So South Africa's Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT) recently convened the Elephant Science Round Table—18 internationally recognized experts, most from South Africa—to consider how to manage growing populations and whether culling should again be an option. One objection: The practice would increase stockpiles of ivory, raising pressures to end the international ban on ivory sales that has been in force since 1989. If the ban ended, the market for tusks would heat up, and so would elephant poaching. Another objection: It would thwart natural processes. Kenya's Iain Douglas-Hamilton says, "In some cases I'd rather see a population collapse through starvation than see it culled." But zoologist John Hanks, a consultant with International Conservation Services, says that in certain situations, and as a last resort, park managers may need to cull to protect biodiversity. "We've created a highly artificial situation by restricting elephants to parks."
In the end the experts agreed that culling is not immediately necessary in Kruger but should be allowed again in South Africa if nothing else can stop elephants from eliminating habitat other animals depend on—a recommendation enshrined in the country's new elephant management policy, which took effect in May. The policy recognizes the animals' "sentient nature, highly organized social structure, and ability to communicate" but allows culling as a last resort. Getting approval to cull in any location would take months, maybe years. Michele Pickover, an activist with South Africa–based Animal Rights Africa, predicts that her country won't allow culling until after it hosts the 2010 soccer World Cup, for fear of tarnishing its international image.
One way to avoid killing elephants is to dart females with contraceptives. The procedure can cost more than $150 per elephant and must be done repeatedly. In a large park like Kruger, contraception would be hugely expensive and difficult, but it's being used successfully in smaller protected areas, such as Makalali Private Game Reserve, with about 70 elephants.
Translocation—trucking surplus elephants out of overpopulated areas—is also costly, and South Africa has few places left that are large enough to accommodate an influx of elephants. Most of the roughly 30 small reserves that have accepted elephants from Kruger since 1979 are now struggling to manage their growing numbers.
Rudi van Aarde, of the University of Pretoria, and other roundtable experts favor a multipronged solution to the population problem: get rid of artificial water supplies, which allow elephants to survive droughts that keep populations in check and which concentrate herds in one spot; take down park fences; and establish corridors and megaparks so that elephants can disperse across a larger landscape, reducing seasonal and long-term pressures on habitats. (Van Aarde acknowledges that if newly occupied areas get overcrowded, it may become necessary to permit local people to hunt a certain number of elephants.)