South Africa will reverse a 1995 ban on killing elephants to help control their booming population, the country's top environment official said Monday, drawing instant outrage from animal-rights activists.
Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk did not say how many elephants could be killed, but he said estimates by some animal-rights groups of 2,000 to 10,000 animals were "hugely inflated."
"Culling will only be allowed as a last option and under very strict conditions," van Schalkwyk told reporters. "Our simple reality is that elephant population density has risen so much in some southern African countries that there is concern about impacts on the landscape, the viability of other species, and the livelihoods and safety of people living within elephant ranges."
The Johannesburg-based group Animal Rights Africa threatened to call for international tourist boycotts and protests and to take legal action.
"Quick and Humane"
South Africa's elephant population has ballooned to more than 20,000 from 8,000 in 1995, when international pressure led to a ban on killing them.
Elephants require great tracts of land to roam in order to get their daily diet of about 660 pounds (300 kilograms) of grass, leaves, and twigs, and they are increasingly coming into conflict with people in the competition for land.
Van Schalkwyk also announced that the government is prohibiting the capture of wild elephants for commercial purposes—a move likely to draw fire from a fast-growing industry in elephant-back safaris.
In addition, he said, the government is drawing up regulations to govern treatment of the country's 120 captive elephants. Van Schalkwyk said his department had received "numerous complaints" about cruel training practices including the use of electric prodders.
All three measures are part of a comprehensive update to South Africa's elephant policy that the government calls an attempt to manage the needs of elephants with those of people, killing some of the animals humanely.
The new regulations on managing elephants, effective May 1, say killing must be "quick and humane," using a rifle with minimum caliber of .375. The rules also encourage other elephant population control methods, such as contraception by injection and relocation.
Van Schalkwyk said the debate over killing elephants was marked by "strong emotions."