Many entire books have been written by many experts about elephants and their problems, and I'm going to try to cover the major problems and possible solutions in just a few thousand words, so I hope that the reader will forgive my rather broad brushstrokes.
I should point out that I am not a zoologist, nor do I hold any qualification related to the subject, but I have spent a great deal of time over the last twenty eight years studying elephants both in the field and written works by a wide variety of experts. I make no apology when I also say that I've also hunted them and darted them and taken part in game capture operations for purposes of both collaring and translocating them. The following therefore, is this one man's view of the problem and possible solutions.
I love elephants and can, and often do, watch them all day. They're considerably more intelligent than most, if not all of the other land mammals in Africa and have an extremely complicated social structure. The object of this article is to examine the thorny subject of the African Elephant overpopulation problem from a layman's point of view.
There is absolutely no doubt that there is a huge elephant overpopulation problem in most parts of Africa, and also no doubt that this is causing severe and permanent damage to their own and to other animal habitat. For example, Kruger National Park has an overcapacity of close to 10,000 elephants and Botswana has an overpopulation of considerably more.
Ever since man first set foot in Africa, humankind and elephants have been in conflict with each other and ever since that same moment, mankind has continued to misunderstand the species. This has bought us to the present situation that if not rectified, I believe will eventually mean the demise of Loxodonta africana and probably many other species as well.
You need to know that elephants have a very close knit and matriarchal society made up of family units, bond groups and clans. Young males are ejected from the herd when they approach adolescence. These young bulls then go off to form loose associations with other bulls. The bulls then visit the herds from time to time for breeding purposes but do not maintain strong emotional attachments with their original herd.
Going back to the early days, before civilisation came to Africa, the elephant populations of Africa were free to roam as they wished. Over the years, a series of migratory cycles became established throughout the continent. These were memorised by the herd matriarchs and passed from one generation to the next. Then mankind decided to change the plot by moving in and 'civilising' the place. Slowly, fences were erected, roads, towns and then cities were built, and as time moved on, those migratory routes were gradually squeezed shut. This continued until we reached the situation we have now, which is that Africa has what might be termed 'elephant islands'. That is, tracts of land that have a population of elephants that are to all intents and purposes, confined to that area alone.
Elephants are incredibly destructive feeders. They push trees over, break branches; tear grass up by the roots and consume a huge amount of food that is ineffectively digested. This behaviour causes some big problems for the flora and fauna of their areas. First, it removes the roots of plants that hold the soil together and then the trees that give the shade for the grass and lower canopy plants are damaged, pushed over, and destroyed, fire also plays a role in this gradual decline and slowly, the areas where the elephants feed turn from thick bush with good grass with a high nutritional value and good water holding capability turns into a sterile desert. In other words, because they are unable to migrate from one area to another, their very feeding patterns, is so destructive to their environment, they eat themselves out of food. Add on the factors that they increase their population by something like 5-10% per annum and that as they destroy their own habitat, they also destroy the habitat of other animals and you can see they're on the road to ruin. An example of how they damage the habitat for other species can be found in the thick riverine habitat of the Limpopo River between South Africa and Botswana. Elephants love to feed in this riverine habitat because of the preponderance of lush and succulent plants and grasses. As they tear this eco-system up, the bush then obviously becomes thinner overall. This causes a problem for the many bushbuck females who live in the area as they need the thick bush to hide their babies in. As these areas of dense bush become thinner and the Elephants cause disturbance, the bushbuck females are forced to move their young further back away from the river, into areas of thinner bush. This in turn, means that the baboons and other small and not so small predators can find and kill both mother and babies. Therefore a decline in the bushbuck population occurs. I've mentioned just one species, but the same rule, unfortunately applies to many other species as well. You might compare it to what we commonly know as the domino effect. Also remember. Once the bush goes and the desert takes over, everything, from the elephants down to the smallest antelope to the birds and insects dies. So I believe that if we want the wild places and their inhabitants to survive and succeed, we need to address the problem in a humane, scientific and ethical manner. So let's take a look at our options....Elephant Translocations
This idea really took off in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Everyone thought we'd found the answer, but a few problems became apparent fairly soon after. Firstly, it wasn't uncommon for a family unit to be accidentally split between areas during the translocation process. This caused a lot of anxiety and unnatural behaviour in both the translocated female and calf population and the remaining female and calf part of the family unit, it also meant that a fairly large percentage of translocated males tried to break out of the new area and walk home. This made for lost bull elephants wandering across roads and railway lines and getting into areas he could cause a long list of problems. Later on, it was discovered that the breeding rates of translocated herds increased for some inexplicable reason, this of course accelerated the overpopulation rate of the herds in the new (smaller) areas.
