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In South Africa, Where Elephants Are Fenced In, Choosing Contraception Over Culling

By Karen Lange

The elephants take off running as the helicopter banks around a hill, pushing headlong through the bush and low trees into the river valley in South Africa’s Ithala Game Reserve.

The elephants seem to be fleeing the chopper’s noisy approach as if it’s some kind of predatory beast, but, the pilot says, “They’re not really panicking—they’re quite relaxed.” It’s just reflexive running, not true terror.

As the chopper circles, they group and regroup. Some raise their trunks and wheel. It’s hard not to imagine that the price of this aerial view—of a breeding herd of mothers and daughters and pre-adolescent sons and calves hurtling along the valley floor—is their fear.

 

Fleeing the sound of a helicopter, elephants in Ithala Game Reserve run through the Pongola River Valley, on the park’s northern boundary. Photograph by Michelle Riley/The Humane Society of the United States.
Fleeing the sound of a helicopter, elephants in Ithala Game Reserve run through the Pongola River Valley, on the park’s northern boundary. Photograph by Michelle Riley/The Humane Society of the United States.

 

The helicopter is giving a photographer ammunition for an article about an elephant contraceptive called PZP, which provokes an immune reaction in cows, causing them to produce antibodies that bind to the surfaces of their eggs and prevent fertilization.

A previous flight that morning had carried no one more dangerous than a veterinarian vaccinating elephant cows with the drug: green splotches of dye on their hindquarters marking where the darts hit.

 

Veterinarian Dave Cooper, dart gun in hand, walks toward a helicopter that will take him to vaccinate female elephants in Ithala Game Reserve with the contraceptive PZP. The park began treating its elephants in 2014. Photograph by Michelle Riley/The Humane Society of the United States.
Veterinarian Dave Cooper, dart gun in hand, walks toward a helicopter that will take him to vaccinate female elephants in Ithala Game Reserve with the contraceptive PZP. The park began treating its elephants in 2014. Photograph by Michelle Riley/The Humane Society of the United States.
Veterinarian Dave Cooper prepares the PZP vaccine early in the morning on the day Ithala’s elephants are to be darted with the new birth control drug. Photograph by Michelle Riley/The Humane Society of the United States.
Veterinarian Dave Cooper prepares the PZP vaccine early in the morning on the day Ithala’s elephants are to be darted with the new birth control drug. Photograph by Michelle Riley/The Humane Society of the United States.
Green dye in the darts temporarily marks vaccinated elephants as treated with the contraceptive. The darts fall harmlessly out. Photograph by Michelle Riley/The Humane Society of the United States.
Green dye in the darts temporarily marks vaccinated elephants as treated with the contraceptive. The darts fall harmlessly out. Photograph by Michelle Riley/The Humane Society of the United States.

 

The older elephants in the photographer’s viewfinder might have been among those whose families were gunned down around them decades before during culling operations, which South Africa suspended in 1994.

Fatal Solution

During the 1970s and ’80s into the early ’90s, helicopter flights in Kruger National Park carried sharpshooters who methodically picked off one elephant after another to reduce the population in the fenced preserve.

During certain culls, calves were spared for relocation to protected areas without elephants. Around 50 of those calves ended up in Ithala reserve, which adopted PZP in 2014, because elephant numbers had increased so fast. (Ithala’s conservation manager is now trying to give away 30 elephants but hasn’t found any protected areas willing to take them.)

Now the chopper leaves the breeding herd and descends toward a smaller group of bulls who also flee along the mudflats, where they’ve just been rolling, the tan dirt coating their backs.

In 2008, the South African government issued rules that allowed culling again—but only as a last resort, after all nonlethal means are exhausted.

The contraceptive delivered to the Ithala elephants is a way to avoid any further killing. Proven effective in trials funded by Humane Society International at Greater Makalali Private Game Reserve, PZP will slow population growth so that the habitats on which Ithala’s elephants and other species depend can be preserved.

In South Africa, 20 protected areas now use PZP, including nine of the country’s 25 parks and reserves with the largest elephant populations. Ithala, with 154 elephants, is one. Addo National Elephant Park, with an estimated 600 elephants, is another.

