Thursday, December 13, 2007

African Elephants

Each day I scan for news on "My Yahoo." I have it set to get news from Reuters, AP, entertainment news from various sources, Denver's "Rocky Mountain News," the Los Angeles Times, USA today, and "most emailed "stories. If I'm really motivated (rarely) I have links to the New York Times, the Austin American Statesman, and other major US Newspapers. I won't say that this assortment keeps me "well" informed, but I do have a clue what is going on in the world.

Today's Los Angeles paper had an interesting article about the elephants in South Africa.

Now we really enjoyed seeing the elephants in Zambia and Botswana. They are amazing creatures, very family oriented.

I have photos of a group of them surrounding their young one for protection.

Babies stay with the family for several years and they are a long lived species. Needless to say, elephants are large animals with large appetites. They also don't have a good digestive system, so they don't get full advantage of what they do eat. In the southern parts of Africa, there are still plenty of elephants. Unfortunately, it is a "good news, bad news" situation. It was wonderful to see the large numbers of elephants everywhere at Chobe and South Luangwa. It is incredible to see a large herd of elephants cross the river or run to the water to get their morning drink.

But . . . at places like Chobe and apparently Kruger in South Africa, there are more elephants than the environment will be able to support. You see, elephants are hard on their environment - they eat trees and tear them up in the process, they pull up grass by the roots, and they are always hungry. During the rainy season, there may be enough food, but in the dry season, they'll eat tree branches -thorns and all. And, they kill many trees in the process by tearing off too many big branches and knocking the tops of the trees off.

Even if elephants don't digest their food well, all is not lost. There are a number of animals that find their diet in the remains of the elephant dung . . . baboons and guinea fowl can be found foraging in the piles of elephant dung for the seeds that the elephants were not able to digest. So, if you control the populations of the elephants, it might have an impact on some of these other species. However, other grazing animals might benefit from better forage . . .

I'm not a wildlife biologist, but I've seen or heard from several sources that places like Chobe have more numbers of elephants currently than is advantageous for the overall ecosystem. The TImes article does a good job talking about the tough choices that will need to be made. If you have to thin the herds (yes . . . that could be one of the right things to do) then you have to thin out entire families, because they have such a strong family structure. They are trying some birth control methods. And while it is an option, it might be possible to transport elephant families to areas of Africa where elephants were once common, but have now disappeared. But that is expensive, and most African governments don't have the money to transport elephants when their people are starving, wells need to be drilled, better medical treatment and medicines are needed, and the roads are filled with pot holes.

We were in Yellowstone during the time frame when there were too many bison. Bison also are hard on their environment. And when the number of bison reaches a critical level, they start leaving the park to forage. The local ranchers get most upset, because bison carry brucellosis which in theory could be passed on to cattle which then causes major problems for the cattle industry. Once again, the alternatives are not happy. Ranchers are allowed to shoot bison that leave the park. Last summer a large herd was "hazed" back into the park. No one was happy, because the cows had calves and were rushed with helicopters and cowboys - pushed faster than their normal speed possibly causing distress.

Whether we want it or not, humans have a responsibility to manage game herds so that their long term viability is maximized. If we let animals overpopulate, they will die of illness and lack of food. And, of course, human activity has reduced the natural range for many of the large herd animals . . .

Lots of issues . . . no great solutions . . .

I'm glad to finish this piece with the encouragement that at least here in the US, young people are going to college and getting "trained" in managing the land for wildlife. Let's just hope the politics keeps the importance of healthy wildlife populations as something we as a nation and a world value.


Anonymous said...

I would like to note that bison do not just leave Yellowstone National Park when they reach a "critical mass." Certain bison in the Northern Range of the park have always migrated out of Yellowstone into the surrounding valley to utilize its winter range. The problem can either be seen as too many bison...or lack of foresight in including that wintering ground in the park boundaries (probably not likely to have happened, as much was already being homesteaded). Just a clarification. However, ranchers are not allowed to just shoot the animals...the park service themselves slaughter the bison, or they are taken by hunters in the Jardine area near Gardiner. -so, why isnt the state up in arms about brucellosis carrying elk, who also share the range with their cattle. another note..not counting the CUT land, the rangeland in question is mostly forest service; public land that has leases to local ranchers.

Mary Ann Melton said...

Thanks for your comment, Anonymous! When Yellowstone was first formed, that area was all still wilderness - no way to have looked to the future to know that that other rangeland would be needed now for the bison.

As I read the news articles, there are no "easy" solutions - and many view points for both the bison and the wolves. I just hope that wise people can make decisions that will preserve our wild heritage.

Danielle said...

I definitely agree, the West was viewed as such an inexhaustible resource, and no one really thought of Yellowstone as a wildlife preserve nearly as much as a preserve for the thermal features within its borders.

There are no easy answers, but from the research I've personally done, I think the solution lies somewhere in possibly allowing more hunting opportunities, combined with agreements to let the bison use that FS land leased to ranchers at the time of year when cattle are in other pastures. The persistence rate for brucellosis bacillus in the environment (after birth material is expelled) is very low. Considering scavengers may discover the placenta and eat it, the fact that direct sunlight kills it, and intense temperature fluctuations in spring time easily kill it as well.

Thanks for your great blog, I appreciate your insight into and concern for pressing issues in the west. :)
(formerly anonymous...Just figured out how to put a name)