Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

African elephants face culling to reduce numbers

GREATER KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, SOUTH AFRICA — Driving on safari this past Friday, it was hard to imagine a more idyllic scene: Laughing doves taking flight over the turpentine grass. Impala leaping in the golden light of late afternoon.

Then our guide drove us into a meadow ringed by about 30 elephants. Two bulls lingered in the shadows. The rest were females and their calves, busily feeding. The cows chewed the bark off bushwillows. Under their mothers, the calves nursed, some young enough to have their milk tusks — the elephant version of baby teeth.

"This is what you call a perfect elephant sighting," said Ian Kruger, our 34-year-old guide, who has joyfully followed this country's wild creatures since he was a boy.

For all the scene's serenity, it was impossible to forget that these elephants — and thousands of others inside South Africa — are the subject of an international controversy. On May 1, the South African government lifted a 14-year-old ban on killing some herds to control their numbers and limit the damage they do to the environment. The decision has met with protests and ignited another storm of debate about our attempts to manage nature, especially through lethal force. Though the culls have not yet resumed, it's a matter of time.

From inside the Land Rover, I nodded toward the mothers and calves moving through the trees all around us. If this group were to be culled, I asked, how many would be killed?

Kruger swept his hand across the herd.

"All of them," he said. "All of these elephants would be dropping."

• • •

Elephants feed up to 18 hours a day, knocking down some trees and killing others by stripping off their bark. Too many elephants in a confined area threatens many other animals who rely on those trees for food and habitat.

Culls have been a recurring fact of life in South Africa for 50 years. Three of the elephants at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo were born in Kruger National Park and survived culls as calves.

Until the early '90s, calves were often spared during culls. But the mercy intended in this policy created its own problems. As the orphaned elephants reached adolescence, many of the males exhibited an almost pathological aggression, trampling through villages and attacking rhinos.

"Without the older adult males, there was no one to teach them and keep them in tow," said Kruger, watching the herd in the meadow.

Reading about the culls is not the same as seeing these astonishing animals here in the same rolling savannah where some of their species will soon be shot. As they roamed across our view with their babies, it was almost impossible not to feel an emotional connection with them and a sense of terrible loss.

Our guide — whose family name bears no relation with Kruger National Park — obviously felt the connection, too. Every time we came across elephants on our safari, seeing two bulls sparring in a water hole or an entire herd emerging from the trees, Kruger spoke of them with awe. He explained how they eat the tree bark for its nutrients, how they show fear or irritation with the spreading of their ears, how important it was to the species' genetic strength for the females to breed with the most dominant males.

And yet he believes the culls are necessary, given that the elephant population — estimated at more than 15,000 — has surged to roughly double the park's capacity.

"Because you can see, obviously, the amount of damage they can do," said Kruger, looking out toward the dead trees that dotted the meadow.

He wished there was another way to control the population without resorting to culls. The ideal alternative, he said, would be relocate family groups in countries where elephants are scarce, such as Angola and Zambia.

"But the cost of that would be massive."

• • •

By now the sun was setting, and the moon was rising in the eastern sky. A dwarf mongoose peeked from its lair, studying us as we studied the elephants eating their way across the meadow.

Sometime in the months ahead, helicopter crews will fly over Kruger, darting selected herds with tranquilizers, and then ground crews will finish them off with rifles.

For now, though, the elephants were free to push on. Moving together, they headed up the rise, the females lumbering toward the mopane trees, the calves hurrying to keep up.

In a moment, they were gone.

Thomas French can be reached at or (727) 893-8486.

Thinning the herd

The elephant population in Kruger National Park and in surrounding private nature reserves has grown steadily in recent years, according to the African Elephant Specialist Group:

2002: 12,4392005: 14,7352006: 15,387

The South African government says some must be culled but doesn't say how many. About 14,000 were culled between 1967 and 1994. Typically, culled elephants are butchered, their ivory taken and their skins and meat removed and salted.

African elephants face culling to reduce numbers 05/19/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 21, 2008 9:11pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Maria: Clearwater Coast Guard plane aids rescue near Puerto Rico


    Eight minutes. That's how long it took the Petty Officer 3rd Class Darryn Manley of the Coast Guard said it took him to spot the boat that capsized off a Puerto Rican island on Thursday.

  2. Mom of girl who died looking for candy seeks to keep husband away

    Public Safety

    TAMPA — Eight days after her 4-year-old daughter died in the care of paternal grandparents, pregnant Lizette Hernandez sat in a Hillsborough County courthouse Friday, attempting to seek full-time custody of her 19-month-old son.

    Lizette Hernandez, 22, completes paperwork Friday for a motion for protection from domestic violence against her husband, Shane Zoller. Their daughter, Yanelly, 4, died in a reported gun accident at the home of Zoller's parents Sept. 14. She alleges that her husband hit her and caused her to fall on a grave marker at their daughter's funeral Thursday in a tussle over their remaining 1-year-old son. [JONATHAN CAPRIEL  |  Times]
  3. New owners take over downtown St. Petersburg's Hofbräuhaus


    ST. PETERSBURG — The downtown German beer-hall Hofbräuhaus St. Petersburg has been bought by a partnership led by former Checkers Drive-In Restaurants president Keith Sirois.

    The Hofbrauhaus, St. Petersburg, located in the former historic Tramor Cafeteria, St. Petersburg, is under new ownership.

  4. Ed Sheeran coming to Raymond James Stadium in Tampa


    Let it never be said Ed Sheeran hasn't given the people of Tampa what they want.

  5. Editorial: Once more, homeowners are let down by state housing agency


    Once upon a time, the federal government created a program called the Hardest Hit Fund. Its goal was admirable, and its mission important. The fund was designed to aid Americans in danger of losing their houses after the Great Recession had wreaked havoc on the economy. Unfortunately, the folks in Washington erred in …

    The Hardest Hit Fund was designed to aid Americans in danger of losing their houses after the Great Recession. Unfortunately, the folks in Washington trusted Florida to get that money into the hands of people who needed it most.