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South Africa expected to propose elephant cull

February 27, 2007 By Michael Hopkin This article courtesy of Nature News.

Public consultation could suggest killing to control population.

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As part of a package of measures to control its spiralling elephant population, South Africa is expected to propose an elephant cull in a document to be released on 28 February.

The number of elephants in South Africa's Kruger Park has risen to 12,000 from less than 8,500 since the end of the previous culling regime in 1994. "In South Africa, elephants have done very well; in other countries, poaching is out of control," says Sue Lieberman, director of the global species programme at WWF International, which has been advising the South African government.

The move comes amid conservationists' fears over the growing problem of poaching elsewhere in Africa, which fuels the black market in ivory. Although conservation and anti-poaching measures have been hailed as a success in Africa's southernmost countries, numbers in West Africa continue to decline.

Damage control

Officials fear that the elephants could damage other wildlife, or even farms and villages, if their numbers are not checked. But culling "should be seen as a last option", Lieberman says. Alternatives might be to transport the elephants away from the crowded areas on trucks, or to create landscape corridors that connect Kruger to parks in which the animals are less common. Contraception regimes are another possibility, Lieberman says.

Culling should be seen as a last option.
Sue Lieberman, WWF International
Nevertheless, Lieberman says that culling is sure to be one of the strategies proposed by the government when it releases its plans tomorrow for a two-month consultation period. "I can't imagine it won't, although I don't want to second-guess the government. South Africa has done it in the past, but it's awful and we're not really recommending it."

Others argue that the elephants in Kruger Park should be allowed to decline naturally as a result of their own overpopulation, as happened in Kenya's Tsavo National Park in the 1970s. "Natural collapses are part of nature; culling is totally artificial. It's a stamp-collector's approach to nature conservation," says Bill Clark, a conservation researcher based in Jerusalem who advises the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

Clark also points out that Kruger Park, which contains 90% of South Africa's elephant population, is hemmed in by fences. Park authorities have knocked down part of the park's eastern fence, which borders Mozambique, which may help to ease some of the population pressure.

Supply and demand

The irony is that, even though Kruger's elephants are victims of their own success, Africa as a whole is still struggling with a voracious ivory trade. "West Africa is pretty much emptied — they have more illegal ivory than elephants," Lieberman says. A recent survey of Senegal found only 12 elephants.

A DNA study by Clark and his colleagues published this week1 showed that the largest ever illegal ivory haul — a cache of more than 500 tusks seized in 2002 — came from a region of southern Africa that centred on Zambia. This region is north of South Africa and its neighbours Botswana and Namibia, which like South Africa have successfully curbed poaching. But Clark says that poaching is endemic throughout West and Central Africa.

This June, members of CITES, the international convention on trade in endangered species, will address the export of illegal ivory at a meeting in The Hague. The governments of Mali and Kenya have asked for a 20-year moratorium on the legal ivory trade to quell the taste for ivory among consumers, mostly in East Asia.

Clark hopes that the meeting will adopt this idea. "The existence of the legal market creates the fashion," he says. With no more than 400,000 elephants remaining in Africa, there is probably a total of less than 4,000 tonnes of ivory. "It's a small resource," Clark says. "You could drop that into the Chinese market and it would vanish."

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References

  1. Wasser S. K., et al. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA, 104 . 4228 - 4233 (2007).

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