Birth control to manage elephant herds

Elephant numbers are declining in certain areas of the continent due to poaching. Picture: BENEDICT MAAGA

Elephant numbers are declining in certain areas of the continent due to poaching. Picture: BENEDICT MAAGA

Published Mar 7, 2014


Durban - Wildlife vets have begun darting dozens of female elephants with a contraceptive vaccine at Mkhuze game reserve as part a project to control KwaZulu-Natal’s growing elephant population.

The Mkhuze reserve, which forms part of the iSimangaliso Wetland Park and world heritage site, has a population of about 80 elephants and there is a similar-sized herd on the Western Shores section of Lake St Lucia.

There are also plans to extend the programme later this year to Hluhluwe-Imfolozi Park, which has a herd of more than 600 elephants, and to the Ithala Game Reserve, which has about 170 elephants.

The project is being sponsored by the Humane Society International, the US Fish and Wildlife Service and Ezemvelo.

The project, which is promoted as a more feasible and acceptable method of controlling elephant populations than culling, relocation or sterilisation, has been introduced to 15 public and private game reserves in South Africa.

The first vaccine contraceptive project in an Ezemvelo reserve began in 2007 in the Tembe Elephant Park.

The Humane Society said this week that although elephant poaching was rife in several parts of Africa, South Africa’s elephant population continued to increase and needed managed population levels, especially in smaller reserves and conservancies.

“Research conducted over the past 18 years has resulted in a robust body of scientific work demonstrating that immuno-contraception is a safe and effective way to control elephant population growth that has no effect on behaviour. It is also reversible.

“The vaccine is delivered remotely by dart gun, making the technique minimally invasive and eliminating the need for anaesthetisation.”

Once elephant cows have been darted, they need another booster shot after six weeks. Thereafter, cows have to be darted every year for the vaccine to remain effective.

Officials said it was often difficult to locate and vaccinate 100 percent of breeding females and as a result a small number of cows continued to give birth.

Last year, for example, about three calves were born in the Tembe elephant park despite the contraceptive project.

Audrey K Delsink, the society’s field director for the project in South Africa, said: “We are very pleased to be working with Ezemvelo and iSimangaliso on this project.

“We hope more elephant managers will embrace and use this technology to control elephant population growth in a proactive, effective and humane manner.” - The Mercury

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