Confused explanations at a public meeting in Skukuza on Saturday are concerning stakeholders as the Kruger National Park forges ahead with shooting buffalo as part of a sustainable offtake programme that does not appear to have clear objectives.
Last year, SANParks officials justified culling of hippo as drought-related – explaining it was better to kill the animals before they suffered from the drought that ravaged much of the first half of 2016 – but given the protracted rainfall in the area recently, the explanations for the continued killing has shifted to that of feeding impoverished rural populations that border the western boundary of the park.
Kruger Park rangers will shoot 300 to 400 buffalo and 200 hippo in 2017, on the back of 105 buffalo and 52 hippo killed in 2016 and the refurbishment of the Skukuza abattoir to process the carcasses for sale of meat for human consumption.
“This re-direction of culling to feed settlements is alarming, given the timeframe of a few months,” says Richard Prinsloo of Africa Wild, a public forum that monitors the governance within SANParks, “since it creates many more questions regarding the management, planning, motivation, as well as confusion among the scientists and public alike.”
Prinsloo says the park has never been mandated to provide sustenance to communities and that this new strategy of commercialisation of meat seems to have taken priority over conservation and has “not borne public scrutiny.”
Ralph Sibande, another stakeholder at the meeting agrees: “We are all concerned about poverty in South Africa, but selling meat will not solve the problem.” “Besides,” he reasons, “issues of hunger are the responsibility of the Department of Social Development who are better placed than SANParks to tackle the issue.”
“Biodiversity conservation involves certain trade-offs,” says Louise Swemmer, the scientist for social and economic management at the park. “It’s about human well-being as well as conservation.”
Swemmer, speaking at a stakeholder seminar hosted by SANParks at Skukuza over the weekend specifically to address public concerns about the animal off-take programme, says the process will provide “tangible benefits” to schools on a small-scale feeding scheme and will in no-way impact the overall numbers of buffalo in the park.
The Kruger National Park currently has a population of 48 000 buffalo, the highest in the park’s history according to Danie Pienaar, Head of the Kruger’s Scientific Services.
But stakeholders are sceptical of the about-turn in rationale.
Sibande is concerned that the Kruger Park’s obsession with community upliftment is taking over from genuine conservation practices. “What are the conservation or scientific justifications of the buffalo off-take?” he asked of the ecologists present at the meeting.
Danny Govender, who specialises in disease ecology at the park, responded that the limited off-take was about minimising the spread of bovine tuberculosis, anthrax and foot and mouth disease in buffalo, an answer that instantly raised questions of food security in selling potentially infected meat.
To add further confusion, the park’s Head of Conservation, Freek Venter, admitted that the buffalo being shot were selected purely on a random basis, meaning disease-management couldn’t be the main driver for the off-take either.
Another question raised was, given that the 17 rural municipalities bordering the western boundary of the park comprising some two million impoverished citizens, how could they possibly hope to feed even a fraction of them with the meat of a few hundred animals?
“Where then are the tangible benefits for the large majority of people who won’t get any meat,” asked one stakeholder, “and what are the justifications for selecting those that do?”
William Mabasa, acting Head of Communications at SANParks, responded that a forum had been established among the communities to determine which schools would benefit from the feeding programme and those that didn’t benefit “would understand”.
He said the Kruger had to be seen to be doing something, rather than nothing.
“We have to start somewhere, and try and build a base of support for people who have historically been excluded from benefiting from the park,” he said.
But whatever the justifications for the off-take scheme, it’s unsure how the hundreds of thousands of visitors to South Africa’s iconic game park will view the slaughter of wildlife. Around 80% of the park’s revenue comes directly from tourists who could take a dim view if they knew the animals they were photographing one day may be butchered carcasses dangling on meat hooks the next.
“That’s not good!” said a visitor at Skukuza when asked her view. “I come to the Kruger every year, but I think I will now consider Botswana or Kenya in future.”
Head Scientist, Danie Pienaar, confessed that the programme wasn’t perfect. “This is a process of continually learning,” he admitted, a point taken up by the park’s Managing Executive, Glenn Phillips, who has invited the public to engage and seek a compromise. “It’s about co-learning and transparency,” he said.
Phillips has undertaken to hold other such public seminars around the country. The public are invited to attend, to raise questions, concerns and contribute to discussions of this controversial topic.