AXIS Performance Advisors

Demystifying sustainability

South Africa: “There are no more wild animals”

Copyright 2005 AXIS Performance Advisors

There Are No More Wild Animals
and Other Insights from South Africa

By Darcy Hitchcock

 giraffe I just returned from a two-week volunteer vacation in South Africa. My husband and I joined up with Siyafunda (it means “we are learning” in Shangaan), a new volunteer program associated with Makalali, a private reserve near Kruger National Park. Our main job was to help monitor elephant populations that are being controlled using an experimental form of birth control. No, it didn’t involve sending volunteers after bull elephants with five-foot condoms, fortunately. We also helped with other research, darted and moved some elands (an antelope the size of an elk) and visited a near-by village. Since wildlife conservation and poverty eradication are keys to sustainability. I thought you might be interested to hear what I learned.

There are no more wild animals, just large zoos.

Marius, one of the facilitators who is working on a technical degree, was explaining his research on the relationship between elephants and vegetation when he said, “I don’t believe there are wild animals any more; just big zoos.” The phrase stuck with me. Whenever you have fences (or other barriers such as city limits and highways), he explained, you must manage populations to maintain an appropriate balance. Through the growth of human population and our technologies, we have impacted ecosystems all over the earth, in most cases, restricting or degrading the habitat of wild animals. Whether we want to or not, it is now our responsibility to manage the remaining ecosystems and animal populations.

The private reserves in South Africa have been key to protecting endangered species. Even in the face of population pressure, during the past 7 years, the game ranching industry in South Africa has grown by an average of 6.5% or 500 000 hectares per year. Currently, 6% or 6.1 million hectares in S.A. are private game ranches, while only 4.2% or 4 million hectares is state-owned protected areas. In these reserves, the animals go about a relatively normal existence. They are not fed, as in zoos, but forage or hunt in large tracks of land.

Makalali has developed cooperative agreements with other landowners in the area such that the fences have been removed and the animals can move freely across these boundaries. They now have a large area of diverse habitat, 24,000 hectares (approximately 60,000 acres), but even that needs management. Humans, however, have different goals than nature. A reserve managed for tourism will emphasize different species than one managed for hunting, and some species like the sable antelope fall through the cracks while others like the impala thrive. Managing for biodiversity seems impractical.

elephant“Management” is no simple feat. You have to know how many of each species you have on your land (and they don’t come when you call). You must also monitor how much food is available for them. Frank, a visiting Masters student from the Netherlands, has been at Makalali for three months doing research on grasses. Grasses feed many of the herbivores which feed the predators, so it is the basis of the savannah food chain. There are, of course, innumerable variables. Some grasses offer more nutrition than others. Soil conditions, rain fall, tree cover and climate change can all affect this resource. So they use “adaptive management” techniques: take an action, monitor the results, see what you learned from that. From a practical standpoint, the landowners must manage from year to year, even though the elephants may live 60 years. Imagine managing your family that way: “Sorry, Joey, we don’t have enough resources for everyone this year so you’ll have to go.” It’s not ideal but it is what is possible.

Family planning for elephants: How can we have too many of an endangered species?

dartingMost people think of elephants as an endangered species, and the Indian elephants are in serious trouble in Asia. However, thanks to conservation efforts, the African elephant is doing quite well, with growth rates exceeding the 7.5% maximum formerly presumed.  In Southern Africa, for example, elephants have multiplied far past the carrying capacity of the land available for them. They eat a tremendous amount, digesting little with 60% of it still intact as it comes out the other end. They rip bark off trees with their tusks, and even uproot large trees. They play an important part in the ecosystem but too many can cause problems.Up to now options when populations exceed carrying capacity have been limited to “culling” or “translocation,” both extremely stressful to the animals. Elephants live in tightly bonded matriarchal societies so when culling is done, the entire herd is slaughtered. This is considered more humane than leaving some members alive after witnessing the killing fields. Moving elephants is a huge undertaking, very hard on the animals, and in Southern Africa, everyplace else is already over-populated too. Furthermore, the elephants that aren’t targeted for culling seem to know what happened and many have a dim view of humans, making some of them aggressive toward people.
cheetahsThat’s where Makalali’s research comes in, largely funded by the Humane Society. In the late 1990’s Kruger conducted field trials on a new vaccine form of contraception, delivered annually by dart, that prevents the sperm from attaching to the egg. They proved that the vaccine was effective at preventing pregnancy, safe to both cow and fetus if the cow was pregnant, and reversible. Makalali has now proven that this form of immunocontraception is practical for small reserves, can be administered both on foot or by helicopter, and does not result in long-term changes to behavior. (The earlier form of hormonal contraception caused the bulls to harass the cows to such a degree that the cows would leave the herd, a completely unnatural response.) Audrey, the director of research at Makalali and Siyafunda, has been able to show that this form of contraception is practical and cost-effective, a tiny fraction of the cost of culling. Unfortunately, Kruger is resisting adopting this approach as part of their management plan but public pressure is brewing. Realistically, Kruger may need to do both culling and contraception for a while to get their populations back under control.

