Contraceptives for SA's elephants

South Africa's 18 000 elephants may be breathing a deep sigh of relief as a contraceptive for elephants, called PZP immunocontraception, is ready to be introduced into South Africa's major reserves, potentially replacing culling as a method of population control. Proactive methods of population control such as the PZP vaccine are gaining popularity over the widely contested method of culling in South Africa. At reserves such as Makweti Safari Lodge, in the Welgevonden Game Reserve, these contraceptive methods for elephant population control are already in use. In addition to being a more humane approach, the vaccine is also a more dynamic solution than culling, since it allows environmental managers to control elephant populations in response to the changing needs of the ecosystem like food availability.Funded by the United States-based NGO, Humane Society International, South African ecologists have wrapped up a study of elephant populations and the effects of the vaccine, concluding that it was “between 95% and 100%" successful in 14 elephant populations across the country and preferable to culling”. The initial trials were undertaken at Tembe with the hopes of extending the approach to other reserves run by Ezemvelo-KZN Wildlife, such as the Isimangaliso Wetland Park and Hluhluwe-iMfolozi.The good news comes just after the first World Elephant Day on August 12 and before the upcoming Elephant Appreciation Day on September 22. With African and Asian elephants facing danger at the hands of poachers and hunters, as well as increased competition for space and habitat destruction, elephants need all the conservation help they can get. The last decade has seen a growing demand for ivory products in Asian and Middle Eastern markets spurning a dramatic decline in African elephant populations.Although the plan is to start rolling out the contraceptive in smaller parks, the vaccine will not be implemented at the Kruger National Park, home to about 14270 elephants, as yet. However, more trials will start soon in Marakele National Park and sections of the Addo Elephant National Park.The contraceptive is beneficial in that it did not change the elephants’ behavior and did not result in permanent sterilization of cows – making it reversible on discontinuation. However, the study did not measure the long-term effects of the vaccine on the social structures of the herd. Since elephants are social animals and rely heavily on familial structures, inhibiting their abilities to procreate may have detrimental consequences. With a yearly cost of R1138 per elephant, the vaccine is also subject to the financial constraints of each reserve.

Do you think contraceptives offer a more effective solution for elephant population control? Let us know in the comments.

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