Elephant contraceptives spark angry protests in Bengal

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Tamed elephants in Bengal are to be given the contraceptive pill to control their numbers, prompting angry protests from conservation groups who say the species is already under threat from habitat destruction and poaching.

The state government of Bengal says it lacks funds for the upkeep of 30 Indian elephants it employs for patrolling national parks, and will start giving them birth control injections and pills from this month. "We spend over six million rupees [£70,000] on feeding and looking after the elephants every year, making it necessary for us to try birth control measures," said PT Bhutiya, a senior West Bengal forestry official.

Mukuta Mukherjee, co-ordinator of the environmental group Friends of Wetlands and Wildlife, condemned the move, saying the population growth of Indian elephants should be encouraged, both in the wild and in captivity. "If the government cannot feed them, they should look for sponsors. This move is certainly not on," he said.

Ian Redmond OBE, elephant consultant to the Born Free Foundation, said the move was sensible. "Of course, we should be encouraging births among the wild population, but elephants are complex social animals and condemning newborn calves to a lifetime in captivity, in the absence of funds and a structured programme that allows them to be reintroduced into the wild, would be questionable," he said.

Although revered on the Indian subcontinent, Indian elephants are under threat. While there are more than 15,000 Asian elephants in captivity, only some 30,000 are thought to roam wild in the tropical foothills of south-east Asia and India, less than a 10th of the number of wild African elephants. The remaining populations are tiny, isolated, and fragmented. West Bengal is home to about 400 elephants, 65 of which are in captivity.

"Elephants are not just ornaments. They are as important to their habitat as their habitat is to them. To conserve the elephants, we must prevent destruction of habitat, and to preserve habitat, there must be elephants living in it. This is why reintroduction programmes are so important. A lot of wildlife decisions and comments are made independently of the bigger picture," Mr Redmond said.