The last time I visited the Kruger National Park, I watched a woman feed a baboon through the window of her car. I watched the same woman sob hysterically for the hour-long drive back to Skukuza after the baboon decided to cut out the middleman and entered the car to help himself. On the same trip, I watched a couple of German tourists get out of their car to get a better shot of a pride of lions. And I watched about twenty cars drive too close to elephants.
We’re all up in arms again. A wild animal has been killed, and somebody must pay. Preferably with their lives. If you read the comments under reports on the recent elephant attack in the Kruger Park, you will pick up that most people have a balanced and reasonable view of the incident; the two tourists responsible should be decapitated, and their heads placed on spikes at the Kruger gate as a warning to others.
Which is all well and good. My own opinion is that this redoubtable pair have paid their dues. What they did was drive too close an elephant. Just like those twenty cars did on my last trip. They just chose the wrong elephant. Comparing them to poachers or big game hunters is a little extreme from where I’m standing.
I’m not saying that they don’t deserve some sort of punishment, I’m just saying that having your holiday cut short by a near-death experience and a visit to a nearby hospital with elephant-holes in your thighs, while the whole worlds calls you an asshole, satisfies my own need for retribution. These people’s crime was to be stupid enough to provoke an elephant attack. They did not attack an elephant themselves. And they certainly didn’t give the impression that they had at any point intended to kill one.
But the elephant died. And that’s where I start to get annoyed. Because people seem to have picked the true villains of this whole unfortunate mess. The evil trolls who manage the Kruger Park. The selfish, greedy, money-grubbing ogres who pulled the trigger. We should kill them all, too. Bastards.
I’ve got a bit of a problem with that. If you love every living creature except man, and think that anyone who harms one in any way deserves to be burned alive, super. You’re a crazy person, and should get back to planning the bombing of the steakhouse down the road. I have nothing more to say to you. But if you love South Africa’s wildlife, and think that the Kruger Park is a precious gift that should be treasured by all of us, it might be time to pipe down and start thinking about the outcomes of all this vitriol we are spewing.
The people who run the Kruger Park are not evil trolls. And they certainly aren’t greedy. There may be a couple of exceptions at the very top, but the general staff of the Parks Board are not growing rich by shooting elephants. They aren’t growing rich at all. Many of them have forgone riches to dedicate themselves to the cause of protecting our nation’s wildlife.
I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing that the people who made this difficult decision were wildlife vets and section rangers; people who have done far more to preserve our natural heritage than the rest of us, who might buy the occasional beaded bangle at the Pick ‘n Pay, and whose only other contribution is to whine like spoiled children when we realise that conservation is a little bit more complicated than waking up and hugging Bambi every morning.
The people who shot that elephant’s job is to manage the Kruger Park. All of it. Not just animals, but people, too.
Nearly a million people visit the Park every year. Take a look at the footage of that elephant attack, and watch what the guys in the car are actually doing. Is it stupid? Yes. Should they know better? Yes. Now think of the circle of people you know. Think of the people you work with, the people you socialise with, the people you went to school with. I’m betting that you know at least one person who wouldn’t surprise you at all if they did exactly what those two tourists did. Or worse. And you don’t know a million people.
That elephant was not shot as a punishment. It was shot because it had demonstrated that, when provoked, it responded with aggression. Is that fair? Of course not. But if you were the guy making the decisions, what would you do? Would you let another million visitors drive past that same elephant, in the hope that not one of them will be an idiot? Would you leave the idiots to die? What about the innocent passengers in the idiots' cars? What if that elephant takes out the car behind an idiot’s car?
We’d better think these things through. Because this is just the beginning. For most of the history of the Park, elephant numbers were kept at about 7000 by culling. Culling stopped in 1995. There are now over 16000 of them. Every year, there are more elephants per idiot. This is going to happen again. And again. And again.
I mentioned earlier that we needed to think about the outcomes of our outrage. None of them is attractive.
The SanParks can go back to culling. Fewer elephants means fewer incidents. This would not involve shooting an elephant. It would involve shooting nearly 10 000 elephants. This is, for what it’s worth, the solution favoured by most ecologists working in the park. But I simply cannot see it happening. The world will not sit by while we blow away 10 000 endangered animals.
We can do away with self-driving in the Kruger Park. This incident simply wouldn’t have happened if the driver had been a trained professional. Instead of enjoying the Park in our own ways and at our own paces, we could all line up at five every morning, pay our money, and pile into buses filled with noisy, sweaty strangers with complicated cameras and the overwhelming desire to stop for every impala sighting. I don’t know about you, but that would be enough to stop me from visiting.
Or we could pipe down and let better qualified people than us make the difficult decisions required to manage an area bigger than Israel filled with dangerous wild animals and dangerously stupid tourists. We can trust that the people who joined the staff of the Park did not do so on the off-chance that they would get to shoot an elephant one day. We can trust that those people hated making this decision, and hated carrying it out. And maybe, just maybe, we can express a little gratitude for the gift these people and their forerunners have given our country, rather than treating them like the enemy.