Video: Good science underpins healthy KNP elephant population

Henry

One of the biggest perceptions that people have is that the current population of elephants in the Kruger National Park (KNP) poses a danger to the environment’s rich plant and tree life.

Dr. However, Sam Ferreira, large mammal ecologist and member of scientific services at SANParks, says that research over the past 70 years, and in more than 400 scientific publications, has not been able to find any clear link between the ecological change in the landscape and the elephant population. This does not mean there is not overgrazing in certain parts.

Ferreira explains that it is not about how many elephants there are, but about factors such as where they occur, how much time they spend in an area and whether there are bulls or cows.

In 2015, the elephant population in the Kruger National Park stood at approximately 17,086 animals and according to a 2017 survey, the population is growing by approximately 4.2% per year. This means there were an estimated 23,745 elephants in the Kruger National Park last year.

This figure can of course vary due to bulls leaving the park, as well as deaths.

According to Ferreira, there are mainly four variables that elephants need to thrive: water, food, comfort and safety.

Think of it this way: If there is water in the same place throughout the year and the elephant does not have to walk very far for it, it will have a significant influence on the trees in that area.

In the past few years, the Kruger National Park has closed a whole lot of man-made waterholes to limit the movement of elephants in certain areas. It is also interesting to see how elephant cows in the hot, dry season will make decisions based on how hot the calves get.

They will move to larger trees or water and not feed there, but stand around until the calves have cooled down. There are also certain areas where elephants feel safe (and of course also parts where they feel unsafe).

When one thinks of a space like the Kruger National Park, there is usually enough room for all these variables to occur – precisely because the park is so large and ensures food, water, comfort and safety.

Managing a park like the KNP with its diverse biodiversity is no easy task and according to an article written by Dr. IJ Whyte wrote, the management of elephants will always create an ethical dilemma.

Whether the animals are euthanized and/or the process is left to nature (by, for example, closing waterholes and thus forcing the cow to walk further which means her suckled elephant calf may die) each has its own challenges.

“Every year between August and September surveys of elephant numbers in the park are conducted and we monitor the distribution of elephants in the park,” says Ferreira.

He says that in the day-to-day management of the park’s elephants, good and proper science is the foundation on which all his decision-making rests.

“There is already more than enough data collected and ongoing research that we are looking at to control the elephant population.”