Elephants in Africa: Return of the culling fields?

A surge in the number of elephants may delight animal-lovers but it endangers other species. Now a controlled slaughter is proposed in southern Africa. Basildon Peta and Julian Coman report
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No one, least of all the wildlife rangers who spend their lives traversing the vast, dusty National Parks of South Africa, enjoys an elephant cull. Apprehensive matriarchs and their young are tracked from the air, then herded and gathered to die together in family groups. Vultures settle on the branches of surrounding trees. Hyenas, wild dogs and other scavengers take up speculative positions in the middle distance, well away from the human extermination team.

No one, least of all the wildlife rangers who spend their lives traversing the vast, dusty National Parks of South Africa, enjoys an elephant cull. Apprehensive matriarchs and their young are tracked from the air, then herded and gathered to die together in family groups. Vultures settle on the branches of surrounding trees. Hyenas, wild dogs and other scavengers take up speculative positions in the middle distance, well away from the human extermination team.

When South Africa culled elephants in the nineties, a practice to which it is apparently about to return, Wayne Lotter, a long time ranger in the Kruger, hated it: "It was something I did just because I had to. But I tried to avoid it as much as possible, especially when there was a volunteer ranger who could do the job.

"It was my love for animals that drew me into conservation. To then have to kill the same animals is something I hate. The separation of the family units - usually a group of 12 to 15 - is the most emotionally difficult part of the killing".

A high velocity 7.62 bullet is generally fired into each elephant's brain, behind the ear. The creatures' throats are slit and fragments of tissues and organs extracted for research purposes. Then the ranger returns from the wild to a chorus of angry complaints from conservationists and animal rights activists. Expert research claims that the culling process is deeply traumatic not only to the animals killed, but also those members of herds that are left behind.

For the last eleven years in South Africa, this grisly ritual has been outlawed after pressure from groups such as the International Fund for Animal Welfare, but the result has been a level of elephant-inspired mayhem that meansthe rifles and the death squads are about to re-appear.

Up to 300,000 elephants are now estimated to exist in southern Africa, three quarters of the total African population. Everywhere the numbers are up, the herds more unmanageable, the ravaged vegetation more sparse. In some national parks, rhinos have been trampled in the competition for food. Woodpeckers have struggled to find suitable trees, with branches still intact, to nest in.

In Botswana, rampaging elephant herds have crossed the border into Namibia, destroying crops and preventing children from going to school. At a recent conference in Utrecht, experts were resorting to apocalyptic descriptions of an "animal holocaust" in southern Africa.

On Sunday, Hector Magome, the director of conservation services for South African National Parks, announced that enough was enough: "We need to reduce the population now in the short term while we look at long-term solutions. We want the public to digest this hard fact." The statement generated unfavourable headlines. But the facts, it should be said, are alarming.

In the fenced national parks, the density of the elephant population grows every year. At Kruger Park, more than 13,000 elephants now populate the park, 6,000 more than the optimum level. The park was fenced off to protect African farmers from roaming herds. But within the perimeter, a desperate animal struggle for survival from ever-diminishing resources is underway.

Other wildlife, including rhino and antelope, are being deprived of necessary vegetation. The roan, the tsessebe, the suni and the hartebeest are also suffering from the appetites of the largest rivals in the food chain. Elephants tend to be creatures of whim when it comes to eating habits. One fad for the Baobab tree, a favourite nesting site for vultures, destroyed stretches of forest in months.

Across the range, desertification has taken hold in vast areas of a park the size of Israel. Other parks facing similar crises include the Hwange in Zimbabwe and several in Botswana.

Inevitably, the calls for a new cull are multiplying. It is not only Mr Magome who believes that South Africans and their neighbours must face up to a bitter necessity. Dr Robert Paling, an ecological expert from the University of Utrecht, agrees that a return of the cull is the only way to avoid a catastrophe.

"It is a controversial conclusion but there is no other option. Either the elephants will die of hunger - and in the process destroy the vegetation and other species, so threatening biodiversity, or we have to act."

Michelle Pickover, an animal rights activist, with Xwe African Wildlife, is incensed: "I wonder why they use the word culling," she said yesterday, "It's killing and murdering elephants and they should just say that."

But action, of a ruthless and unpleasant kind, is imminent. In secret, given the sensitive nature of the subject, plans have already been drawn up for a South African cull which experts believe will claim as many as 1,000 elephants a year. The aim is to reduce the species population to 1992 levels. A likely starting date, say government sources, is next October.

