Elephants go on ‘the pill’

2014-01-11 00:00

ELEPHANT cows are to be put on “the pill” and splashed with pink throughout KwaZulu-Natal, due to the fear that their offspring might trash the reserves.

Despite their numbers being threatened elsewhere in Africa, ecologists and rangers fear that South Africa’s population — 20 000 and growing — could experience a baby boom that would threaten food sources for other animals.

Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife district ecologist Catherine Hanekom said a six-year project at Tembe Elephant Park in Maputaland had more than halved birthrates, using a non-hormonal contraceptive fired from helicopters.

Known as “immuno-contraception”, the method is widely preferred to culling and includes the marking of each darted female with pink-coloured dye to show which one has been medicated.

The roll-out of the mega-contraception plan will begin with the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi park, uMkhuze game reserve and the Eastern Shores reserve this year, with Ithala game reserve following within two to three years.

Hanekom said, “Elephants can cause a significant impact on the environment; they are able to manipulate ecosystems. Elephants have particular eating habits and can change the vegetation of an ecosystem significantly.”

One example of how elephants can change vegetation is that they are fond of eating from the Albizia tree. A herd can easily clear out the entire species within a park, with catastrophic effects for organisms dependent on the tree.

Wildlife experts around KZN have been implementing various strategies to curb elephant overpopulation. But Henkom said that translocation of the animals was a “very strategic process” and that immuno-contraception had proved to be the easiest method.

She said that officials were trying to curb the birth of calves without disrupting their social behaviour and natural population structure, so that one generation may teach the following where to find food and water.

“We minimise the impact this can have of the social behaviour of the elephants. The exercise is done during winter when the animals are most visible, and done by the in-house, highly experienced veterinarian.”

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