Eyes on the Veld

Deep in South Africa's interior sprawls Kruger National Park, the crown jewel of game preserves with 2,500 lions, 2,750 rhinos, 8,500 elephants, 30,000 zebras, 100,000 impalas...and 650 miles of boundary wire keeping animals in and poachers out. Welcome to the postmodern Eden, where everyone behaves—or else.

Nov 1, 1999
Outside Magazine
I was so preoccupied by the dazzling sight of one-legged Carlos Bastos operating the manual transmission of his Kruger-issue Toyota four-wheel-drive that I almost failed to notice our passage through the fence surrounding the Sand River By-Products Plant, a low-slung building that looks like an airplane hangar, located not three miles from Skukuza. Bastos, a stout, bearded man of Portuguese descent, arrived in Kruger 25 years ago, via Mozambique. He was my favorite Krugerite—cheerful and utterly free of bullshit. Bastos was the foreman at the park's slaughterhouse (euphemistically referred to as the game-processing plant), where for 26 years elephants were made into steak, stew, jerky—lots and lots of jerky—as well as pet food, soap, and some of the more distasteful souvenir-stall items known to man, such as the elephant-foot end table. "We use everything!" Bastos exclaimed. "Nothing is wasted!" The slaughterhouse has been idle for the past five years, but it may be back in business soon.

We stood outside the abattoir on a sloped loading dock that led to an enormous steel door. "The elephants would arrive here in the middle of the night," Bastos recalled, "and the process would begin. Once it starts you don't stop until you're done. At maximum capacity we could process 800 elephants each season, a maximum of three bulls each day, or a herd of 12 to 15 elephants of various sizes. A big bull weighs about 11,000 pounds and can produce between 1,750 and 3,300 pounds of meat." Most of the meat was packed in tins with gravy—over 3,000 eight-ounce cans for a typical batch—and distributed to staff as rations. The rest was made into biltong—jerky—and sold in shops in the park. "I like elephant meat," Bastos said. "It's leaner than you'd think, and quite tasty. I can't tell you the recipe for the biltong. It's a secret."

In 1994, Kruger, bowing to pressure from wildlife advocacy groups, imposed a moratorium on the culling of its elephant herds. Unpleasant as it sounds, however, there is broad agreement by scientists inside and outside the park that elephants represent the gravest threat to Kruger's preservation of biodiversity. Mature elephants consume about 300 pounds of vegetation each day, and herds can turn a woodland into a barren moonscape with alarming speed. Alone among the species in Kruger, elephants have no natural predators, and their population is largely unaffected by drought. If Kruger's elephant herds were to grow without controls and remain fenced in, they could drive the park's other species to starvation.

The best estimate that Kruger's wildlife managers could formulate, based on data from other countries, was that the landscape can tolerate on average one elephant per square mile—in Kruger's case, about 7,500 animals. So, in order to maintain that population, from 1967 to 1994 Kruger killed between 300 and 600 elephants a year. And starting in 1968, the carcasses were gutted in the field and shipped to the Sand River By-Products Plant.

No matter how efficient the process, elephant killing is a messy business. The rangers and their field staff are the ones charged with the task of culling, and they do not relish the work. "We're the same guys who are putting our lives on the line to protect the animals," ranger Gert Erasmus told me, "and when the time comes, we're the ones who have to kill them. It's a hard thing to do." A wildlife photographer who witnessed a cull in the 1980s described the roundup of elephants as terrifying. "After a while, the vultures knew what the presence of helicopters meant, and they would follow the choppers as they chased the elephants into clearings," he said. Sharpshooters would dart the animals from the air with scoline, a potent muscle relaxant that induces paralysis. Rangers would then rush in to brain-shoot the paralyzed elephants, to minimize their suffering, before they died of suffocation. The carcasses were gutted and the pecking order of scavengers—vulture, hyena, jackal—would descend.

"Kenya and Tanzania control their elephant populations by poaching," one park manager told me with disgust. "We controlled ours by culling." Then South Africa got caught in the wide net cast by groups like the World Wildlife Fund, which started the elephant-preservation campaign in the late eighties. But after exhaustive attempts to sell its excess elephants to other wildlife preserves proved futile, and after efforts to develop elephant contraceptives produced grotesque results—elephant cows in perpetual heat, besieged by confused bulls—Kruger recently decided to resume killing its herds. This time, the roundup will proceed, more palatably, in the name of biodiversity. Instead of maintaining a constant population of 7,500 elephants, Kruger will allow the numbers to fluctuate, culling only after managers have determined that the habitat needs relief. The process is new, the rationale is new, only the carcasses remain the same.

"I've done the slaughtering, the deboning, all the jobs here," Bastos told me. "I'm ready to get back to work." Until the slaughterhouse reopens, Bastos has been given tasks for which he has no heart, like conducting a count of the 4,000 or so pieces of ivory, weighing around 60,000 pounds, that lie in a vault in a nondescript park building. Park managers eagerly hope that when CITES, the international treaty organization governing the sale of endangered species, meets in April 2000, it will recognize their good management practices and allow Kruger to sell off its ivory stock, which would be a financial boon. "It's a peaceful life," said Bastos, philosophically, as a guard chained the gate of the slaughterhouse behind us. "The pay isn't so high, but, you know, you can't buy happiness."