Reigniting an emotional battle over one of the planet's most beloved species, South Africa announced Monday that it's lifting a moratorium on killing elephants to control their burgeoning numbers.
Animal rights activists, who fought to end the practice in the mid '90s, protested the decision, describing elephant culls as "undeniably cruel and morally reprehensible." The South African government, meanwhile, said the culls would be used only as a last resort to protect wildlife and habitat threatened by the approximately 20,000 elephants in the country's parks.
Although this debate may seem remote to Floridians, it already has found its way to the Tampa Bay region. Three of the African elephants on display at Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo were born in South Africa's Kruger National Park and were survivors of earlier culls before the ban in 1995.
As calves, these three elephants — a bull named Msholo and cows named Matjeka and Mbali — were spared as the rest of their family groups were killed. After the culls, they and other orphaned survivors were moved to game parks in Swaziland, a tiny kingdom in eastern South Africa.
The problems from South Africa soon replicated themselves in Swaziland. As the small herds grew, they began to overrun the parks, consuming the bark from many trees and knocking down others, leaving some sections looking like moonscapes. Faced with the possibility of carrying out a cull of their own, Swazi officials decided to send some of the elephants to American zoos.
In August 2003, in a move that sparked protests on both sides of the Atlantic, 11 wild elephants were flown from Swaziland to the United States — seven headed for the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park, four for Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa. One of the four at Lowry Park, a bull named Sdudla, has since been sent on loan to the Montgomery Zoo in Alabama for breeding.
With Monday's announcement that the South African culls can resume this spring, the debate is heating up again. Animal Rights Africa, based in Johannesburg, is threatening legal action and a call for tourist boycotts. The group says that there are not too many elephants in South Africa and that the culls are unnecessary.
"How much like us do elephants have to be before killing them becomes murder?" says a spokeswoman.
South Africa disagrees. More than 14,000 elephants were killed there between 1967 and 1994. Without those culls, their numbers would have surged by now to 80,000, according to the national parks service.
Larry Killmar, Lowry Park's director of collections, was deeply involved in the negotiations to bring the 11 elephants from Swaziland to the U.S. zoos. He witnessed the problems in Africa firsthand, touring the devastated sections of Kruger National Park.
South Africa, Killmar says, had no choice but to allow more culls. The only alternative would be for the elephants to starve themselves and deprive other species of both food and habitat.
"Basically," he says, "the animals are eating themselves out of house and home."
Chris Kingsley, a South African vet who specializes in elephants and other exotic animals, agrees that the government's resumption of the culls was unavoidable.
"They don't have any alternative, quite honestly," Kingsley said in a phone interview Monday. He explained that no more open land is available in South Africa. And though recent strides have been made with elephant contraception, the technology still isn't viable on a large scale.
Kingsley has worked with the species for decades. He was on the 747 that transported the Swazi elephants from Africa to Tampa, watching over the animals to make sure they did not become overly stressed during the marathon flight. And in the early '90s, when South Africa was still culling herds in Kruger, he observed the killings firsthand.
Typically, he says, the culls began with a helicopter crew flying over the bush, looking for family groups isolated from other elephants. The targeted group would be darted from the air with a tranquilizer strong enough to make them collapse. A ground crew would then move in and finish off the elephants with guns.
In decades before, elephant culls could be shockingly brutal. A crew would first shoot the matriarch of a herd, climb atop her carcass and wait for the other elephants to approach, then pick them off, too.
Even the new method, intended to be more humane, is "pretty unpleasant," says the vet. "I don't think the people involved in it like doing it at all. But it's done very clinically and quickly."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.
Thomas French can be reached
or (727) 893-8486.