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Latest update : 2013-10-14

Birth control in the savannah

In South Africa, efforts to protect elephants have been so effective that today there are too many and they are destructive. Humans have created the problem, humans are trying to solve it...using birth control.

Unlike other parts of the continent where poaching is having a devastating effect on elephant numbers, South Africa is facing the opposite problem: there are too many elephants for the available park space.

Since culling was banned in the mid-nineties elephant numbers have surged to unmanageable levels. To limit the ever-expanding population scientists have turned to birth control.

This week Down to Earth visits the Welgevonden Game Reserve north of Johannesburg where the elephant herd receives annual contraception. The process involves flying a helicopter low over the reserve and darting the elephants directly from the air.

The contraception is in fact a vaccine, made from a protein extracted from pig ovaries. The vaccine produces antibodies that prevent the elephant sperm from fertilising the egg. It’s known as immunocontraception.

While the vaccine is reversible, some of the country's eminent elephant experts object to using such a birth control vaccine to treat a problem created by humans.

By Mairead DUNDAS , Marina BERTSCH , Juliette LACHARNAY

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