Hunt a rhino, save an ecosystem?
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA
Once on the verge of extinction, black rhinos in South Africa's national parks have made a spectacular comeback. Under the country's aggressive conservation programs, the mammal's population has grown by more than 50 percent in the past decade. But that success has brought a new challenge: how to control a population in limited conservation space.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Now South Africa is weighing a controversial measure that would allow hunters to kill five old male black rhinos a year, which could raise $200,000 per kill. Allowing hunting, some experts say, has helped resurrect the white rhino population, which now stands at 11,000 worldwide, from a low of 200 at the turn of the 20th century.
Supporters say it can also raise much-needed conservation cash. But critics say rhinos and other animals in abundance here are still endangered elsewhere in Africa.
"The general feeling is that we have a problem and that problem isn't going to go away," says Kevin Rodgers, a professor of ecology at the University of the Witwatersrand here. Mr. Rodgers is heading a scientific review of the impact of elephants - whose population has ballooned to 12,000 from 8,000 in 1994, when culling was stopped - on behalf of the South African parks. "Eventually, we're going to have to make hard decisions," he says. He will submit his findings to park management Monday.
Most conservationists, Rodgers says, agree that some of South Africa's parks are fast reaching carrying capacity for certain animals. Too many elephants in Kruger National Park, the gem of the country's park system, threatens other species, like eagles, since feeding elephants often knock down the large trees in which they nest. An overabundance of large male rhinos leads to often fatal fights between males and can hinder population growth by distorting the balance between males and females.
But exactly how many elephants or male rhinos are too many and what to do about the problem remains controversial. Some animal-rights organizations say that killing should be a last resort.
Considering that animals like black rhino and elephant remain endangered across the continent as a whole, they argue, excess animals should be moved to other parks with small populations, like reserves in Mozambique and Angola where large game was virtually poached out during long civil wars. Others advocate the use of contraceptives to control the elephant populations, although many scientists question the cost of such a program and whether it would be effective.
But others argue that in certain cases, the killing of animals can actually benefit conservation and species preservation. They say that money from the sale of culled ivory can help fund national parks, while limited hunting in private reserves can actually increase the value of species and create incentives for their protection.