TELEVISION / The big mistake

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The Independent Culture
IN THE case of the Tsavo National Park, Kenya, the charges against the elephants were twofold. Firstly, they seemed to be wrecking the place. They stripped the branches, they pushed the bushes over, they frightened the smaller creatures. And they simply never tidied up afterwards. What a turn up for the books: the elephants were eco-unfriendly. On Survival Special (ITV), we watched a family of them, padding around on the hot earth, wondering whether they could find room for another tree before supper.

The second charge related to numbers. The elephants were breeding like rabbits. How many elephants can you get in a national park? Well, 16,000 - but only if you're prepared to see the land reduced to a patch of dusty scrub. The elephants didn't care. They carried on having more elephants. Some experts feared it wouldn't be long before they were gridlocked across the savannah.

A cull was one option. There is a lot of money in dead elephants - in tusks and feet and canned meat. That might be why the culling argument gathered weight and finally triumphed. In fact, if you believed the pro-culling factions, elephants were just two months short of developing their own nuclear capacity. It was time to get in there and sort them out.

Here's how you cull elephants. Basically, you buzz them with a helicopter, gradually separate a family from the pack and drive them into a corner where a team on the ground shoots them through the brains. Elephants can hear a helicopter from up to 10km away; they can also hear, from the same distance, the distressed cries of the elephants it is slaughtering. So when the helicopter first hoves into view, it's quite likely they know in advance what it has come to do.

Simon Trevor's superb 'Keepers of the Kingdom' argued against the cull. Not, though, for the predictable sentimental reasons. Lesser programmes would have tried to persuade you that the great thing about elephants was how much like humans they are. But Trevor was wielding a scientific theory and a stunning line in understatement. 'I don't think elephants belong in tins,' he said.

Trevor maintained we don't understand enough about long-term life-cycles to justify our meddling. Occasionally, nature will have its spasms, its moments of excess, like droughts and elephant booms; but that doesn't mean you should fool around with the creatures at the top of the chain. In fact, the land was actually doing fine under the elephants, if you looked closely. Termites and dung beetles flourished. Grasses took hold beneath the crushed trees. Seeds positively thrived for having passed through an elephant at some point during their life.

There were a couple of moments when the commentary went misty-eyed. That mournful-looking elephant, filmed shortly after a cull - was he really mulling over 'memories of a special friend'? Then again, he did have an elephant's rib crooked in his trunk (elephants are often seen carrying the bones of their dead). Admittedly, he was flipping the relic around in a manner which wouldn't go do too well in a crematorium, but how else would you explain that behaviour? Unless he was intending to aim it at the blades of the next helicopter.