Rampaging Elephants a Headache in South Africa

There are no easy answers when it comes to keeping the world's largest land mammal in check.

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa — There are no easy answers when it comes to keeping the world's largest land mammal in check.

A century ago, southern Africa's elephants were driven close to extinction by indiscriminate ivory hunting. Now there are so many of them that experts say they are threatening the environment.

South Africa National Parks (Sanparks) says it may have no choice but to resume culling in the Kruger National Park, which is home to most of the country's roughly 17,000 elephants.

The practice was halted in 1994 amid protests from animal rights activists.

"It (culling) remains an option," Sanparks head David Mabunda told Reuters on the sidelines of a recent meeting to discuss the issue.


"What I have seen ... is the total decimation of a number of big trees in the park ... Impalas don't push trees or uproot them and eat their roots, elephants do and you can see it all over the park," Mabunda said.

Less than 5,000 elephants roamed south of the Zambezi River at the turn of the century, but now Kruger alone has 12,000. Experts say if left unchecked that population could explode over the next decade.

Culling may be, as one official put it, the most "practical" solution. It is not all that cut-and-dried, however.

Apart from the logistics involved, the issue is a thorny one and has already raised the ire of animal rights activists, who say the intelligence and sensitivity of elephants raises ethical questions about culling.

Complex Social Structure

Culling involves shooting entire families from helicopters. Animal activists say this could prove traumatic for the rest of the herd as these animals are highly co-dependent.

"Elephants have a very complex social structure. We really don't know enough about how elephants interact on a social level and how culling would affect the dynamics within an elephant population," said Justin Bell-Leak, director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) South Africa.

Officials estimate that the Kruger has an excess of up to 4,000 elephants. By its own admission it can only process around 600 carcasses a year.

This means even with culling the elephant population at the park may continue growing at a steady rate -- up to seven percent a year since 1994, an astonishing growth rate for such a massive animal.

"It's not just going to be boom, we jump onto one option," Mabunda told Reuters. "You need a complex of tools, a toolbox to deal with all these problems that we have."

Further options include contraception, moving South African elephants to other parks in the region, and partially dropping borders between neighbors to create megaparks with larger areas for the animals to roam.

But some elephants have resisted previous translocation attempts, simply returning to their old stomping grounds. Experts estimate it takes 15 to 20 years for elephants to settle in a new area.

Relocation is costly and cannot go on forever in a region with swelling rural human populations.

Contraception may be feasible -- but will only serve to control numbers in the future and not do much to help ease elephant numbers in the short term.

Human Side

At the three-day conference to discuss the boom in elephant numbers, there were horrific stories of some elephants trampling their human neighbors to death, as well as how they had resisted attempts to camp them in -- including employing clever stratagies to evade electric fencing.

Still, the elephant has another side that has won the hearts of humans and made any discussion around its culling so heated.

As if to prove that, a young elephant put on an impromptu show in a nearby pool, splashing and swishing ostentatiously through his muddy playground, and trumpeting proudly.

No one was left untouched by the display -- a poignant reminder of the more "human" side of the creature who has caused so much trouble; a reminder, also, that any decision around this animal cannot be taken lightly.

Source: Reuters