The Sad Irony Behind Saving Africa's Elephants

A scientist grapples with the ethical dilemma of having to cull some elephants in overcrowded nature parks to preserve habitat for the rest

IN a few African parks that are well protected from ivory poachers, there are too many elephants. Elephants retreat from habitat lost to spreading agriculture and seek sanctuary inside the parks. Soon there are more elephants than the parks' vegetation can support. The elephants steadily eat themselves out of house and home, reducing food stocks for other species such as rhino.

The result: an agonizing decision for park managers. The elephant numbers, many scientists assert, should be reduced until they are within the carrying capacity of the parks.

Translation: cull the surplus. In more direct language, kill the unwanted ones.

As a strong proponent of culling, I once went on just such an exercise in Kenya. I flew off in a helicopter with cullers at daybreak, looking for the first elephants available. To make the culling strictly random and thus avoid upsetting the balance of males and females, old and young, in the local population, it is the rule that the first elephants sighted are to be the target. They may be a herd of 30, or they could be three, or even an elephant on its own. Another rule: The whole lot must be eliminated, otherwise the frightened survivors might cause trouble for the next humans they encounter, probably tourists.

We soon came across a herd scattered among trees. The helicopter flew low and harried the herd out into the open. They congregated in the open plain, forming a tight group for protection. They totaled 23 elephants of all ages, including several calves. The helicopter landed a little way downwind, and we tiptoed toward the herd.

There were three sharpshooters, each backed by a porter with extra rifles already loaded. When they were in position, the head hunter whispered the word and the shooting began.

The savanna scene erupted. The riflemen worked as fast and efficiently as they could. Then suddenly, as instantaneously as it had begun, the tumult was over. Silence again. Not an elephant remained.

It took me months to move on from that savanna scene. As I write, 20-odd years later, I feel I shall never leave it behind properly, since I left a piece of myself there. Sophisticated scientist that I was, I had proclaimed the virtues, nay, the necessity, of culling. And with modern techniques, it could be done clinically. The elephants would hardly know what happened.

We had barely known what we were doing when we allowed human pressures to rob the elephants of their living space outside the park. It was our problem. We had set it up, so we had to resolve it - by pushing the problem onto them.

And yet, and yet. After we humans had painted ourselves into a corner, there was no escape except by blasting our way out. I began to recognize that we had to choose between something dreadful and something worse.

I still grapple with the dilemma. Surely, a voice inside me clamors, there must be a better way. Regrettably, that opinion was foreclosed to us a while ago - by our own hand. Now we find ourselves in a situation where the dictates of ecosystem science do not tolerate sidestepping the issue, and we have to slaughter animals in an area set up to safeguard them from marauding man.

A good number of elephants are going to die, either from culling or starvation. Tsavo Park in Kenya had 15,000 elephants in 1970, considered to be twice as many as its vegetation could support. When a drought struck, 5,000 of them starved to death. Human communities in the park's environs were hit by the same drought. If the elephants had been dispatched by scientists' bullets and the meat made available to local people, two problems could have been solved.

In Botswana and Zimbabwe, thousands of elephants have been culled each year in order to keep populations within the carrying capacity of their environments. Yet it is a fearful thing to visit such a solution on such superb creatures. Among our clinical calculations, let us hang on to that thought at least. Advanced scientists though we may be, we shall be reduced humans if we let slip the significance of what we do. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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