But if Mr Magomo hopes that Sunday's announcement will reconcile the public to the coming slaughter, he may be disappointed. Fortunately for lovers of the African elephant, a long-term and somewhat extraordinary alternative to the brutal executions may exist after all: contraception. An extreme solution, perhaps, but not, at least, a fatal one. Rather than reducing elephant numbers by putting herds to death, conservationists such as Douw Grobler, a senior veterinarian at Kruger Park, have been experimentally putting elephant cows "on the pill".

The "pill" strictly speaking, is a vaccine, developed over a five-year research programme at Kruger Park. Twenty-four unsuspecting elephant cows, injected in the flank with an immunocontraceptive vaccine, have been tracked across a park neighbouring Kruger Park and subjected to intermittent gynaecological examinations. To the delight of the researchers, none became pregnant, making the project the most successful elephant contraception programme ever.

If elephants can be rendered infertile, argue animal rights activists, then perhaps the coming cull can be indefinitely postponed.

The vaccine is derived from Pig Zona Pellucida (PZP) - a protein harvested from pigs killed at abattoirs - and prevents elephant sperm from penetrating the egg. The vaccinated elephant is not rendered permanently infertile, and scientists have observed no adverse side-effects to the cows.

For supporters of elephant contraception, the success of the PZP project carries an obvious message: if the sex-lives of elephants can be monitored and controlled, the high-velocity rifles should be put away and the vultures and hyenas can look elsewhere for their pickings.

Those resisting Mr Magome's call for an elephant hunt also argue that ensuing death toll will provide a flourishing black market in ivory. According to a spokesman for the Born Free Foundation, "Culling produces skins and ivory, products that have export potential. Ivory stockpiles are a serious temptation to trade and can stimulate poaching and the illegal ivory trade.

Yet, even among Kruger Park's researchers, not everyone is convinced that birth control for elephants can work. For one thing, it is not cheap. To provide contraceptives for each female elephant at the Kruger would cost an estimated R1,000 (£87) per year.

Then there is the fearsome prospect of monitoring the elephant cows. Each would have to be darted and given a dose of PZP. All cows, having been fitted with a radio collar, would then have to be located and provided with a booster shot four weeks later. Nevertheless those cows already pregnant would give still birth to their unborn calves, meaning that an immediate cull might, in any case, be necessary.

More importantly however, some conservationists argue that the sex "solution" might be crueler in the long-run than a traditional cull. Elephant mating, point out experts, is a complicated, arduous and above all, sophisticated affair, beginning with a chase in which the bull isolates the on-heat cow from the maternal herd.

If conception takes place this is a process which will occur once every 48 months. But those cows that fail to conceive repeat the same ritual ever 15 weeks. The prospect of herds of elephant cows permanently in heat, mating every four months has filled many experts with horror.

Then there are the carefully structured relationships within the herd. During the experiments, two elephant calves were abandoned to die by their apparently confused mother.

According to Mr Grobler: "If you look at an elephant herd, a family group, there are the little ones, there are older brothers and sisters, there are aunts and uncles ... and you see how they work in their relationships ...the older sister brings up the small one. The behavioral patterns are taught in that way. By doing contraception you are going to have a gap somewhere, for 8 years or 10 years or 12 years. I don't know if that is fair to the elephant."

Elephant lovers persuaded by that argument point in desperation to the recent joining of Kruger Park to the Limpopo National Park in Mozambique. If Kruger's elephants have another 10,000km sq to roam in, why is there such determination to cull? The problem, say conservationists, is that elephants tend to stick to their home ranges, which in the Kruger Park average about 880km sq.

The South African National Parks Conservation Service will take a final decision in October, but next month it will offer its formal opinion on the future of the country's elephants.

The contraceptive solution, at least on a large scale, is likely to be ruled out on grounds of cost by the Ministry for the Environment. But the possibility of a wide-scale cull will bring animal activists onto the streets of South Africa in their thousands.

The debate will behighly charged. For nearly three decades, starting in the 1960s, KrugerPark managers kept elephant numbers steady by means of culling. The target population of 7 000 was based on research done at the time by park biologists. Now apparently, that work has been undone.

Whatever is decided in April, after an 11-year binge in the south, the good times are definitely over for the African elephant.


Black rhinoceros

Elephant attacks on these rare animals are increasing. The two species compete for food and space and rhinos are often prevented by elephants from getting to water holes


Species such as the roan, the tsessebe, Lichtenstein's hartebeest and Livingstone's sunni are suffering because the dense vegetation they inhabit is being ravaged by elephants

Baobab tree

Famed for its longevity and soft bark, this tree can live for 4,000 years. But it is struggling to survive the onslaughts of elephants, which can strip the tree of bark, leaving it close to death

Knob thorn

Nesting place for vultures and woodpeckers, and ideal food for giraffes, this tree is also a favourite fodder for elephants, which eat its branches, shoots and leaves