South African Official Proposes Culling, Contraception to Curb Elephant Population

South Africa's environment minister on Wednesday proposed contraception and some culling -- but no mass slaughter -- as part of a package of measures to slow rampant elephant population growth.

ADDO ELEPHANT PARK, South Africa -- South Africa's environment minister on Wednesday proposed contraception and some culling -- but no mass slaughter -- as part of a package of measures to slow rampant elephant population growth.

"The government will never give a blank check to culling," Marthinus van Schalkwyk said, but stressed it had to take a more hands-on approach to controlling its elephants in order to preserve the delicate balance of nature in the flagship Kruger National Park and other wildlife reserves.

"We have about 20,000 elephants in South Africa, more or less 14,000 in the Kruger National Park. In 1995 when we stopped culling we had around 8,000 elephants. The population growth of elephants is 6 to 7 percent," Van Schalkwyk said.

"This is the hard reality," he told a press conference overlooking a watering hole in Addo Elephant Park, where the elephant population is set to double by 2020 -- as is the population in Kruger.

Although the population explosion is good news for the tourists who flock to the parks in the hope of spotting the Big Five -- elephant, rhino, lion, leopard, buffalo -- it is inflicting a heavy toll on vegetation and other animal species.

A single elephant devours up to 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of grass, leaves and twigs a day. And they are messy eaters -- 60 percent gets wasted.

Van Schalkwyk said the elephant management proposals included removing them to other areas, using water to influence their movements, creating special enclosures to protect other species, expansion of parks, contraception and culling.

"I would have preferred not to consider the options of both culling and contraception," he said.

Environmental groups and other interested parties have until May 4 to comment on the proposals and then after that it may take many more months to bring the measures into force.

The initial reaction was positive.

The World Wildlife Fund said it recognized the problem posed by elephant overpopulation in southern Africa and hailed the government's exhaustive consultations with conservation groups.

"Although WWF does not advocate culling as the preferred management alternative, we recognize that it is a management option and reiterate our view that all other options should first be explored," said Rob Little, acting chief executive of WWF South Africa.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare welcomed the promise by the minister to invest more into scientific research.

"We dearly hope this indicates a long-term intention to ensure an ethical approach to elephant management," it said.

The announcement followed months of impassioned debate, with some conservationists arguing that overall biodiversity should take priority and animal welfare groups outraged at the prospect of slaughter.

The country culled a total of 14,562 elephants between 1967 and 1994. Without that cull, the population would have rocketed by now to 80,000, according to park estimates.

Van Schalkwyk declined to predict how many elephants might die if culling does get the final green light. But he said more sophisticated management options -- like improving fencing and expanding parks -- offered new alternatives.

"There is a huge difference between what we had then and now," he said of the pre-1994 era.

Although contraception is an alternative, it is also fraught with problems. A female normally breeds every four years and doesn't mate while nursing. With contraception, a female comes on heat every four months -- but doesn't fall pregnant -- and so suffers the physical stress of frequent copulation with bulls four times her weight.

Translocation -- physical removal of the beast to a different area -- is expensive. Conservation experts say there are signs that elephants are beginning to move from the Kruger into Mozambique, where populations are more sparse because of the long civil war, thanks to the removal of national fences in a new trans-frontier park. But space is limited.

There is no regional consensus. South Africa, Namibia and Botswana all have booming elephant populations, while East African nations such as Kenya are struggling. Because of this, the African elephant is classed as "vulnerable" and trade in ivory has been banned since 1989 to try to combat poaching.

Botswana has by far the biggest elephant population, with an estimated 165,000 elephants, according to van Schalkwyk. He said Zimbabwe had an estimated 80,000 and Mozambique some 20,000.

"We can conserve elephants but we have to start to worry about what we conserve with it," said Prof. Graham Kerley, an elephant expert who works with officials at Addo National Park, which currently has some 450 elephants.

"The feeding impact of elephants is enormous because of their large size and the way they feed," Kerley told reporters who visited the park Tuesday.

In Addo, they feed on 146 different plant species -- of which 75 are classed as rare, he said.

Addo -- about an hour's drive from the southern coastal city of Port Elizabeth -- is regarded as a model in elephant management. Authorities have reintroduced the endangered black rhino into the park, where it lives in harmony with the elephant, but fear they could start competing for food.

Already, the crowding is leading to tensions, according to Kerley. The females live to about 65 years old, but fighting among the bulls has reduced their average life span to 45 years -- not long enough for them to grow the mighty tusks that are the trademark of other South African elephant populations.

Source: Associated Press

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