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South Africa to put down excess elephants

Latest update : 2008-02-26

The surging population of elephants in South Africa has pushed authorities to end a 13-year moratorium on culling. Subject to heated debate, the decision was motivated by the need to preserve the animals' habitat.

South Africa is resume elephant culling for the first time in 13 years, lifting a moratorium on the practice to bring ballooning populations under control, the government said on Monday.

After months of emotive public debate over government plans to reduce elephant numbers, Environment Minister Marthinus Van Schalkwyk announced culling would be an option from May 1, but only as a last resort.

"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," the minister said in a statement.

Since domestic and international pressure led the government to introduce a  moratorium on culling in 1995, the number of elephants rose from about 8,000 to 18,000, saddling many game parks with unsustainable populations.

"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," said Van Schalkwyk.

His spokesman, Riaan Aucamp, could not put a number on the elephants to be killed.

"There is no estimation. Everything will depend on the management plan of each park," he told AFP.

The World Wildlife Fund's Rob Little said elephants had no natural predators after the age of 15, and with populations growing at six percent a year they become a hazard to their habitat.

"We are not pleased with the thought of culling elephant, but we do recognise it as a management tool," he told AFP.

"Historically they would have vast areas to migrate and move in, whereas today we confine them by artificial boundaries. We call elephants habitat engineers, because they consume such vast amounts of vegetation that they have the potential to change the landscape."

Announcing norms and standards for elephant management, the minister said contraception and translocation would continue to be the preferred population control measures.

Culling may be undertaken only when recommended by an elephant management specialist, and on approval by authorities.

"It was to be expected that strong emotions would be part of this debate.  There are few other creatures on earth that have the ability of elephants to 'connect' with humans in a very special way," said van Schalkwyk.

Added Little: "We all love our elephants, they are the most charismatic icon of Africa. But we don't have the luxury to allow one species to dominate and alter the composition of our natural assets."

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), which opposes culling, said legislation should be strict enough to ensure it is truly done only as a last resort.

"In no way do we condone culling as an option, if it is to be then it really must be with only the most careful management," said Christina Pretorius of IFAW Southern Africa.

Most of southern Africa is struggling to contain elephant numbers, with some 300,000 individuals estimated to roam the region today, according to Pretorius.

"In all likelihood a few of our neighbouring elephant range states are watching South Africa to get guidance," added Little.

Van Schalkwyk also announced a prohibition from May 1 on the capture of wild elephants for use in commercial exhibition, such as circuses.

This was welcomed by IFAW, with Pretorius saying: "Elephant back safaris in particular, it's an industry out of control".

Date created : 2008-02-25