Surge in Kruger Park elephant poaching a jumbo problem

Date: 04 Feb 2018

 A TICKING time bomb. That’s how one elephant conservationist has described the escalation of elephant killings in the Kruger National Park.

The fence line between the Kruger Park and Mozambique ends for 34km, providing open access for the Transfrontier agreement between South Africa and Mozambique.

Last week, Minister of Environmental Affairs Edna Molewa revealed that 68 elephants had been slaughtered in South Africa – 67 inside the Kruger and another in KwaZulu-Natal – during 2017, around 20 more than the previous year.

“It’s around 150 elephants in total that have been killed in the last few years – that’s quite a high statistic,” warns Dr Michelle Henley, a senior scientist at Elephants Alive.

“That’s how it started with the rhino. It’s very much the same message we need to send: we should be aware of this and worried.”

The issue of the surge in elephant killings must not be muddied by perceptions of elephant overpopulation.

“We shouldn’t have our vision clouded by the secure fragmented populations in South Africa while at the same time this poaching time bomb is ticking off.”

Nicholas Funda, the chief ranger in the Kruger, tells how he and his team of rangers have to battle rhino poachers in the southern portion of the park and elephant poachers in the north on the border with Mozambique.

This means splitting precious resources.

“In the past we had either rhino poaching or elephant poaching. Now we have both at the same time and we have to split our attention between elephants and rhino. But we’re doing our best to serve the northern part of the Kruger. If you look at our statistics on rhino poaching, we’re turning the corner, but we’re seeing an increase in elephant poaching.

We suspect rhino poachers have switched to elephant poaching in the norther n parts of the park.

“There’s a perception that we don’t care about elephants because there are too many, but we cannot allow criminals to do culling on our behalf.”

There have been few arrests, he says. “We’re working with the Mozambique government, we’ve got helicopters, technology, the police and the army, and the private sector is playing its part… We’re doing what we can. We’re trying to be ahead of the criminals. We need to get to the big guys behind this organised crime.”

Dr Marion Garaï, the chairperson of the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group, believes South Africans must “definitely be very worried about the elephant situation”.

“There’s not sufficient awareness among the public as everyone only talks about the – admittedly horrific – rhino poaching,” she says.

Throughout Africa, elephants are being slaughtered at unsustainable levels.

“Although in some African range states the level of poaching has been slightly diminished (although still unsustainable) since the peak in 2012, thanks to increased anti- poaching measures, South Africa is still perceived as having a safe population, partly due to the many private and smaller reserves.”

But there’s no room for complacency. “Poaching will not stop at our borders and the private reserves will soon be hit, as we experienced with the rhino poaching. We really only have one large, genetically intact, wild elephant population in the Kruger Park. If that gets depleted that will be the demise of the elephant in South Africa.”

WWF-SA, in a statement, notes how the elephant losses in the Kruger “are import2013: 0 2014: 6 2015: 30 2016: 46 2017: 67 ant trends to address now to be ahead of the curve and prevent the escalation seen previously for rhino”.

Although the numbers of poached elephants will have little impact on overall elephant numbers at this stage, given that a minimum of 17 086 elephants were resident in the Kruger in 2015, authorities should be alert to the danger of elephant poaching rapidly escalating, says Dr Richard Thomas, the global communications co-ordinator for Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network.

“In the past elephant poaching in Kruger was largely regarded as opportunistic, car ried out by poachers looking for rhino but who were unsuccessful. Another factor now may be a dearth of rhino in much of the park. Rhinos are still likely to be the preferred target. Weight for weight, horns command higher prices on the black market, while they can be removed from the dead animal relatively easily, and they’re relatively small, and so easier to conceal for smuggling abroad.”

It’s critical, he says, to stamp down heavily on poaching by ensuring there are enough rangers out on patrol, who are adequately trained, resourced, motivated and equipped to deal with the real threats they face each day.

Their efforts need to be backed up with appropriate support from the courts and judicial system, he says.

“All too often there have been reports of collusion and corruption which seriously undermine the brave efforts being made to curtail the poaching crisis.”

By Sheree Bega - sheree.bega@inl.co.za

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