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Elephants: To cull or not to cull?

JOHANNESBURG- In recent years, much attention has been given to elephant poaching- and the catastrophic effects of this on herds throughout Africa. Successful conservation of elephants presents its own challenge, however, in the form of overpopulation.

In South Africa's north-eastern Kruger National Park, for example, the population of elephants is growing at seven percent annually- a trend that park officials find worrying. Herds that cannot survive in allotted conservation areas may wander into the fields and villages of adjacent communities, destroying crops and angering local populations.

Unpleasant as this is, many find a possible alternative- elephant culling- equally distasteful.

"Culling is a euphemistic word for killing elephants en masse. It can never be justified and it can never be a humane process. It may be efficient, but it can never be a kindly or instant death," Michelle Pickover of the Xwe African Wild Life Research and Investigation Centre told a meeting in Johannesburg recently.

But as Hector Magome, director of South African National Parks, observed, rangers faced with containing a group of errant elephants typically find themselves in situations where there are few good options.

"If a group of elephants breaks out of Kruger National Park, science will be thrown out of the window, and it will become a political problem," he told people at the gathering, held towards the end of last month.

The Johannesburg meeting, entitled 'The Ethics of Elephant Killing: Genocide or Sustainable Development', attracted over 50 environmentalists, conservationists and animal rights activists.

According to Hennie Lotter, chairman of the Ethics Society of South Africa, between 200 and 2,000 elephants were culled annually in the Kruger Park between 1967 and 1994. A moratorium was placed on culling soon after the post-apartheid government of Nelson Mandela was elected into office in 1994.

As a result, the elephant population in Kruger has almost doubled to over 13,000- and this number is set to rise to more than 40,000 if present trends continue. This would lead to widespread destruction of plant life in the park.

While animal rights activists fear authorities may be about to revive culling, Magome insists that no final decision on the matter has been taken.

"Right now we have no policy to cull or trans-locate elephants. We shall take the decision after holding a stakeholders' conference in October. Then, we shall present our report to the minister who will take a decision," he said.

Pending this decision, Pickover has called for the creation of policies that would accommodate both people and elephants.

"What we need to do is to develop...human-elephant conflict resolution measures, assist local communities in ways which bring real, lasting benefits to people without killing elephants - and place ivory stockpiles permanently beyond use, so there is no more incentive to trade," she noted.

"The majority of African nations, have seen their elephants depleted...by the rapacious demand for ivory. Between 1979 and 1989 alone an estimated 700,000 elephants were slaughtered," Pickover added.

Gerhard Verdoorn, director of Birdlife South Africa, said trans-location of animals and the use of contraceptives were strategies that could be employed to manage the country's growing number of elephant. The first option was not without its drawbacks, however.

"Translocation will take...years. Even if it happens, animals have a good memory. You take them elsewhere, the following day they will be back," Verdoorn noted.

Even so, Mozambique will receive 500 elephants from Botswana by the end of this year. Afonso Madope, director for conservation in Mozambique's Ministry of Tourism, was quoted by the state-owned Agencia de Informacao de Macambique in June as saying that the elephants would be relocated to Gorongosa National Park in the centre of the country.

Wildlife in Gorongosa suffered a decline in numbers in the 1980s as a result of Mozambique's 16-year civil war which ended in 1992. The park's elephant population was decimated, dropping from 7,000 in 1979 to 111 in 2001.

Contraception also appears to be a long-term, rather than an immediate solution to the problem of elephant overpopulation.

During a meeting convened by the Netherlands-based Utrecht University in March this year, delegates noted that contraceptive vaccines for female elephants had proved "effective" in limited trials - and that research into suppressing sperm production and "sexual activity" in bulls was also underway.

However, more research was needed into the "efficacy, practicality, reversibility and effect on social structure of contraceptive treatments" before contraception could be introduced in large measure.

A debate is being held amongst industry professionals on the best method to achieve a sustainable phacyderm population; see our Celendar section for details.

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