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South Africa to Allow Elephant Killing

Celean Jacobson in Pretoria, South Africa
Associated Press
February 25, 2008
 
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."

"There are few other creatures on earth that have the ability of elephants to 'connect' with humans in a very special way," he said.

"Murder"?

African elephant populations in other countries are low, and the animals are classed as "threatened." Trade in ivory has been banned since 1989 to try to combat poaching.

The new regulation said that elephants' survival often depends on their operation as a family unit, and "an elephant may not be culled if it is part of a family, unless the matriarch and juvenile bulls are culled as well."

It said killing may be carried out only under a plan prepared with a recognized elephant-management ecologist and approved by relevant authorities.

Animal Rights Africa said killing elephants was "undeniably cruel and morally reprehensible" as well as counterproductive.

"It's hugely problematic and it does the opposite of what they want it to do," spokesperson Michele Pickover said.

She argued that when elephants are killed, the herd automatically breeds more, and other elephants move into the space of the slain elephants, resulting in a larger population than before the killing.

Her organization also argues that there are not too many elephants in South Africa.

She also said the latest research has proved that elephants have a sense of self-awareness and cognitive powers that place them in a special category together with great apes, dolphins and humans.

"How much like us do elephants have to be before killing them becomes murder?" Pickover asked.

"Down Side"

A total of 14,562 elephants were killed in South Africa between 1967 and 1994. Without that campaign, their numbers would have rocketed by now to 80,000, according to the national parks service.

Many elephants were traumatized by the killings and some became aggressive as a result.

Bob Scholes, lead author of the elephant management regulations, acknowledged to reporters that there is a "down side" to killing.

"It changes the way they behave; there is a lot of evidence for social behavioral consequences as a result of culling" he said.

The new regulations say that killing should not be carried out near other elephants.

Contraception also is fraught with problems. A female normally breeds every four years and does not mate while nursing. With contraception, a female is in heat every four months—but cannot become pregnant—and so suffers the physical stress of frequent copulation with bulls four times her weight.

And moving elephants, another alternative, can be prohibitively expensive.

The era of the big white hunter in the 1900s brought Africa's elephants near to extinction. South Africa had just 200 elephants at the turn of the 20th century.

Now South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana all have booming elephant populations—a result of their conservation efforts—while the animals' numbers in east and west African nations are struggling because of large-scale poaching. (See map.

Van Schalkwyk said he had discussed the new regulations with other southern African countries facing the same dilemma.

Botswana has—by far—the largest population, with an estimated 165,000 elephants. Zimbabwe has an estimated 80,000 and Mozambique some 20,000.

Copyright 2008 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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