Jane Flanagan, Cape Town – The Times
Africa’s elephant population has crashed over the past 50 years as a result of rampant poaching, falling from more than one million in the Seventies to about 400,000 today.
Despite warnings from conservationists that the animal is vulnerable to extinction, Ron Thomson is adamant that Africa still has too many of them.
Mr Thomson, 79, has won renewed notoriety as possibly the most prolific big game hunter, after he was highlighted in a recent report on the dwindling number of elephants.
During his career as a ranger in Africa’s national parks, he estimates that he shot dead more than 5,000 elephants to control population sizes. The mass culling policy, which was adopted by a number of African countries, provoked an international outcry and hasn’t been attempted for more than 20 years.
How best to manage Africa’s wild animals, which are increasingly in conflict over land with a rising human population, is a fraught debate that is driven, Mr Thomson says, by the people in the West “who don’t understand African priorities”. He accused animal rights groups of stirring up emotions “to make money out of a gullible public”.
Mr Thomson, who now lives in South Africa, offered to come out of retirement to advise governments on how to reduce wildlife numbers, saying he had “no conscience whatsoever” about slaughtering herds by “putting a bullet in the brain of every one, starting with the biggest and then the little ones last”.
“It isn’t a salubrious thing to do and what we did was nothing we liked to talk about. But reducing the elephant population can’t be done more humanely than that,” he said.
Elephants need large areas to roam otherwise overgrazing becomes a problem. Their five-tonne bulk means they can topple trees trying to eat a few branches and this can soon lay waste to a forested area if numbers surge or they are restricted to a limited area.
Mr Thomson added: “In Africa we see wildlife as we see tame animals such as goats, sheeps and cattle, and the wild animals need to be managed in exactly the same way or things get out of hand.”
Don Pinnock, whose book The Last Elephants is an account of the demise of the species in Africa, listed castration, contraception and relocations as feasible alternatives to a return to culling. He said he would rather Mr Thomson “be tried for crimesagainst nature” than let his methods be reintroduced in Africa’s national parks.
Rudi van Aarde, an emeritus professor of zoology at the University of Pretoria, said he “didn’t even want to remember those days” when mass slaughter was South Africa’s key elephant management policy and “there was no science or scientific reason behind doing it, only fascistic attitudes”.
The only way to manage elephants in the wild, Professor Van Aarde said, was to leave them to manage themselves. He cited human interference, such as supplying additional water sources to mitigate for droughts as a reason for elephant numbers to increase in some national reserves.
In Botswana, home to Africa’s largest number of elephants, the government is under pressure to protect communities whose crops are regularly raided and properties are destroyed by free-roaming wildlife.
Mr Thomson estimates that the country’s 130,000-strong elephant population is probably “ten times too many” and only a massive reduction in numbers would ensure a balance in the country’s ecosystem.
President Masisi, who is fighting an election later this year, has mooted a return to trophy hunting, which was banned by his predecessor, Ian Khama, but has so far ruled out culling.
Conservationists were alarmed when President Masisi attended a talk given by Mr Thomson and took away copies of his books on wildlife management. “I would hope he has the guts to do what is necessary,” Mr Thomson said. “If he wants my advice on how best to bring down the elephant numbers, I am happy to give it.”