KAMPALA, Uganda, Feb. 28 -- South African wildlife officials on Wednesday proposed new elephant management rules that would allow burgeoning populations to be culled, a practice banned since 1994 as unnecessarily cruel to the beloved but destructive animals.
The proposed policy, which now enters a public review process, suggests that future elephant culls would be limited and rare. The minister of environmental affairs and tourism, Marthinus van Schalkwyk, said priority would be given to other management options such as contraception, relocation and expansion of migratory routes to ease pressure on the most heavily impacted areas.
"Where lethal measures are necessary to manage an elephant or group of elephants, or to manage the size of elephant populations, these should be undertaken with circumspection," he said in announcing the new rules at Addo Elephant National Park, near the southeastern coastal city of Port Elizabeth, according to a text from the ministry.
Of the new rules, he added, "Their adoption will not be a 'victory' for any given position; nor will it immediately lead to the wholesale slaughter of elephants anywhere."
The proposal did not entirely quell debate over an issue that has pitted animal rights activists against wildlife officials who argue that only culling can reduce elephant populations to levels low enough to prevent the devastation of vulnerable habitats for animals and plant species.
Photographs taken over several decades show that parts of Kruger National Park -- a sliver of land the size of New Jersey along South Africa's eastern border -- already have begun shifting from woodlands to grasslands. Kruger's elephant population has grown from 8,000 when culling stopped in 1994 to 12,500 today. At current growth rates, the park would have 34,000 elephants by 2020, officials say.
Elephants often live to be 60 years old, while eating more than 300 pounds of grass, bark and leaves every day. Even a few of Kruger's massive baobab trees, some thousands of years old, have succumbed to the tusks and voracious appetites of elephants, as have countless marula and acacia trees, which can be consumed in a matter of hours.
Elephants rarely attack humans but increasingly crash through the park's fences, terrorizing nearby villages and wiping out fields of crops.
Culls typically are conducted by trained sharpshooters, often from helicopters. The bodies of the elephants are butchered into meat, and the tusks saved for possible sale into the highly restricted global ivory market. Entire families generally are killed at once to lessen the grief for survivors. Between 1967 and 1994, Kruger culled more than 14,000 elephants.
Kruger's top elephant researcher, Ian Whyte, said the park will probably seek permission from Van Schalkwyk to resume culling after its management plan for the park has been completed, perhaps even this year.
"He needs to be convinced that the culling is necessary," Whyte said, speaking from Addo elephant park.
Kruger's plan seeks to create some zones where elephants are plentiful and others with lower populations, so that plants and other animals such as giraffes and antelopes could thrive. Elephants remain a top draw for Kruger, which has 1 million visitors a year.
Activists and some scientists say South African wildlife officials have relied on outdated management practices that do little to reduce the impact of elephants. International animal rights groups have urged boycotts of South Africa's popular national parks -- a major attraction for the country's lucrative tourism industry -- if elephant culls resume.
These critics favor closing man-made water points and expanding parks to encourage seasonal migrations. That process already has begun, and Kruger's elephants have begun wandering over to an adjacent national park in Mozambique, officials say.
Rudi J. van Aarde, a zoologist at the University of Pretoria who has called culls ineffective, said the proposal reveals a shift in emphasis toward nonlethal management options. Culling would become less likely if the rules were adopted, said Van Aarde, who was on a scientific panel that consulted with wildlife officials on the plan.
"I don't think we are moving closer to culling whatsoever," said Van Aarde, speaking from Pretoria. "Let's concentrate on those other solutions."
Van Schalkwyk also announced $700,000 for research into elephant management, a move that the International Fund for Animal Welfare, a vocal critic of culling, praised as a sign that South Africa was embracing new management tools.
"While culling as a method of population control has not been ruled out altogether, we are very pleased that the minister has decided to depend on the help of the scientific community in eventually making his decisions," Jason Bell-Leask, the group's southern Africa director, said in a statement issued from Cape Town.
South Africa's handling of the issue is being closely watched across the region, which has a rapidly growing elephant population of 270,000. In other parts of Africa, elephant populations are dwindling as poachers try to meet soaring demand for ivory despite the international restrictions on sales, according to a study released Monday.