticised the government on both issues and is planning online petitions and other campaigns to voice opposition and encourage further scientific debate.

Michelle Pickover, the founder of the local animal rights group, Xwe African Wildlife Investigation and Research Centre, went further by suggesting a tourism boycott.

"We have had many discussions with the authorities but have a sense that they have made up their minds on the issue," Pickover said.

"They have pushed us so far that we feel we must advocate a tourism boycott."

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.

"Culling is just one option, and we have tried to include everyone in the debate," said Wanda Mkutshulwa, the head of corporate communications at SANP. She said SANP would present a range of opinions to the minister [of environmental affairs and tourism Marthinus van Schalkwyk] and these would be open for comment.

Mkutshulwa said she hoped a decision would be made by October.

John Louw, the chief director of communications at the department of environmental affairs and tourism, said: "It is premature to say anything. It is not for South African National Parks to make a decision on whether there will be culling or not, it is for the minister [Marthinus van Schalkwyk] to apply his mind.

"Everyone is free to speak in this country, but we cannot respond to demands not to consider culling until the minister has applied his mind to the issue.

"The minister may want to convene a team of experts; he may want to consult other interested parties, the parliamentary select committee or cabinet colleagues," Louw said.

"There may not even be a decision by October; it depends on the process."

Elephant culling is an emotive issue in the international community, not least in South Africa, which last carried out such an operation in the 1990s. Since then the elephant population in southern Africa has grown to a reported 250 000, burgeoning to the point, some experts and environmentalists say, of becoming unsustainable. Southern Africa is now home to three-quarters of the African elephant population.

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.


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