The hope is this new form of vaccine may become the basis of contraception for many other species including humans.

Villages are disconnected from their natural heritage

Siyafunda is reaching out to the nearby villages, recognizing that conservation will only continue if the majority population appreciates their natural heritage. Sadly, most of the people in the villages have never seen a giraffe or lion or elephant. Instead, they still live hand-to-mouth lives in impoverished communities. The men may have more than one wife. One well-spoken worker at Makalali had a wife in the village, a live-in girlfriend on the reserve and “six children that I know of.” Not surprisingly, the schools are choked with children, some AIDS orphans. (AIDS has had such an effect on Africa that in Tzaneen, a nearby town, we saw four tombstone stores in a one-block area, including one in the mall. Do you know a single tombstone retailer in your entire city?)

schoolWe went into the village as part of Siyafunda’s plan to become more involved in the needs of the surrounding community. The village was laid out like suburbia, each family with a small plot of land, perhaps half an acre. Most homes appeared to be single room brick structures. We visited two pre-schools, one that reeked inexplicably of gasoline fumes. Neither had desks or much in the way of school supplies. They were thrilled to get the toothbrushes and pencils I brought as gifts. The teachers told us the children did not have enough to eat and were fed the same gruel each day. One woman in the village funds the preschools, paying the teachers when the families cannot. Mike, the operations director for Siyafunda who runs the volunteer program, plans to provide supplies and volunteers to help improve their situation and he also wants to bring the children to the reserve so that they can see the wildlife that is their heritage.

Remarkable progress has been made banishing Apartheid

The Blacks in the cities seem to be doing much better. I met with a young woman in Johannesburg who has survived Apartheid. She had been prevented from attending the better private schools but she is ambitious and excited about her future prospects and hopes to start her own business. She feels skin color is no longer a factor in employment, although she acknowledges there are still cultural problems such as high rates of teenage pregnancy and domestic violence. Similarly, in Tzaneen, a small city two hours drive from Makalali, we saw a prosperous Black middleclass shopping at the mall side by side with the Whites. I didn’t pick up resentment of Whites either, as I have in places like the Bahamas when they regained control of their country. At least the overt forms of discrimination have receded at a remarkable pace. Now what is left to do is work on the vestiges of poverty, lack of education, and disempowerment. But South Africa has accomplished in ten years what has taken us much longer in the US. They should be applauded.

Lingering questions

While Makalali and others are doing a laudable and responsible job of managing their land, I am left with troubling questions. What happens when most reserves manage for tourism and that selects certain species over others? Where will the money come from to continue pain-staking analysis of habitat and animal populations? What will happen if we have an extended global economic downturn (perhaps from depletion of oil supplies) so that tourism and grants dry up? With the continuing growth in human population, will the reserves be forced at some point to become human settlements, similar to the policies in Zimbabwe? And how can you manage populations on a year to year basis when animals live for decades? What happens when climate change affects the weather patterns? I’m not sure humans are up to this job we have made for ourselves. But I guess we have no choice. All the wild animals now live in our zoos, both large and small. Through “adaptive management” we are bound to make mistakes, but we must try.

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2 comments on “South Africa: “There are no more wild animals”

  1. Louw van Biljon
    August 7, 2013

    Your question: “What happens when most reserves manage for tourism and that selects certain species over others?” refers. I do not know of any reserve in South (or Southern) Africa, geared towards tourism, where certain species are selected, or preferred over others. However, this does happen on game farms geared for hunting. The ‘tourist reserves’ all aim for biodiversity, as far as possible. Although the hunting fraternity is biased towards ‘trophy and biltong (what americans call ‘jerky’) animals’, the hunting industry has had an incredibly positive influence on game numbers in South Africa. It is said that there is more game in the country now, than ever since before the late 1800’s when game was hunted to near extinction. This, thanks to the fact that game farming is now more profitable than commercial stock or crop farming in large parts of the country.

    Slowly but surely, game reserves (whether private or state-owned) are being used as vehicles for socio-economic development of the communties surrounding them – a strategy that should have been implemented decades ago.

    • axisperformanceadvisors
      August 7, 2013

      Thanks for your perspective. I think what they meant is there are certain species…eg the Big Five…that tourists like to see. So that can mean they manage the ecosystem to support those types of animals…ie savanna…which is less conducive to other certain species. That was my understanding.

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