In the larger area from which they'd been taken, it was possible to move entire or close to entire family units. In the smaller areas they'd been translocated to, all the elephants were inter-related. By taking a percentage of the population, you'd be causing another, more serious bout of anxiety and unnatural and destructive behaviour and the only other alternative would be to remove the entire population to somewhere else. If you do that, you'll have the same problem, possibly worse, all over again in a few years time. So translocation really isn't the answer.Elephant Contraception
It was suggested by some people that the elephant bulls be vasectomised. One reason this is impossible is that the male keeps his testes tucked up inside his body cavity. (Maybe he knew that someday, someone was going to make this suggestion!) The saggy mass you see between his hind legs, is nothing more than loose skin. To vasectomise an elephant would require extremely intrusive surgical procedures, be virtually impossible, very time consuming and expensive and almost certainly doomed to failure because he would then have to be kept extremely calm for a long period whilst he healed from such a major operation. Keeping a wild animal the size of an elephant calm for such a long time would simply be impossible. So vasectomy is not an option.
OK, so let's move on to some kind of birth control for the females - and there are a lot of females. It is in theory, possible to control their breeding cycle with regular massive doses of hormones; the problems are that each individual female would have to be re-treated every two or three months at most. To make any dent in the population, you'd have to treat and keep track of a huge number of females in massive areas of land. It simply isn't possible or even affordable to keep track of so many elephants over such a long period of years to maintain these treatments. To say nothing of the fact that having such a huge number of hormonal female elephants running around would cause no end of problems in their own habitat etc. So that option is also out of the window in practical terms.
So we must ask ourselves what other options do we have left...and the cold hard facts are that culling is the only other option. Now, if we're going to consider that option, let's consider how we can do that in as a most humane, scientific and responsible manner as possible.
As family units of cows and calves are so different to their male counterparts, the solutions for the two sexes are very different, I believe we need to find separate solutions to two separate problems. I'll start with the thornier of the two - the females and calves.
As we've discussed, elephant society is matriarchal, and amongst the females and calves incredibly close knit relationships exist and they are very sensitive indeed to removal of individuals. In the early days of elephant control in parks and game reserves etc. It was accepted that a culling team usually consisted of no more than three cullers and three loaders. These men had to have nerves of steel and be very well trained and rehearsed. A successful culling team would get the targeted animals into a suitable area and when the cull happened, it was fast, quick and very effective. The object of the exercise would be to drop every animal from oldest to youngest within a time period of less than three minutes and all touching each other. Extremely unpleasant, and something I personally would want no part of, but it worked. Once the cull was finished, the meat would be processed and either given immediately to the locals who were desperate for protein or in some cases, preserved for future use.
Later, the beginnings of political correctness decreed that the young elephants would be spared and translocated to other areas. This simply didn't work as they grew up without adult supervision (remember those close family ties?) and as these elephants grew older, they became the elephantine equivalent of hooligans. The Pilanesberg Reserve for example, took some of these orphans and they caused no end of trouble, including killing rhino and other animals. Eventually the problem was partially solved by moving a few older bulls into the area that then put the youngsters in their places. It worked in the short term, but the same cycle of overpopulation will soon occur. Later still, the game departments decided to try a different culling method. They darted the entire herd from helicopters, these darts didn't kill the animals however, they simply paralysed them, so they couldn't move and the animals just lay there until they were shot. The chemicals in the bodies of the dead elephants meant it was often unfit for human consumption. That to me, is considerably less humane and less logical than simple culling the old way.
Therefore, I believe that the overpopulation problem of cow and calf elephants should be managed by traditional culling methods, in a professional manner by professional culling teams on the ground, and armed with large calibre rifles, and the meat from the carcasses be given to the local populations. Any way you look at it, culling teams have to be extremely well trained and efficient and a culling site is certainly is no place for an amateur. I personally believe that it is ethically totally inexcusable to allow the sport hunting of cow and/or calf elephants.
Now let's move onto the bulls, which thankfully, are considerably simpler. The bulls are a lot less dependant on the herd inter-relationships and considerably more independent of each other. I believe they can be treated in a similar way to most other mammals and can, indeed should, be hunted in the usual manner. I personally believe that it is perfectly acceptable, ethical and indeed responsible to sport hunt the bull population and would suggest that a percentage of the monies taken from the bull hunts be passed over to pay for the ethical, scientific and professional culling of the cows and calves, and the meat from both be either given to the local populations and/or (if possible), preserved for future use.