Too hungry, too destructive, too many: South Africa to begin elephant cull

· Booming population forces government action
· Conservation groups divided over slaughter

It is the issue that has bitterly divided game managers, conservationists and animal rights groups for years. But yesterday the South African government finally concluded it would have to lift a moratorium on the culling of the native elephant to cope with its booming population.

Amid words of protest and expressions of relief environment minister Martinus van Schalkwyk announced the elephant had been a victim of its own success with numbers growing from 8,000 to nearly 20,000 in national parks and private reserves in just over a decade.

Unveiling a new conservation plan he stressed that the killing of excess animals would only be allowed once all other available options - including translocation and contraception - had been ruled out.

"Our department has recognised the need to maintain culling as a management option, but has taken steps to ensure that this will be the option of last resort that is acceptable only under strict conditions," he said in a statement. "The issue of population management has been devilishly complex and we would like to think that we have come up with a framework that is acceptable to the majority of South Africans."

The debate over culling is hugely emotive in South Africa, which is renowned for its wildlife, and yesterday's announcement comes after nearly three years of widespread consultation and acrimonious debate.

Supporters of culling point to growing difficulties in managing elephants in the country's biggest and most famous game reserve, Kruger National Park. It has more than 12,500 elephants, 5,000 more than is sustainable, according to park officials. Ecologists say the animals' huge appetites and fondness for "habitat re-engineering" - reducing forests to flatland by uprooting trees and trampling plants as they feed and roam - threaten the park's biodiversity.

But some conservationists argue the environmental impact is less severe than is being claimed, while animal rights campaigners, who have threatened to hold public protests if culling goes ahead, say the elephants' intelligence and their close-knit social structures make culling deeply inhumane.

In 2005, the government recommended the cull of 5,000 elephants, which would have been the largest slaughter anywhere in the world, causing a storm of protest and a rethink. The new framework, which will permit culling from May 1, is likely to see a far lower number of the animals destroyed. Van Schalkwyk said yesterday that estimates of between 2,000 and 10,000 deaths were "hugely inflated".

A national park or private reserve will only be allowed to cull with the approval of the authorities and an elephant management specialist, who must be satisfied all other options are not viable. These include contraception, a tricky process that can cause females much distress, and relocation of entire elephant families, which can be stressful for the animals and is expensive. The removal of fences between the Kruger and parks in neighbouring Mozambique will eventually help with migration into less congested areas, but not soon enough, according to some experts.

Rob Little, conservation director at WWF in South Africa, welcomed the announcement. He said the country's rapid elephant population growth of 6% - mainly due to the absence of natural predators of mature animals - was unsustainable. If unchecked, wildlife officials say the elephant count will top 34,000 by 2020.

"All available options must be available to control the elephant population here and conserve the biodiversity of the national parks," said Little. "The new framework imposes a hierarchy of choices, and culling is right at the bottom. We are not going to see a mass destruction of elephants here."

But other conservation groups were less enthusiastic. "This does not give park managers carte blanche simply to go out and kill if they think they have too many elephants," said Christina Preto rius, communications manager at the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "It is incumbent on the government to make sure that this is policed properly."

Michele Pickover of Animal Rights Africa, which has threatened to urge a tourist boycott if culling goes ahead, said there was no scientific proof that the killing of elephants was necessary or even effective in controlling the population.

"This is a sad day for the country. Elephants are being treated as commodities by the government and game managers," she said.

Trunk lines

· The African elephant (Loxodonta Africana) grows up to 4m tall and weighs 7,000kg

· There are two sub-species of African elephant: the forest elephant and the savanna (or bush) elephant. The former's tusks are straight; the latter's curve outward

· Adult elephants consume 130kg of food a day

· African elephants live on average for 55 to 65 years in the wild, and sometimes more than 80 years in captivity

· Elephants have a longer gestation period than any other mammal - nearly 22 months. Cows usually deliver one calf every two to four years

Jason Rodrigues


Xan Rice

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

South Africa considers elephant cull

South Africa may restart culling elephants, setting the scene for an international battle over the future of the animals. The government said yesterday that proposals on the management of the country's elephant population would be published tomorrow.

David Beresford in Johannesburg

01, Mar, 2007 @12:06 AM

South Africa to resume elephant culling

Animal rights campaigners criticise decision to end 1994 culling moratorium as flawed for "ethical, scientific and historical" reasons.

James Sturcke

25, Feb, 2008 @2:02 PM

Article image
'Canned hunting' goes on trial in South Africa
An end to the controversial practice of 'canned hunting' would be hugely welcome to animal welfare groups – but it could also mean 5,000 big cats would have to be euthanised

Felicity Carus

11, Sep, 2009 @2:45 PM

South Africa lifts ban on elephant culls

Authorities attempt to stabilise burgeoning population as conservationists warn of dangers

Todd Pitman, Associated Press

02, May, 2008 @7:59 AM

Article image
South Africa wages war on ruthless rhinoceros poachers

Officials vow to 'fight fire with fire' as rhino toll soars to feed black market in south-east Asia

• Africa's bloody war to save its rhino

David Smith

16, Nov, 2010 @4:40 PM

Article image
Trade in rhino horn fuels massive poaching surge in South Africa

Eighty-four of the animals have been killed by poachers in the country so far this year

David Smith in Johannesburg

07, Oct, 2009 @7:10 PM

Article image
As poaching heats up, conservationists advocate sending South Africa rhinos to Texas
With poaching at an all-time high, conservation groups propose moving 6% of South Africa’s white rhinos to a comparable climate in the US

Amy Westervelt

11, May, 2015 @2:43 PM

Kruger's thriving elephant herds face a new cull

Nine years after international outrage stopped the cull of elephants in the Kruger National Park, more than 3,000 of the beasts face the new threat of a death sentence - because science has failed to come up with a cheap elephant contraceptive.

Liz McGregor in Johannesburg

31, Aug, 2003 @12:02 AM

Article image
Record number of rhinos killed in South Africa in 2013

Total of 688 rhino deaths passes last year's record, with three months of the year still to go

Adam Vaughan

23, Sep, 2013 @9:43 AM

Article image
Trophy hunting in Africa: 'Hunt operators are conservationists first, and hunters second'

Advocates of the controversial blood sport say it pays for conservation and creates an incentive to protect natural habitats, writes Felicity Carus

Felicity Carus

11, Sep, 2009 @2:47 PM