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Too much of a big thing in Botswana

WANTED: Good home for African elephants. Must have references, proof of finances. Contact Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, Gaborone, Botswana.

Think of Africa and few images more quickly come to mind than that of the elephant, thundering in mighty herds across the sub-Saharan plains. For thousands of visitors each year, the African elephant with its huge, flapping ears is the very symbol of a vast and majestic continent.

But is it possible to have too much of good thing _ especially when it weighs five tons?

"If you talk to a tourist who sees these large, very impressive herds, no, there are not too many elephants," says Daniel Mughogho of Botswana's Department of Wildlife and National Parks. "If you talk to a farmer whose fields have been destroyed by elephants, he will say, "Yes, there are, too many.' "

In the past decade, Botswana's pachyderm population has doubled from 60,000 to 120,000, the largest of any African nation. With human-elephant conflicts on the rise, Botswana hopes it can get other countries _ or even private game reserves _ to take at least a few thousand off its hands.

The government recently approved donating 500 elephants to Mozambique, whose own herds were decimated by poaching during years of civil war. Nigeria and Angola have also expressed an interest.

But there's a catch _ the recipient has to pay the full cost of getting the beasts to their new home.

By some estimates, it can run several hundred thousand dollars per pachyderm, including tranquilizers, veterinarian services, a crane, crate and transportation.

The receiving country must also satisfy Botswanan officials that it has strong conservation laws and a suitable habitat for elephants, which can eat 1,000 pounds of vegetation a day and drink as much as 50 gallons of water.

"We cannot just send these elephants to a banana republic _ it would be sentencing them to death," Mughogho says.

Botswana's bounty of elephants is due in part to the animals' acute sensitivity to political conditions. Thousands of elephants migrated from Angola as that country's game preserves were ravaged by civil war. And after cash-strapped Zimbabwe closed its man-made watering holes, thousands more streamed across the border to Botswana's Okavango Delta, one of the world's largest inland water systems.

"Water seems to be the limiting factor _ they move where the water is," Mughogho says.

Botswana, one of Africa's most prosperous and stable nations, also has skilled antipoaching units, which have prevented the wanton killing of elephants for their ivory tusks.

As the number of elephants soars, the government receives more and more complaints of them threatening farmers' livelihoods and even their lives. In June, residents of eastern Botswana, near Zimbabwe, begged officials to immediately relocate elephants that had damaged fences, trampled crops and forced some farmers to flee.

Last year, the government paid 6-million pula _ about $1.43-million _ in compensation to citizens whose property had been destroyed by natural predators, mostly elephants. Most predator-related deaths _ about five a year _ are also caused by elephants.

As part of its effort to cull the population, Botswana allows a limited number of elephants to be hunted as "trophy animals." Communities throughout the country are given a quota _ a total of 210 this year _ and generally form joint ventures with safari companies.

The companies also pay the government about $2,500 per elephant: "How much they charge the trophy hunter from Texas we don't know," Mughogho says.

But it is nature, not man, that may do the most effective job of reducing Botswana's elephant herds. Since early September, the country has been struggling to control an outbreak of anthrax that has killed more than 200 elephants, buffaloes and hippos. Authorities have been forced to close Chobe National Park _ home to one of the greatest concentrations of elephants on earth.

Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susansptimes.com

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