South Africa lifted a 13-year ban on killing elephants yesterday, a move conservationists warn could encourage poachers to slaughter the animals for ivory and threaten dwindling tusker populations elsewhere on the continent.
Elephants, once on the verge of extinction in parts of South Africa, are flourishing, with the population growing more than 5% annually in recent years as a result of the country's well-managed national parks industry.
Authorities want to keep a lid on their burgeoning numbers and protect the species' viability. Elephants have no animal predators and can turn woodlands to grass and stubs in just a few years, therefore killing them is the best way to control the population, South African officials say.
The huge mammals have not fared as well elsewhere, and some conservationists say the end of South Africa's moratorium on killing elephants will have repercussions far beyond its borders.
In Congo's Virunga National Park, for example, 14 elephants have been killed since mid-April by soldiers, militia and villagers - a surge in poaching that is "part of a widespread slaughter across the Congo Basin" of central Africa, according to Dr Emmanuel de Merode, director of the conservation group WildlifeDirect.
A four-year war ended in Congo in 2002, but swathes of the east remain gripped by violence involving militia and rebels.
Some environmental groups, such as the World Wildlife Fund, have cautiously welcomed the South African move, calling it "responsible". Others, such as Animal Rights Africa, have threatened to promote tourist boycotts, saying the lifting of the ban could be repeated in other nations.
South Africa has about 18,000 elephants, and the southern Africa region is home to about 300,000 - half of all the elephants on the continent. The country's new regulations on managing elephants say killing must be through "quick and humane methods".