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South Africa May Kill Elephants to Manage Populations

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg, South Africa
for National Geographic News
March 1, 2007
 
For the first time since 1995, the South African government is
advocating killing elephants as one way of controlling growing
populations.

Without some kind of action, the animals will overburden many of the country's public parks and private reserves, officials and conservationists say.

Marthinus van Schalkwyk, South Africa's minister of environmental affairs and tourism, announced the decision yesterday at Addo Elephant National Park near the city of Port Elizabeth (South Africa map).

Van Schalkwyk insisted that culling (killing for management purposes), should be undertaken only as a last resort.

"Culling may be used to reduce the size of an elephant population, subject to due consideration of all other population-management options," he said.

Among the other options in the proposal are moving elephants to less-crowded areas, expanding parks, and administering contraception—all of which are costly, cumbersome, and not without their own complications.

For one thing, the proposal says, elephant contraception's "long-term social, physiological, and emotional impacts on elephants are not yet fully understood, and current contraception methods are highly invasive and should therefore be used with caution."

(Related: "African Elephants Slaughtered in Herds Near Chad Wildlife Park" [August 30, 2006].)

South Africa's cabinet has already approved the "draft norms and standards for elephant management." The draft is now open for public comment for 60 days before becoming official policy.

Though some conservationists decry the proposed policy as inhumane, others welcomed the elephant plan and even characterized the proposal as a bittersweet sign of progress.

"Our conservation efforts have been too successful," said Graham Kerley, director of the Centre for African Conservation Ecology at South Africa's Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University.

Overpopulation

South Africa stopped culling elephants in 1995 in response to pressure from international animal rights and environmental groups. Since then the country's elephant population has more than doubled, to nearly 20,000.

Ian Whyte is program manager for large mammals in Kruger National Park, South Africa's flagship reserve.

He said that when culling was stopped 12 years ago, the park had nearly 8,000 elephants—a thousand more than the preferred population at the time. Now the Kruger population is approaching 14,000.

When Addo Elephant National Park, where the proposal was announced, was established in 1931, the number of elephants in the region had gone from thousands to 25. Eleven were put under protection in the park.

Now Addo, like Kruger and other South African parks, is under pressure from too many elephants, said Kerley of the Centre for African Conservation Ecology.

The conservation organization WWF South Africa and the country's Elephant Management and Owners Association (EMOA) agree that elephant populations are too large for many of the country's parks and preserves.

"In some cases elephants are becoming so abundant that they are causing problems such as the destruction of habitat from overgrazing, and damage to water sources," the conservation groups said in a joint statement.

"This can degrade the environment, reducing the food and water available for the elephants themselves as well as destroying the habitat of other wildlife species.

"High elephant densities can also lead to higher intensities of human-elephant conflict, with elephants raiding farmers' fields and destroying village infrastructure and livelihoods," WWF and EMOA added.

Collaboration

The elephant-management plan comes after extensive consultations with interest groups. It is largely based on proposals by a "science roundtable," consisting of experts convened by Minister van Schalkwyk.

"We have listened to numerous discussions about the merits and demerits of the various management options," van Schalkwyk said at the press conference.

"Some, such as culling and contraception, I would personally have preferred not to consider. But I am persuaded that all these options have a potential role to play under different circumstances."

Rob Little, director of WWF South Africa, cautiously agreed.

"Although WWF does not advocate culling as the preferred management alternative, we recognize that it is a management option and reiterate our view that all other options should first be explored," Little said in the joint statement with EMOA.

There had been hopes that the South African elephant population boom might slow naturally, as the elephants' habitats and food became sparser.

"But sadly it is now clear that we cannot rely on them to regulate their numbers," Kerley said.

"We have to intervene, otherwise there will be nothing left."

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