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S. Africa debates control of elephants

Gretchen Wilson Aug 28, 2008

S. Africa debates control of elephants

Gretchen Wilson Aug 28, 2008


KAI RYSSDAL: Today Indonesia announced new protections for two of the world’s endangered species. The government’s going to double the size of a national park that’s home to the Sumatran tiger and elephant. But they might want to be just a little bit careful about how they set up their wildlife management plan, in case they’re too successful.

The African elephant is a protected species. In the wild, populations are dwindling. But inside South Africa’s nature reserves, herds are growing. So the government has come up with a new plan with an eye toward the bottom line.

From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Gretchen Wilson reports.

GRETCHEN WILSON: Kruger National Park is a wide expanse of African bush covering an area the size of Connecticut. More than a million tourists come here every year to glimpse lion, giraffe and elephant.

SAM FERREIRA: There is some elephants. I see some tracks in the corner here . . .

Dr. Sam Ferreira is an ecologist with South African National Parks. He leads me to a clearing next to a man-made lake.

FERREIRA: This is a big guy. And as you can see there’s lots of trees broken around us.

Elephant herds linger here, trampling the underbrush and pushing over trees to get at the tender leaves on top.

A generation ago, park managers thought they could help animals by installing man-made watering holes. But it changed migration patterns. Elephants no longer roam long distances to get water. They just hang out here. And they’re breeding rapidly.

To manage their impact, the South African government’s response includes elephant birth control and resettlement. But it also allows for culling — shooting and killing entire herds.

Private wildlife ranchers and some conservation groups endorse South Africa’s new policy. They point out that elephants leave a huge ecological footprint. And that threatens the natural habitats of other species, like birds and sable antelope.

GARY VAN DEN BERG: So now we have a situation where you’ve got too many animals in a defined space.

Gary van den Berg is head of Wildlife Ranching South Africa. He’s also an advocate of “sustainable use,” an approach to conservation that sees wildlife not just as animals but as participants in an economic survival of the fittest.

Elephants need resources: water, food, and lots of land to roam. But they’re also money makers. They draw tourists and hunters to nature reserves.

VAN DEN BERG: Suddenly you’re bringing income, you’re bringing people to these remote areas.

Supporters of sustainable use say it’s OK to kill a few animals, if it means generating income for wildlife conservation. Their mantra is, “If it pays, it stays.” They say otherwise there’s too much pressure on parkland to convert it for other use like farming or housing.

Some animal rights activists say this economic bottom line now drives South Africa’s entire wildlife management policy. Louise Joubert is founder of the SanWild Wildlife Trust.

LOUISE JOUBERT: We have gradually seen the emphasis shifting from conservation to blatant commercialization. And every single animal in South Africa has a commercial value on its head.

For elephants, that commercial value includes the sum of its parts: meat, skin, and ivory. For years, South Africa has pushed to reopen a legitimate ivory trade.

And critics say that’s the true aim of South Africa’s policy — to generate revenue streams, rather than protect biodiversity.

Michele Pickover of Animal Rights Africa disagrees with claims that there are too many elephants in South Africa’s nature reserves.

MICHELE PICKOVER: The bottom line is a live elephant brings in much more money and in a much more sustainable way than a dead one.

In Kruger National Park, female elephants and their calves tread slowly into a canopy of bushwillow trees, looking for food.

Ecologist Sam Ferreira’s priority is to manage these elephants’ impact on the landscape, not just kill them to bring down numbers. He says the continent is watching how South Africa manages its elephant population.

FERREIRA: South Africa is a leader in Africa, whether it is in an economic sense or whether it is in a conservation sense. A lot of the stuff that we do out here people will follow.

And that’s important because this controversy goes beyond elephants. Tensions between capitalism and conservation will only grow as human populations push up against wild places.

In Kruger National Park, South Africa, I’m Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.

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