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Can innovative contraception ideas solve South Africa's elephant problem?
Animal rights activists say they may encourage tourist boycotts following the South African government's announcement that, for the first time since 1995, it supports shooting elephants in order to reduce the numbers in Kruger and other national parks.
But innovations in elephant birth control could provide a solution and reduce the numbers of elephants without the killings.
Click below to view Jeffrey Barbee's video report on the new elephant contraception method.
South African Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said in 2008 that the government had concluded that it had no choice but to reintroduce culling of elephants "as a last option and under very strict conditions."
"Our simple reality is that elephant population density has risen so much in some southern African countries that there is concern about impacts on the landscape, the viability of other species and the livelihoods and safety of people living within elephant ranges," van Schalkwyk said.
While he promised that there would be no "wholesale slaughter," he refused to say how many elephants would be shot. Animal rights activists assert that up to 7,000 elephants could be killed.
South Africa is a victim of its own success in increasing its elephant population. From a population of 25 in 1931, when the Addo Elephant National Park was established, the country's elephant population has risen to 20,000. The problem is that the national parks cannot sustain such a large number of elephants.
Kruger park highlights the quandary. When the government stopped its policy of killing entire elephant herds in 1995, Kruger held 8,000 elephants, about 1,000 more than experts said the park's vegetation could support. Now the Kruger elephant population is estimated at 14,000 and parks officials complain that large areas of the game reserve have been denuded of vegetation.
With the elephant population increasing at more than 5 percent annually, the already large number of elephants in the park would double by 2025. Even the World Wildlife Fund agrees that South Africa's parks cannot support so many elephants.
South Africa stopped the regular culling of elephants because of international outcry over the military-like operations, in which entire herds of elephants would be rounded up and shot to death by marksmen in helicopters. Now, animal rights activists threaten to launch international protests once again if the government resumes elephant killings.
Other ways to control the elephant population include moving elephants to less-crowded areas, such as Mozambique, expanding the size of the parks and contraception. The current form of contraception used on elephants is similar to that used by humans, in which the female's hormone levels are altered. But that method disrupts the social hierarchy of the female herds and results in erratic behavior.
In its announcement, the South African government said that elephant contraception's "long term social, physiological and emotional impacts on elephants are not fully understood, and current contraception methods are highly invasive and should therefore be used with caution."
But a new method of contraception has been developed at Makalali, a private game reserve west of Kruger park, that may solve the problem of overpopulation without the substantial side effects. The Makalali reserve has 70 elephants on 30,000 acres and must manage the population carefully.
"The flagship program that we have here at Makalali is the immuno-contraceptive program and that is specifically looking at alternative means of population control of elephants," said Audrey Delsink, research ecologist at Makalali, who added that the program has been going for eight years.
Essentially, female elephants are vaccinated against pregnancy, Delsink said. "Immuno-contraception is a very simple process; basically it works on the elephant's immunity."
"When you introduce the vaccine to the elephant, what happens is her body sees it as a foreign substance so automatically, as a response, it (the elephant) produces antibodies against this vaccine," Delsink said. "And the the antibodies actually change the shape of the receptor sites around the egg cell, so when the sperm comes along he can't bind to his own receptor sites, and therefore fertilization cannot occur.”
This new method does not change the female elephant's hormone levels or oestrus cycle, upon which much of the female's social interactions are based, according to Delsink. It also doesn't cause herd fragmentation, harassment by bulls, a change in social rank or other disruptive behaviors that have been documented with the use of hormonal contraceptive methods, she said.
Compared to the expense and trauma of the large-scale killing of elephants — and the disruption of the elephants' behavior when hormonal forms of birth control are used — the vaccination method could provide a solution that would please all sides.
Certainly the vaccination method has succeeded in the case of Smelly, a 27-year-old female at Makalali. She was vaccinated for nearly eight years and never became pregnant. But last year Delsink did not vaccinate Smelly and she conceived. After the gestation period of 22 months, the longest of any mammal, Smelly gave birth to a baby boy, promptly named Stinky.
Delsink and other elephant experts argue that the scenes of rounding up trumpeting, frightened elephant herds and shooting them may be unnecessary.
Just ask Smelly and Stinky.