The real question being asked is, should the elephant population be decreased by killing large numbers of elephants. While it has become obvious that Kruger National Park, in South Africa, is now supporting an elephant population that is impractically large for the size of the park, it is still necessary to try everything possible before culling large numbers of the herd to solve this problem.
The last major culling in the mid-nineties caused such an outcry among the watching world that it has not been done again. Almost 15,000 elephants were killed. Because of the social structure of elephants, entire herds were killed, males, females, old and young. If culling is done again, it will be done exactly this way. Since that time, however, the elephant population has been allowed to grow unchecked to the point where any solution other than killing large numbers of elephants to decrease the population seems impractical.
Despite this seeming impracticality, however, slaughtering thousands of elephants is not the answer. The overall population of African elephants is still quite low. From a population of millions, the best estimate is that there are only 470,000-690,000 elephants left in all of Africa. The apparent overpopulation of Kruger National Park is only a reflection of the size of the park. Suggestions have been made to acquire adjacent land parcels that would increase the size of the park so that all animal species would benefit. It has also been suggested that fences simply be eliminated to create mega-parks where elephants could roam in a more natural manner over traditional territory instead of living behind fences dictated by artificial country borders.
Contraception and relocation have also been proposed. Relocation is often unsuccessful with many species as the re-located animals return to their original territory. It is also difficult to move thousands of large animals thousands of miles. However, it is also difficult and expensive to kill such large animals in such large numbers.
Problems with birth control, aside from the expense, included the fear that elephant behavior would be drastically changed if male and female elephants did not enter their usual patterns of sexual activity. If neutered male elephants, for instance, do not maintain their dominance, other sexually able bulls might move in and the contraceptive effects would be lost. Hormonal contraception of cows also does not appear to cause changes in the social behavior of elephants. The females still enter estrus, male elephants still mate with them, there is just no resulting pregnancy. This could be a real solution to limiting population growth without losing entire family groups to culling.
If it is decided after all other solutions have been tried to kill some of the elephants, certain guidelines should be followed. Since elephant meat is considered a delicacy in Africa, the meat could be sold to help prevent the poaching of elephants in areas where the elephant population is endangered.
The ivory should NOT be sold. Ivory has a worldwide market and its sale has been a major threat to elephant populations for many decades. This issue should remain closed. Countries that ban ivory should continue to do so and countries that allow ivory should be censured in some way, boycotts, petitions, etc., to discourage them. It may seem wasteful not to allow the sale of ivory, but it can always be cached and used if elephant poaching becomes less of a problem. The continued sale of ivory makes it more difficult to determine where the ivory has come from.
The genetic legacy of the elephants scheduled to die should be preserved. Sperm and egg samples, or embryos, should be preserved. In addition, film footage should be taken to preserve the unique social interactions of the groups that will be lost. Every time this type of action is taken the genetic variation available to the group at large is severely compromised. Anything that can be done to lessen this effect should be done.
It is obvious that problems of this type require worldwide attention. If the elephant population is sufficiently stressed because of poaching, habitat destruction and the deliberate execution of numerous family groups because the population is outstripping the territory assigned, we are running the real risk of losing elephants entirely. Populations, whether they are plant or animal, can reach a point where they cannot recover.
It is unfortunate that birth control methods were not investigated and implemented before this parks elephant population became so large it is endangering other animals and plants in the reserve. At this point it almost seems inevitable that some elephants will be killed. I do not believe however, that this should be accepted as any sort of solution’, but rather a tragedy to be avoided now and especially in the future.