 

An untreated breeding herd of elephants crosses a grassland in Addo Elephant National Park near Port Elizabeth. Elsewhere in Addo, cows have been vaccinated with the contraceptive PZP. Photograph by Michelle Riley/The Humane Society of the United States.
An untreated breeding herd of elephants crosses a grassland in Addo Elephant National Park near Port Elizabeth. Elsewhere in Addo, cows have been vaccinated with the contraceptive PZP. Photograph by Michelle Riley/The Humane Society of the United States.

 

At Addo, there’s no need to go up in a helicopter to find elephants. Supremely comfortable around humans, the park’s herds spill onto roads. Fortunately, they’re mostly forgiving of the people in vehicles who sometimes crowd them to get a look. (Quite regularly across South Africa, tourists who fail to heed the warnings and get too close to elephants end up with their vehicles crushed.)

Returning Mercy

On a recent afternoon, even visitors careful to keep a distance were caught in a traffic jam. One SUV stopped right next to some elephants, and several more vehicles lined up behind it.

 

Yvonne (left) looks after 4-year-old Bean, offspring of a younger female in a breeding herd at Makalali. Before being treated with the contraceptive PZP, cows at Makalali are allowed to reproduce once. Photograph by Michelle Riley/The Humane Society of the United States.
Yvonne (left) looks after 4-year-old Bean, offspring of a younger female in a breeding herd at Makalali. Before being treated with the contraceptive PZP, cows at Makalali are allowed to reproduce once. Photograph by Michelle Riley/The Humane Society of the United States.

 

The herd started to cross the road—one elephant, then three, then two, the full size of the group not revealed until they left the thicket of spekboom plants. More and more elephants emerged, barely able to squeeze between the vehicles.

Then, as if realizing that their route was blocked, the elephants began heading down the road on either side of the parked SUVs.

Tourists being tourists, they took pictures. The elephants passed still closer to the trapped vehicles, inches away from where people sat, windows down, clutching their cameras.

With patience and forbearance, the herd slipped past the vehicles lined up across their path. No amount of human intelligence spared the people stuck on that road. What saved them was the intelligence of the elephants. Their mercy.

PZP is a way to return that mercy. With PZP, culls need never happen again.

Karen Lange is senior content creator for All Animals magazine, published by The Humane Society of the United States. An article on elephant contraception— “End of Culling?”appears in the March/April issue.

 

An untreated breeding herd of elephants crosses a grassland in Addo Elephant National Park near Port Elizabeth. Elsewhere in Addo, cows have been vaccinated with the contraceptive PZP. Photograph by Michelle Riley/The Humane Society of the United States.
An untreated breeding herd of elephants crosses a grassland in Addo Elephant National Park near Port Elizabeth. Elsewhere in Addo, cows have been vaccinated with the contraceptive PZP. Photograph by Michelle Riley/The Humane Society of the United States.

Comments

  1. Larry Laverty
    Oakland, California
    July 25, 2015, 12:56 am

    A far better idea than culling. Enough with the killing of elephants. Enough! Mankind has mercilessly killed elephants without realizing the true majesty of these beings. And while on the subject of contraception, it would be in the best interest of the planet if mankind would exercise much stricter birth control. There are far too many of us here already. And as we overpopulate the planet, the remaining wildlife habitat is threatened even further.

  2. Cindy Jensen
    Lakeview, MI 48850
    May 4, 2015, 7:49 pm

    Please protect these human feeling creatures, one day there will be none left and that is a tragedy!

  3. Michaela Pond
    United States
    May 4, 2015, 3:31 pm

    we have been on safari in SA many times and will be returning again this year. We have seen what happens to elephant herds when some have been culled. When they witness the slaughter of their families They become very afraid of man and stay away. This hurts tourism bc many visit SA to see the noble giants. Please use contraception and do not cull. It is inhumane.

  4. Randy Janssen
    May 2, 2015, 9:57 pm

    Another stupid idea. Think of the money that can be made by selling hunts. Money that can help people and the environment. Also, birth control will not only reduce the number of elephants, but also the quality. Hunting reduces the number of adults, but birth control reduces the number of babies. Since those unborn babies will never become adults, no natural selection will take place.