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."
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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."
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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 email@example.com or (727) 893-8486.