Quick snip cuts elephant numbers

2009-08-10 00:00

VASECTOMIES may provide an answer to the controversial and often emotional issue of managing fast-growing elephant populations in smaller parks.

That’s the view of a team of pioneering veterinary surgeons and African conservationists who earlier this month successfully performed laparoscopic vasectomies on seven bull elephants in Swaziland’s Big Game Parks, Hlane Royal National Park and Mkhaya Game Reserve.

The project, dubbed “Operation Jumbo”, was the culmination of over a decade of intensive research and development, according to Dr Mark Stetter, who is director of veterinary services at Disney Animal Kingdom in the United States and led the team of veterinary surgeons who performed the procedures.

Stetter said his team have been collaborating with conservation authorities in Africa since 2001 to perfect its technique.

While experimental vasectomies have been performed on elephants in Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal, Big Game Parks is the first conservation authority to attempt vasectomies on as large a scale.

According to Mick Reilly, head of conservation at Big Game Parks, vasectomy “probably offers the most practical and acceptable method of population management, specifically where smaller elephant populations are concerned”.

Elephants have a significant impact not only on vegetation, but on all related components, said Reilly in a statement.

For example, elephants’ liking for the bark of the ancient Acacia Nigrescence or knob thorn in Hlane affects the wellbeing of the tree-nesting vulture, a nesting colony of marabou storks and Swaziland’s critically endangered black rhino.

“Once man takes a hand in nature through urban development and by confining areas with fences, it follows logically that he needs to manage said biodiversity accordingly,” said Reilly.

The elephant vasectomy offers a range of advantages. These include the fact that the once-off surgery is relatively non-invasive and reduces the need for culling while maintaining biological diversity at the same time.

In addition, the procedure does not affect hormonal levels in bulls (they still go into musth), thereby leaving unaffected the bulls’ breeding and social behaviour.

Stetter also said it offers a flexible strategy which can be “applied to a pre-selected number of bulls in order to determine a birth rate suited to a specific environment”.

But elephant vasectomies don’t come cheap. Reilly said had it not been for the generosity of the veterinary team (made up of Americans and South Africans) which provided much of the equipment, expertise and travel free of charge, the costs would have been “prohibitive”.

“The costs relating to accommodation, meals, the capture team and equipment and the helicopter amounted to well over R100 000,” Reilly added.

He said the ultimate success or failure of the operation will be quantifiable only in four to five years’ time due to the interval between calving in elephants.

• Using a helicopter team to dart it, the chosen elephant is immobilised.

• A ground team clears the bush. Minutes later, the elephant is suspended from a crane, fitted with a harness and flipped over. A sterile operating table is set up on the crane truck.

• Two 12 cm incisions are made along the flanks.

• A specially-designed 1,5 metre-long rigid laparoscope, fitted with camera and light, is inserted into the abdomen.

• The deferent ducts are clamped and a four- to six-centimetre sperm-carrying section removed.

• External incisions are closed using equine suture and stainless steel trace wire.

• A few minutes later, an antidote is applied and the elephant stumbles up to return to the herd.

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