Thursday, July 15, 2010

Condoms for Elephants

I love elephants. In fact, they may be my favourite wild animal. (I have a soft spot for corgis on the domestic front.) When we weren’t mentally sizing crocodiles at Olifants River game reserve the week before last, we were treated to some wonderful elephant herd visits across the river right in front of us. These pictures are by Aron Frankental. (No, he didn’t actually get murdered in A Carrion Death!)

Actually, everyone loves elephants. Hence the justified outcry and horror at the ivory poaching which decimated the elephant populations to the north.


Elephants are voracious feeders. They need huge quantities of fodder every day to keep body and soul together. Their size gives them strength and power, but the engine room requires stoking practically all the time. And despite the long gestation period – almost two years – they are successful breeders. The whole herd will protect the calves with considerable aggression; my vehicle was chased some distance by an angry mother on that visit. They are not prone to serious epidemics. And they live a long time. Thirty years ago the Sabie game reserve was proud of its herd of 17 elephants. Now they have over 1000. Our own Balule game reserve has numbers around 500 from only a handful 20 years ago. Of course much of this is influx from the bordering Kruger National Park, but those elephants are moving in from somewhere.

In Tsavo National Park in Kenya, elephant numbers built up to the level where they converted forest into grassland. Fortunately, Tsavo has a geological structure and hence soils which are able to support both types of ecology. It is not clear that this is the case in the western Kruger National Park area. And the grassland couldn’t sustain the elephant population leading to a gruesome die-off.

Our second novel – A Deadly Trade – is set in the lush riverine Linyanti region bordering the Chobe National Park on the northern border of Botswana. It is a “forest” reserve but trophy hunting takes place there perhaps reducing its attraction for the large pachyderms.

If you move back from the river into the national park, the amount of tree damage is horrifying. Some areas look like a war zone. 120 years ago, hunter and explorer Frederick Selous wrote of the area: “we continued our journey westward along the southern bank of the Chobe... As we had been informed, we found that a dense continuous jungle interspersed with large forest trees, came down in most parts to the water. ... As we proceeded, traces of the presence of elephants and buffaloes became more and more frequent...” The area has had little human impact over the 120 years. This is how it looks today:

So what is the answer if there is an answer? Well, there is considerable support for serious culling and it already takes place. Some of the meat is made available to local people and the ivory used to be a revenue source for the national parks before the total ban. But no one likes it. So there have been experiments with various methods of contraception instead. (No, the condoms was a joke!) Hormone type contraceptives did not prove satisfactory, causing behavioural and other problems. But an immune contraceptive – porcine zona pellucid vaccine (pZp) is very promising, has moved out of the experimental stage, and is being used in several of the private game reserves. It seems safe, reversible, lasts for about twelve months, causes no behavioural problems. But, of course, it’s expensive. Bullets are cheap, even elephant bullets. So, as usual, it comes down to deciding what we want, and then being willing to pay for it.

Michael – Thursday.


  1. The degraded environment is not just the fault is not the elephants'. Rapidly growing human populations are confining elephants to ever smaller spaces. Culling is a questionable strategy and may even lead to elephants reproducing more. Cross-border corridors need to be opened that allow elephants to follow their natural migration routes and take the pressure off the areas where they are confined now. (By the way, when resources are scarce, such as in a drought, elephants STOP reproducing.) A couple years ago the South African government called on numerous people involved with elephant issues to participate in an assessment of various options to dealing with elephants. Unfortunately, the government has not bothered to follow its more innovative recommendations. You can read it here --

    Why are people (men?) so quick to take up guns when there are other, perhaps better long-term solutions? Come on, guys. Use some creativity.

  2. Amazing piece, Michael, and wonderful pictures. The wilderness we have destroyed, that always managed to keep itself in balance without help from us, is the greatest of the world's lost treasures. John Muir said, "In wilderness is the preservation of the world." Well, real wilderness is mostly gone, now, and we've lost something priceless.

  3. I read the Summary for policymakers from the report recommended by Anonymous (?). It was most interesting. Of course for the recommendations to be taken seriously and implemented, it would have to be accompanied by a serious lobbying effort of relevant government officials. If Anonymous reads this, perhaps (s)he can report on that.

    Michael did not advocate culling (at least in my reading of the blog), but suggested that we as a society have to make the decision on how to proceed and then be willing to pay for that.

  4. Everyone seems to be able to relate to elephants, interesting considering their size and their relative lack of beauty (giraffes, for example, have beautiful eyes).

    I once saw a documentary at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. The most striking image was of a group of females surrounding another, running their trunks along her body. Her baby had died and the other mothers were consoling her.

    How can anyone want to destroy a being that grieves? Bullets are always the simple solution for getting rid of anything living that gets in the way.

    I, needless to say, have absolutely no idea how to go about remedying the problem. We see elephants in zoos and never consider the amount of food they need. But people who do have access to the animals and their habitat can create a solution. The problems in solving a problem usually arise when the solution is going to prevent someone from making a lot of money. Then the greed gene buries the genius gene.

  5. Thanks for the comments! No, I'm certainly NOT advocating culling. The reality is that it is implemented (in at least Kruger National Park). The contraceptive option was taken up by several of the surrounding reserves but (as I understand the current situation) rejected by the National Parks Board as too expensive. (They talked around $100 per cow pa and they have around 10,000 elephants.)

    But I AM saying there is a problem and there is a variety of alternative ways of addressing it. It really is deeper than "the poachers and trophy hunters versus the good guys".

    Indeed, Bob Scholes book would be a good place to start for anyone seriously interested. Thanks for highlighting it.

  6. The problem here is that when elephant numbers were low and the trade of ivory was strong (which resulted in in-humane poaching)there was a huge out cry to the world to save the elephant, well the out cry worked, but its worked to well, people are now so hung up about "saving the elephants" that they forget there is allot more to mother nature than just elephants, what people arent seeing is that the distruction elephants cause when their number are to high (such as Chobe), is that everything else that that once florished is now gone, Are you blind people, can you imagion the bird life in Chobe 120 years ago with those amazing forests, i bet its no where near to what it used to be, and lets think a bit broader here, Forest = Insects, butterfly's, rodents, reptiles, birds, rich, fertile soils with amazing trees (aid in keeping carbin dioxide levels down)forests are one of the rich in life, things exsist there that you never even think about... Now you just have Elephants??? It doesnt seem life a fair swap, We lost all those other species just for one??? All you elephant "Huggers" pretend to care about animals and being fair to mother natures creations, but yet you are blinded, How many insects, butterflies, mammals, rodents, birds and countless other things have gone extinct, just because you "care about elephants" Mother nature is about allot more than just elephants and a healthy ecosystem is depends on much more than just elephants too!! You worry about culling elephants but dont care about eveything else that is dying... Open your eyes, Yes we have been forced to keep elephants confined to fenced off reserves, but when you kiss your child "good night" tonight, know that it is because of you, that these animals have to be confined to reserves! If everyone could just see that it is not our purpose or right to have a child, this world be able to sustain us and eveything else around it allot better!! So yes, cry about people culling elephants but know that you have caused them to be kept in the confines of a reserve and since they cant roam freely anymore, it is our duty to manage the enviroment, not just for one species but for all life that occurs!!