When ivory poachers were operating with virtual impunity in most African countries, often aided by corrupt government officials and game wardens, the demise of the continent's elephant was forecast by the end of the century. Elephants are notoriously difficult to count because many inhabit dense forests in remote regions, but the accepted figure for Africa in 1989 was about 600,000, down from 1.3 million a decade earlier.
In Kenya, which had a relatively accessible elephant population and was plagued by well-armed poachers from neighbouring Somalia and Ethiopia, the decline was even more dramatic: from 65,000 in 1980 to 16,000 less than 10 years later. Poachers were killing 3,000 a year, and in some areas 99 per cent of the remaining elephants were females, because all the males, which have larger tusks, had been slaughtered.
Then, three years ago, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites) banned ivory trading worldwide. Now there are too many African elephants. The turnaround in the fortunes of the world's biggest land mammal is so dramatic that some nations are already culling and pushing for the ivory ban to be lifted to allow culled tusks to be sold legally and, they say, the cash to be fed back into wildlife projects.
Richard Leakey is director of the Kenya Wildlife Service and one of the driving forces behind the Cites ivory ban. He made his reputation as a palaeontologist and took on the wildlife job when the Kenyan president, Daniel arap Moi, realised drastic measures were needed to stop the steady decline of tourism, the country's main foreign-currency earner - protecting animals became part of preserving an important tourist attraction. Dr Leakey believes that lifting the ivory ban could once again put the elephant on the path to extinction.
'Those who want to ease the ivory ban are making a big mistake,' he says. 'We do not have the ability in Africa to control the illegal trade. If they start selling ivory, it will send a message to the consumer that ivory once again is OK.'
Dr Leakey, whose pursuit of poachers and enforcement of the ivory ban has helped the elephant population in Kenya to increase to about 26,000, is opposed to culling, believing it to be 'immoral, inhumane and hopefully unnecessary'.
His stand on the ivory ban has brought him into conflict with some other African governments and with influential Kenyans, including some government officials who he believed were themselves profiting from the ivory trade. So strong were the disagreements that he now travels the country with an armed bodyguard.
He is scathing about Zimbabwe, where culling and licensed shooting by amateur hunters have already been introduced. 'In Zimbabwe, they say they will put money from the sale of culled ivory back into wildlife programmes. I do not think they are telling the truth. All the money from the wildlife department is government money and it goes into the treasury and the treasury has allocated less and less money to the wildlife department over the years. So any sale of ivory does not go to the wildlife department anyway.
'They have claimed that their elephant and rhino populations have increased considerably and they cannot be threatened in the future by culling or licensed hunting. As recently as March this year they claimed to have more than 2,000 black rhino. In August, they said they had less than 500. They seem to have lost 1,500 in five months. Or perhaps they miscounted. I don't think they had 2,000 rhino in March, or have had for several years past, and I doubt their claim to have 77,000 elephants. I think there are considerably less. The elephant population there is certainly increasing but it has not reached the point where we can sit back and relax.
'Obviously, we have to control elephants because their numbers will increase to the point where we will have loss of biodiversity and habitat degradation. They will eat the parks to bare earth and in the process we will lose a lot of other species, and local human populations and elephants will come into conflict. But I think before we say we can only kill them or we can start ivory trading again we should look towards alternatives and I believe fertility regulation has never been looked at seriously. Before we resort to more drastic methods we should look at fertility regulation and give it a fair chance.'
To the layman, fertility regulation means contraception for elephants. Joyce Poole is an American zoologist who has spent 14 years studying elephants in Amboseli National Park in southern Kenya. Now in charge of elephant studies at the Kenya Wildlife Service, she says: 'A lot of people think that contraception for elephants means giant condoms, but that is not what we are talking about. We will not be contracepting male elephants. We will work on the females because we could do 99 per cent of the males and still have 1 per cent having a fine time fertilising all the females.'
The prime concern of Dr Leakey, Dr Poole and their colleagues at universities in Germany, Australia and the United States who are taking part in the fertility- regulation research programme is the welfare of the elephants. Dr Poole, who has a card index on more than 700 elephants that she has studied, says: 'They operate as family groups. If one of their number is brought down by a knock-out dart so that contraceptive agents can be administered, it disturbs the whole group. They will defend the targeted animal and have to be driven off before humans can approach. It is traumatic for the animals and dangerous for the humans. So considerable research is necessary to find the right control method and then a satisfactory way of administering it.'
Within the next few weeks tests with the French abortive agent RU486, already available to humans in some countries, will begin. 'This is probably our best option in the short term. It blocks progesterone receptors in the endometrial tissue that lines the wall of the uterus so that progesterone can no longer maintain pregnancy and abortion results. But there are problems. It has to be taken orally and although we can put the pill in an orange or banana and almost guarantee getting it to the right female in a relatively enclosed environment like a small national park, it would be much more difficult in more open areas where the elephants are not used to humans, or in remote forests. We are also concerned that if RU486 is given too early in pregnancy the female simply conceives again. Too late and the female will suffer trauma and grief and will stand guard over the aborted foetus for days.'
Hormonal contraception is being studied but here again there are problems. The Norplant system that releases a contraception agent over a period of years sounded ideal until it was realised the implanted pill for an elephant would have to be the size of a football.
Most attention is being focused on immuno-contraception, which would not interfere with the elephant's normal mating habits but would render the female temporarily infertile with, it is hoped, no long- term effects. Again, it would be difficult to administer the required dose. 'We are in the very early stages, it will take between three to five years before we know if it is going to work. But it is something we really must do before we start killing these animals,' Dr Poole says.
Dr Leakey, who has secured funding from the World Bank, the European Commission and various private foundations and organisations, justifies the expenditure to save an animal on a continent where 40 million humans are going hungry. 'In this country, if we didn't have the elephant, we would be a lot hungrier than we are. The elephant is very important to the economy of Kenya through tourism, and if we did not have tourism, we would be as hungry as Somalia.'