Kruger has taken down fences along some of its borders, allowing elephants to migrate west into private reserves and east into Mozambique's Limpopo National Park, a drier region where the animals are still scarce. Limpopo should act as a safety valve for at least the next five to ten years, says Norman Owen-Smith of the University of the Witwatersrand. Others note that people living in Limpopo have already complained about elephants damaging their crops.
The free-range approach is also alleviating pressures in countries neighboring South Africa. Northern Botswana's more than 150,000 elephants—Africa's largest population—are roaming in and out of Zimbabwe and reclaiming areas in Angola and Namibia from which they were driven by war and poaching. The once steep growth curve of the Botswana population is flattening, and Michael Chase, a researcher with Botswana-based Elephants Without Borders, estimates it will be at least 20 years before it climbs again. Nevertheless Botswana's elephants, up from perhaps 8,000 in 1960, are very dense in some areas, such as along a 12-mile stretch of the Chobe River, where they've destroyed most of the trees. A proposed new regional management plan includes the possibility of culling. In Zimbabwe, the government says the elephant population has risen from 46,000 in 1980 to more than 100,000 today, claiming that is twice as many as the land can support. In the past two years it has allowed nearly 150 elephants to be shot for meat. Critics respond that Zimbabwe simply wants to kill elephants for their ivory, and indeed government officials have been accused of illegally exporting tusks to China in an ivory-for-arms deal.
When culling resumes in South Africa, it will likely not be in Kruger but in smaller parks, those between 200 and 400 square miles that have populations too large to be easily controlled by contraception or translocation and are too compact and bounded by human settlement for their elephants to migrate outside. Rob Slotow of the University of KwaZulu-Natal believes that in most cases it will be possible to avoid culling. But, he says, in Tembe Elephant Park, with its rare sand forest vegetation, it may eventually become necessary to shoot bulls that cause irreparable habitat damage.
Ian Whyte, who recently retired from Kruger, says he's glad he'll no longer have to take part in what he sees as inevitable: "Culling has to happen at some stage," he says. "I can't imagine it will be a long time."