Controlling elephant populations has long been a challenge for veterinarians and conservationists. The practice is often wrought with ethical dilemmas and those involved are forced to consider a number of factors when deciding to cull these animals in their numbers.
The subject of elephant culling is also a massive issue for animal rightsâ€™ activists, who argue that any sort of population control is immoral and barbaric.
Elephants wreak havoc on their environment and require vast swathes of land to survive. Proponents of the process argue that elephants must be culled in order to prevent them from overpopulating a limited area of space or encroaching on growing human settlements and accommodation, particularly In Addo Elephant Park.
Culling requires that a large amount of animals are slaughtered at once and oftentimes entire herds are completely wiped out to limit the emotional impact it would have on any survivors, particularly would-be orphaned calves.
Despite the practice being abolished in 1995, the culling of elephants has since been reintroduced in South Africa. This decision, taken by the South African government in 2008, comes despite the fact that the overall population of elephants on the continent continues to decline.
The sordid nature of slaughtering these animals has prompted vets to search for alternatives; and a group of 17 scientists may have found a viable option in the chemical castration of bull elephants.
Chemical castration involves the suppression of testosterone through hormone treatment and has been used on a variety of animals, including dogs, pigs, bulls and horses.
This, however, is the first time this treatment has been used on elephants and the process has proven to be remarkably successful. A series of injections was found to shrink bull elephantâ€™s testes by over 60 percent, causing their sperm production to decrease significantly.
“Although African elephant populations are under pressureâ€š in southern Africa fertility control is warranted as capacities in smallerâ€š fenced game reserves are exceededâ€š” researchers from the University of Pretoriaâ€™s Onderstepoort faculty of veterinary science and the National Zoological Gardens of SA are quoted as saying by Business Day.
The veterinarians also believe the treatment could be effective in controlling problem elephants in captivity, who are often a nightmare to handle for zookeepers.
More research regarding the ongoing viability of the treatment is required before it can be rolled out extensively across the continent, however, and researchers are yet to determine the effect of treatment on younger males, where early hormone treatment could adversely affect the development of their sexual organs.