Published: September 2008
Desperate Measure
In overcrowded parks, managers may have to resort to shooting elephants to save ecosystems.
By Karen Lange
National Geographic Staff

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.

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.)

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."