Elephants are fantastic animals — but they are still animals and should be managed as such. Some people — like Ross Harvey — seem to struggle to distinguish between humans and animals, when he claims in a Right of Reply on 17 June that “elephant culling and hunting is a throwback to defending slavery”.
He might as well claim that hunters are like Nazis, wife-beaters or psychopaths. It wouldn’t be new in the debate. We see this sort of diversion every time an anti-hunter is running low on factual arguments. Of course, culling of elephants cannot be compared to slavery in any way, shape or form. We are talking about managing wildlife versus violating the most basic human rights of millions of completely innocent people. People were brutally murdered, raped, worked to death and stripped of their freedom. I find it completely disrespectful to the victims of slavery to so much as imply that there is a connection. Shame on him.
But let us talk about managing elephants. Most people with even a slight and remote connection to farming are able to grasp the very simple conditions for the growth of an animal population on a limited area of land. Animals that thrive will breed and multiply until they exceed the natural carrying capacity of their habitat. When that happens a chunk of the population will die and the population starts growing again. It is a never-ending cycle and the basic principles are the same for elephants, cattle, sheep, penguins, bears and so on.
An elephant population that exceeds the carrying capacity of the land will eventually be decimated by so-called natural causes. Before that happens, the land will be worn down and hundreds of other species will be severely reduced in numbers due to lack of suitable habitat.
There are presently very large elephant populations in many parts of southern Africa. During the next drought, they may starve and die in their thousands or tens of thousands. The likelihood that lethal epidemics will break out increases when the population is weakened due to lack of food and water. The consequences can be devastating. A large portion of the entire population can be lost with the combination of starvation and disease. You never know how hard such a blow will be. Will we lose 10%, 20%, 50% or 80% of the elephants in a huge natural population breakdown?
The alternative is active management. Obviously, this is not natural. However, neither are the current conditions for the elephant population. They used to roam the entire continent. Now the remaining 400,000-plus elephants are squeezed together in very limited areas between farmland and cities. They already live their entire lives under man-made conditions and from a strict nature conservation point of view, the population will not benefit from a complete lack of active management involving culling/hunting.
We know that by keeping a population of wild animals just under the carrying capacity of its habitat — by culling the surplus population every year — we keep the risk of unpredictable mass death at a minimum. The animals will not be weakened by lack of food and water to the same degree. As an added benefit, we have the opportunity to use the animals culled for human consumption and the people of Africa need the protein. The pragmatic solution is a win-win. The surplus elephants will die in either case. This is how wildlife populations are managed all over the world. In Sweden (where I live) we manage populations of moose, wild boar, roe deer, beavers, bears and wolves to name a few. In Africa the species are different, but the principles are the same.
Side note: From an animal welfare perspective, culling is far more humane than the natural causes of death (just an observation).
Of course, most of the necessary culling must be carried out by professionals for the simple reason that elephant culling involves destroying entire herds. There is however no good reason not to supplement culling efforts with regular hunting in the case of individual elephants — problem animals (such as crop raiders and man-killers) and old bulls. These animals are a good choice to take out as a part of the culling efforts. Why not let the nations of Africa make the income they can on these animals? The income only makes a positive difference and serves as a well-proven financial incentive to protect the elephants.
It is not a coincidence that most of the elephant population lives in countries with developed hunting tourism. The numbers do not lie, no matter how hard people try to bend the facts. DM
Jens Ulrik Høgh is a Swedish freelance journalist and hunter.