Toward the cool of evening the helicopter took off, vultures trailing in its wake. The pilot approached the elephants from behind, coming in low over their backs to give the marksman a clear shot to the brain with his semiautomatic rifle. One bullet was usually enough. First the matriarch—the group’s leader, the repository of collective wisdom—went down, and then the younger females and calves were picked off as they huddled around her body. Every member of the group was killed; any survivors would be too devastated by the loss of their closest companions to function normally. Immediately after the aerial assault, a ground crew arrived to shoot the rare elephant that was still alive. The carcasses were gutted, and the skin, meat, and tusks trucked away for processing at the abattoir in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Only the innards—and bloodied ground—were left behind.
To restrain the growth of Kruger's elephant population, 14,562 animals were culled from 1967 to 1995, when South Africa banned the practice. "It was extraordinarily traumatic," says Ian Whyte, the park's longtime elephant specialist, who witnessed many of the culls. "You had to shut your mind to it, otherwise you'd go mad."
Now elephant specialists are being forced to consider culling again. While poaching continues to threaten elephants in Kenya and elsewhere, in southern Africa conservation measures have been so successful that populations are booming. In the 13 years since South Africa's culling ban, Kruger's elephants have increased from 8,000 to more than 13,000. The elephants, each eating about 400 pounds of food a day, are transforming the landscape, tearing through vegetation, pulling down or uprooting trees and stripping them of bark. Hungry elephants, combined with wildfires that consume downed trees and saplings, are converting some parts of the park from wooded savanna to scrub grassland, providing habitat for grazers such as zebras but destroying nesting places for eagles and other birds.