File: Elephants in the Kruger Park, Mpumalanga. Pic Etienne Rothbart.
Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency (MTPA) has confirmed that it will not issue permits to hunt trophy elephants with unlimited tusk weights. In a surprise development MTPA permitting authority, Riaan de Lange, confirmed that no permits will be issued for elephants bearing tusks in excess of 40lbs.

Instead he said that permits for four 30lbs bull elephants and one white rhino have been issued for Timbavati and that the elephant hunts have already been concluded, but it remains unclear whether the rhino has been shot yet. 

This comes after significant opposition to the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve’s request to hunt a “trophy elephant bull” with an unlimited tusk weight, This Reserve shares an unfenced border with Kruger National Park.
 
“Kruger is one of the last bastions of large-tusked bull elephants in the whole of Africa. South Africa should be duty-bound to protect and preserve these super tuskers and their genes for the benefit of the entire continent,” says Sussex University elephant researcher, Dr Lucy Bates.

In March this year South African National Park’s (SANParks) approved the Game Off-Take (hunting) requests by the Association of Private Nature Reserves (APNR) members Balule, Umbabat, Klaserie and Timbavati private reserves, which, amongst other species, included 33 elephant bulls and one “trophy elephant bull” requested by the latter reserve. A “trophy” elephant is only recognised by Safari Club International if at least one of its tusks weighs 90lbs.

In SANParks’ response letter to APNR’s off-take requests, dated 1 March, it stated that it needed “more clarification on the rhino off-take models” which “should be treated separate to the hunting applications” and recommended that the rhino off-takes are referred back to the APNR and provincial authorities, who have subsequently approved the rhino hunt.

Recent press coverage highlighting the large number of elephants earmarked to be hunted, in particular the “trophy elephant bull”, has sparked outrage amongst conservationists and South African citizens leading to a petition as well as an open letter urging SA’s government to protect large tuskers. 
In its responding letter to APNR’s Off Take requests, SANPark’s criticised the Association’s poor compliance in getting its hunting protocols formally signed and pointed out the “negative tone” in which some members responded to the matter, making it surprising that the 2017 off-take request was approved at all.

“The fact that hunting and live-animal off-take is the major income for APNR should have ensured the highest due diligence to get any protocols concluded and formally signed within and between entity structure, but this is still not the case. This simply demonstrates ineffective governance and decision-making between entities within the APNR system,” says the letter.

SANPark agreed to support the hunting requests despite its reservations and recommendations but will not consider off-takes for 2018 until “cooperative agreements and protocols have been concluded.” 

SANParks gave no explanation to questions on the decisions highlighted in their response letter or for its approval to hunt a “trophy elephant bull” over and above the other 33 elephant bulls, even though provincial permitting authorities won’t permit hunting of an elephant in excess of 40lbs.

APNR’s Hunting Protocol allows bulls between the ages of 20 and 40 to be hunted if each tusk weighs no more than 40lbs per side. It also states that 50 year old bulls with an unlimited tusk weight may be shot, but “iconic” elephants may not be.

The definition of “iconic” which comes from the word “icon” meaning “symbol or picture, usually of a sacred subject” has not been defined on the protocol and appears to be left open to interpretation.

Africa is facing a daily loss of up to 96 elephants to poachers and has less than fifty ‘Big Tuskers’ remaining. Coupled with this a recent study shows that trophy hunting is having a devastating effect on wildlife populations. 

These findings beg the question why private game reserves in APNR are still hunting vulnerable species such as elephant, rhino and lion?

At the APNR’s off-take meeting, Dr Michelle Henley of Elephant’s Alive highlighted the catastrophic plight of elephants in Africa. She pointed out that elephant poaching is on the rise in the Kruger Park and recommended that no “big tuskers” - elephants with tusks of 80 pounds and up (Rowland Ward’s definition of a trophy bull)- be included in the off-take.

But APNR members said that although they recognise the threat of poaching, elephants are not imperiled within the APNR or Greater Kruger at this stage. They said the debate on “big tuskers” is a “moral debate and not one of sustainability”.

Elephant research has confirmed that contrary to popular hunting opinion that 50 year old bull elephants - which are likely to have the largest tusks - are past their prime and can be safely hunted, male elephants can live and mate well into their 60’s and play a vital role in reproduction.

“Bulls will breed as long as they live and most only start in their forties. In general females choose the older bulls, as they have proven good genes,” says elephant researcher Marion Garai of the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group.

South Africa remains the second largest exporter of elephant trophies  in Africa after Zimbabwe. With a current annual CITES export quota of 150 elephants it has exported nearly 2000 trophies over the past ten years.