By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
JOHANNESBURG, Feb. 25 -- South Africa will lift a 13-year-old ban on using professional hunters to reduce burgeoning elephant populations, officials announced Monday, despite opposition from animal rights activists who call such killings barbaric and unnecessary.
Officials set no date for a resumption of culling, but activists immediately threatened tourism boycotts or court action to fight the move. Before the moratorium, sharpshooters borne by helicopters routinely killed hundreds of elephants at a time as a way to manage destructive herds.
Big game hunting had severely depleted southern Africa's elephant population by the early 1900s. But in the past century, their numbers have recovered as safaris have grown more popular and game reserves have been created. Across the region there are an estimated 270,000 elephants, more than 120,000 of them in neighboring Botswana.
Conservation officials in several African countries have struggled for years to strike a balance between the beloved animals, which have helped fuel a lucrative tourism boom, and other forms of wildlife whose habitats they devastate. In addition, elephants roaming beyond game parks sometimes trample villagers' crops.
Since the ban went into effect in 1995, the number of elephants in South Africa has grown from about 9,000 to more than 20,000.
Large swaths of Kruger National Park, South Africa's largest, have been transformed from woodland to grassland as thousands of elephants eat more than 300 pounds of vegetation apiece daily, leaving a trail of flattened trees. Among their targets are centuries-old baobab trees, which they slice open with their tusks and gradually topple.
The government's compromise, coming after a year of public deliberations, was to allow culling as one strategy among several, including relocating animals, sterilizing them and expanding parks to give them more room, said Marthinus van Schalkwyk, minister for environmental affairs and tourism, in a statement issued Monday.
"Our Department has recognized the need to maintain culling as a management option, but has taken steps to ensure that this will be the option of last resort that is acceptable only under strict conditions," van Schalkwyk said.
Department spokesman Mava Scott said the moratorium would officially end May 1. He said that a tourism boycott would be "unfair" and that government officials are trying to manage a difficult problem responsibly.
Over the years, conflicts between elephants and humans have increased. Farmers near Kruger, which sits in the lowlands along South Africa's eastern border, have complained for years about marauding elephants eating or trampling their crops. During the era of culling, elephants not only were less likely to disrupt harvests, but they also were a popular source of meat, as wildlife officials butchered them for human consumption.
But among park visitors, elephants consistently rank among the most popular animals to view while they stand, tall as a one-story house, casually chomping on trees. Many people say that elephants appear to exhibit an almost human consciousness as they look directly into the eyes of tourists who stop to watch them.
South African wildlife officials killed more than 14,000 elephants between 1967 and 1995, when culling ended. In those years, entire families were often killed together because wildlife officials believed that survivors would suffer terrible grief over lost relatives.
During the moratorium, the number of elephants in Kruger alone has grown from 8,000 to more than 12,500. At their current growth rate, there will be an estimated 34,000 in 2020.
Managing elephants has long provoked emotional debate in South Africa and beyond. Before van Schalkwyk announced his decision, Animal Rights Africa, based in Johannesburg, issued a statement predicting the move and saying it would be "undeniably cruel and morally reprehensible." The group also threatened a tourism boycott.
"The latest research has proved that elephants have a sense of self-awareness, placing them in a unique category together with great apes, dolphins and humans. How much like us do elephants have to be before killing them becomes murder?" the group said in the statement issued Friday.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare, while opposed to culling, did not call for a boycott and said the new rules are better than those in place before 1995, when culling was routine. "We would be pleased that culling is listed as a last option," spokeswoman Christina Pretorius said. "We hope and pray that it stays that way."
She praised van Schalkwyk's decision, also announced Monday, to prohibit the capture of wild elephants for zoos, circuses or elephant-back safaris. The industries will be allowed to continue using the 120 elephants already in captivity, as well as their offspring.
In game parks, scientists have been experimenting with elephant contraception, including sterilization darts for females and, on a much smaller scale, vasectomies for males. Wildlife officials have warned that those interventions cause changes in elephant behavior and family structures, which traditionally are dominated by relationships among females and their offspring. Relocating elephants, which can weigh as much as eight tons, also has proved difficult.
More promising have been efforts to expand their migratory ranges. Kruger is gradually merging with neighboring parks in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, making the seasonal movements of elephants easier. In the past, game reserves grew from spare pieces of land regarded as having little development value, without regard to the herds' seasonal migrations.
Some scientists have argued that culling is a crude technique for solving problems that grew from poor wildlife management, such as the creation of permanent watering points, which made it easier for tourists to spot animals but disrupted their natural movements.
Kruger's longtime elephant researcher Ian Whyte, who retired last year, said that in light of the problems with elephant relocation and contraception, allowing restricted culling was a "sensible decision" if the goal is to protect biodiversity in game reserves.
Yet having witnessed several cullings for scientific research, Whyte said he was happy to not have to see any more.
"I believe it is necessary. I'm relieved that I don't have to be involved," Whyte said.