Elephants migrate to Mozambique

30 March 2005

The giants of the Kruger Park, which may face culling due to excess numbers, have finally decided it‘s safe to cross the border.

The great elephant herds of the Kruger National Park, under threat of culling, are migrating in growing numbers across the border into Mozambique‘s adjacent Limpopo Park.

Flying by helicopter over Limpopo Park last Friday, we could see several herds and single bulls moving through the bush that had formerly been denuded of game by Mozambique‘s protracted war and by serving as a coutada, or hunting ground, under earlier Portuguese colonial rule.

Also on the helicopter flight, sponsored by South Africa‘s Peace Parks Foundation, was an excited Dr Markus Hoftmeyr, head of Kruger‘s veterinary wildlife services.

He believes that the elephants are signalling each other, sometimes in sounds that carry far but are inaudible to the human ear, that it is safe to return to their old stomping grounds in the Mozambican area now that the war is over and it no longer serves as a hunting place or as a "bushmeat" abattoir for guerrilla fighters. This is a remarkable change from four years ago, when most of the first group of 25 elephants, which were symbolically handed over to Mozambique by former president Nelson Mandela to start repopulating their park, made a dash back to the safety of Kruger.

Most found openings in the high-security fence at river crossings, but Hofmeyr says one bull trundled for many kilometres along the fence until he was able to round it where it meets the Limpopo River border in the far north.

Other game, notably giraffe, buffalo, wildebeest, impala and kudu, have joined the elephants in crossing from Kruger through gaps in the fence, mostly at river crossings. From the helicopter, fair numbers were spotted moving about in the unspoilt and beautiful Mozambican terrain of high-cllffed river gorges, valleys, rolling hills and flat spaces.

The Massingir Dam

The beautiful Massingir Dam, which will probably draw most of the visitors to the Limpopo National Park. Measuring 103 km2 and featuring an abundance of bird life, the dam is only about 45 km from Olifants Camp in Kruger National Park.

Hofmeyr says they, too, have probably been taking their cue from game translocated over the past two years by truck from Kruger into a 30 000 hectare enclosure in the Mozambican part to get them used to living on that side of the security fence. The translocation of 3 000 head of game should be completed this year, and the enclosure will then be opened at the furthest point away from Kruger for the animals to start making their own way into their new country.

Professor Willem van Riet, chief executive of the Peace Parks Foundation, says the voluntary migration to Limpopo Park shows that translocations can work in the short term if done effectively. It is the small translocated groups that are enticing the others across the border.

Only a relatively small portion of the high-security border fence separating the two parks has been removed since they were ceremonially joined together two years ago, with, in name only, Zimbabwe‘s Gonarezhou Park. Together they are called the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park but the actual link-up across the Limpopo River with Gonarezhou in troubled Zimbabwe will take a while longer.

Security concerns, especially about illegal immigrants and the smuggling of weapons and fourwheel-drive vehicles, have been hindering the removal of more sections of the border fence between the Kruger and Limpopo parks. But apparently control systems are now in place that will make it easier to proceed with the removal of more sections of the fence, which was put up in the mid-seventies at the height of the regional conflict that also involved apartheid South Africa.

The migration of elephants into Mozambique will relieve some of the pressure on Kruger, where their burgeoning numbers have been causing serious harm to the habitat. But it is unlikely to stave off culling. The elephant population has simply gone too far out of control since a moratorium was placed on it in 1995.

Kruger has about 13 000 elephants, and its maximum carrying capacity is set at about 7 000. Limpopo Park can at most take 3 000. At a million hectares it is half the size of Kruger, and an even bigger percentage of it is not suitable elephant habitat. So soon, it too will be under pressure if Kruger‘s elephants keep migrating.

A final decision on culling, already building into a major bone of contention among animal-rights groups internationally, should be taken some time this year by Marthinus van Schalkwyk, the environmental affairs and tourism minister.

A plan drawn up by his department will first be opened for public comment. The plan will take into account a recommendation favouring culling which the ministry received from a conference held late last year in the Kruger Park.

Called the Great Elephant Indaba, and convened by South African National Parks (SANParks), the conference considered a range of solutions, including sterilisation and contraception, creating more space for the animals by extending existing parks through more land acquisitions, and translocating more elephants from overpopulated to underpopulated parks. But these were generally considered to be too costly and too cumbersome to deal with Kruger`s urgent problem.

Hector Magome. the director of conservation services at SANParks, told the conference that the effects on Kruger of its elephant overpopulation had become clearly visible.

It had reached the point where even tourists who were normally obsessed with seeing Africa`s socalled Big Five - lion, elephant, rhinoceros, buffalo and leopard hadstarted complaining about the scarred landscape. He showed comparative photographs of areas where tall trees had once stood, which the elephants had killed by uprooting and debarking them.

He said the incidence of elephant attacks on other animals, particularly black rhino, had increased notably because of the growing competition for food and space inside the park.

The same pressures were also thought to be the reason why elephants were breaking through the reserve‘s game fences to forage on adjoining private and community land.

Dr David Mabunda, chief executive officer of SANParks, told the conference that culling was a hard option. "But our first responsibility is to care for the biodiversity of our parks. It is our legal duty We cannot favour one species at the expense of the rest."

Meanwhile the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park‘s elephant migration should serve as encouragement for southern Africa‘s transfrontier-park programme, in which the Peace Parks Foundation is playing a major facilitating role.

According to the 2002 African Elephant Status report of the World Conservation Union, the estimated population for southern Africa - South Africa, Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and Swaziland - now stands at 300 000. Botswana has by far the worst problem, with an estimated 120 000 elephants in its Chobe Reserve and Okavango Delta.

Sunday Independent - 27 March 2005Leon Marshall

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