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To Be, or Not to Be:
The Question of Elephants at Hwange

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Could you kill one of these precious things?
Do you think you could kill an elephant? Could you be one of the individuals who carries heavy guns for the bulls and AK-47s for the cows and juveniles? Could you shoot an entire herd and then cut it to pieces for transport later? Doesn't sound pretty, does it? But you may change your mind.

Imagine the scene: It's the cold season, because the meat from a kill stays fresh longer in cold weather. Your team's plane flies overhead, looking for the runty herds because the larger ones are being saved to breed. Once your plane targets a herd of 65-70 elephants, the pilot alerts the truck drivers. You load up and start the 20km drive towards the herd. You and five others form a circle, staying downwind, and stealthily walk towards the unaware elephants. In an instant, you start shooting. You aim for the bigger elephants first. You notice the cows forming a protective circle around the young calves and you take them out, one by one. It's over in 3 or 4 minutes. With the adults dead, you herd the calves into trucks to be later sold to circuses or for export, then attend to the task of slicing up the hide, packing the meat for food, the ivory for goods, and the bones to be crushed for bone meal. "[To them] it's basically a management operation," says John Foster, who has been here 30-odd years and explains that "the bush is my hobby."

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Water in the park is low so elephants horde the water holes
Now, the situation gets more complicated. According to some, elephant populations have exceeded the carrying capacity of the land reserved for them. This causes wide spread damage by the elephants to the rest of the surrounding ecological systems. Another problem associated with overpopulation is water hoarding. Two British volunteers doing a 24-hour large mammal count told me they noted elephants hoarding the water holes, with young ones bullying away other species like eland and buffalo. "The water in the park right now is low, it's at the late August and September levels of last year" one of them told me. This being July, the water in the park won't carry all the animals through the dry season.

Furthermore, local farmers have been complaining about the animals raiding their crops and even drinking from swimming pools. Paolo and Trinity, who work at the New Game Reserve Hotel in the town of Dete nearby, say elephants are frequent visitors to the town. "It's because they are free. Nothing hunts them," says Paolo.

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Culling destroys thousands of elephant families
One would think that to prevent further damage to the park, culling is necessary. Besides, the culls usually take entire herds, not leaving any survivors to remember the trauma. And more so, the ivory sales from culls generate millions of US dollars' worth of foreign currency that offer a measure of security to the Zimbabwean government's financial situation. Plus, some of that money is to be returned to wildlife conservation efforts like that of the Hwange Conservation Society. Now, do you think you could kill an elephant?

How about some more complicating factors:

First of all, no one can agree on the numbers of elephant in Hwange. Elephants migrating can range 30 km and as far away as the Okavango Delta. There have also be instances of the same animals being counted two or three times. The foreign community was outraged that Zimbabwean officials wouldn't allow independent researchers to conduct their own counts. It was at this time that the ivory export ban went into place, mandated by the United Nations Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). But, by selling secretly through other countries, the Zimbabwean industry was able to side step the officials.

Some of the dilemmas of the situation involve how to accurately assess the impact of the elephant population. Reporting on the elephant problem from the ground is tricky. A car travels on the road where the waterholes are located. Elephants spend a great deal of time at the watering holes drinking, eating, and bathing. But this is deceiving if you are going to judge the elephant's destruction by this alone. If seen from a plane, the elephant's destruction is not widespread. Elephants are in fact hard to find outside of the watering hole area.

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Unsightly evidence of the elephant's passing
Another point to consider is that the so-called destruction may actually be a natural benefit to other animals. Because elephants there have pushed over many of the trees and eaten much of the foliage, in a method similar to pruning, young mopane(a shrub) grows back with lush leaves, high in energy, protein and nitrogen that other species like impala, kudu and eland can reach and utilize. With higher numbers of grazers, more predators arrive and thus elephants might actually play a positive role in the ecosystem.

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I didn't realize elephant calves would be so cute
Thirdly, there is the emotional element of deeply affected animals too young to be culled. "What I find most distasteful is the selling of the calves. They become very traumatized...That's what makes me a 'bunny-hugger'," says Louise, who is totally against culling. She recounts stories of circus elephants and the like who seem to go mad and turn on humans, immortalized in TV shows like "When Animals Attack." They might be suffering from the trauma of seeing their entire families destroyed when they were young.

In June 1997, in Harare, CITES agreed to downgrade elephant status from Appendix I (totally banned) to Appendix II (restricted trade). After a 21-month wait, until March of this year, 1999, the three countries of Zimbabwe (20 tons), Botswana (25 tons) and Namibia (13.8 tons) have offered ivory for sale, to get rid of stockpiled ivory.

With the CITES ban lifted, just in the papers recently was news of an ivory auction on April 7 to Japanese bidders. There has been more and more talk in elephant circles of the need for another cull in Zimbabwe. "Just don't put us all in one room together," jokes de Montille, about his colleagues and friends who all have different viewpoints about culling. "I think elephants are so destructive. It's good [culling], okay. It's not good for the animals but in general it's better," says Dominic, a Zimbabwean baccalaureate student whose views reflected those of most black Zimbabweans I've asked, an echo of National Park official policy that there are "too many elephants in Hwange National Park." But, as de Montille points out, "we need more independent research. It's one thing to talk about numbers here and statistics there and another to be in the middle of living, breathing elephants..." He points out the example of the densest concentration of elephants in Africa: the 300 individuals on 80,000 acres known as the "President's Herd."

The Presidential Elephants

In a time not so far removed from that of our own, there roamed a small, rather gangly herd of elephants in the Hwange area of Zimbabwe. They were poached and persecuted, and driven from area to area by humans who cared little for them; in fact saw them as a pest. But along came a man by the name of Alan Elliot, a safari operator and an advocate for the safety of elephants everywhere. He pleaded with the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, to protect this poor family of large-eared mammals. He asked for help to ensure their survival. And so it was that the group of elephants was granted permission to wander where they pleased without fear of harm. They became The Presidential Elephants.

This herd has had minimal effect on their land, and show how elephant populations can respond and adapt to their environment. He suggests that, due to a number of reasons, some of them financial, some of them ecological, some political, that the government does not have a long-term management plan in place. "It's more crisis management...stamping out bush fires," he continues, of Zimbabwean policies. It boils down to the question of "What is the final use of the piece of land?" Is it for wildlife like elephants, or human use like farming?

"The most important thing," he concludes, "is don't believe anything anyone tells you. Dig a little deeper below the surface. Have an inquiring mind." I hope you follow his advice and do your own research, because your generation will inherit the question of whether wild creatures like elephants will or will not continue to roam the planet. Good luck!


Kavitha - Sunday in Bulawayo, Let's Head To The Market!
Kevin - 13 Guys and a Girl: Training to Become a Commodity
Monica - Elephants, Elephants Everywhere! A Visit to Hwange National Park
Making a Difference - Go and score a goal!
Abeja - From 1st World to the 3rd: How Big Is Your Mess?

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