To cull or not to cull?

2007-12-12 00:00

HOWARD Blight is a man on a mission. Passionate about elephants, he, along with elephant trainers Rory and Lindie Hensman and Phile van Zyl, founded Elephants for Africa Forever (Efaf) in 2003, taming and training elephants that would otherwise be culled. Now Blight, who lives in Tzaneen, has written and published An Elephant Bloodline, which, through a blend of fiction, science and myth, and illustrated by Pietermaritzburg-based Joanne Pohl, considers the question of elephant culling.

Few subjects are more emotive. While everyone involved in the debate claims to have the interest of the great animals at heart, often animal rights activists, biologists and conservationists cannot even sink their differences far enough to be able to sit around a table and discuss the issues.

“My book will help people make their minds up,” says Blight. “Readers will come away with comprehensive insights into the elephant debate. But I don’t want to leave the reader with my views.” Blight is not keen to state these in unambiguous terms — he sees the issues as too complex to be reduced to an opinion that says this is right and that is wrong. It is too easy to say: “When there are too many elephants, cull the elephants; when there are too many people, cull the elephants”, or, on the other hand: “Never cull”.

“I challenge the press to be fair and put the drama and headlines of the debate to one side,” says Blight.

He goes on to say that the public — and the media — trust captains of industry to do the right thing when faced with a dilemma, but no one seems willing to give the same respect to managers of wildlife, who are trained to be conservationists. If they see changes in the biodiversity of a region and propose population reduction, there is an immediate outcry.

“The Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism is formulating elephant policy, and it has nominated culling as the last resort,” he says. But it might have to happen if the alternatives fail.

And the alternatives Blight lays out are far from foolproof. He explains that while female contraception is one possibility, it may only be a viable alternative for small populations. And elephant behaviourists are concerned as elephant family life revolves around calves. A birth causes celebrations in the herd that take days or even weeks. The psychology of a herd with no calves goes into uncharted territory and raises serious questions. “It is risky,” he says.

“Male sterilisation requires extensive surgery and is invasive and expensive. Translocation is an option, but we will eventually run out of places to send them.”

Blight explains that, while Addo Elephant Park in the Eastern Cape is buying up land to increase its size, the Kruger National Park cannot expand. If elephants are sent into the Peace Parks in Mozambique, lack of water would draw them back to Kruger.

Blight insists that, even though An Elephant Bloodline does describe the feelings and thoughts of the elephants, it is not anthropomorphic (ascribing human characteristics to animals). I ask if he can really say that elephants feel embarrassment?

“Absolutely. I work with elephants at Efaf. I saw a calf disciplined after he had pushed at a Land Rover with his tusks. He became very sheepish and wouldn’t look at us. I’m not trying to make them human — there’s no doubt that they have all the emotions we have.”

Blight and Pohl would love to see the book being set in schools. They feel the combination of science, fiction and myth and illustration would encourage young people to become involved in the debate. But the responses they have received come from all ages — from a 10-year-old to adults. Their aim is to share the story and spread their message.

An Elephant Bloodline is now in the shops, and Blight is thinking about his next project, a book on the elusive Knysna elephants. What he would love to do is take Tembo, one of Efaf’s trained elephants to Knysna. “If we could ride Tembo into the forest, we would find the Knysna elephants. I hope An Elephant Bloodline will give us the kind of authority that would make that possible.”

It would certainly make an exciting story.

• An Elephant Bloodline is available at book shops. For more information, contact Howard Blight at amoren@mweb.co.za or visit the websites www.elephantbloodline. com or www.efaf.co.za

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