5 min read

Rather Than Culling, Some Elephants Are Taking Birth Control

<p><a class="checked-link" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwshq/6987533809/sizes/m/" style="text-decoration: none;">USFWS Headquarters</a>/<a class="checked-link" href="https://www.flickr.com/photos/usfwshq/" style="text-decoration: none;">Flickr</a>/CC BY 2.0</p>

Poaching is a very real danger to many elephants in Africa, but pachyderm life in southern Africa is less fraught with risk. The East and South African elephant populations are growing by about 4 percent per year, according to a 2007 estimate. And in certain reserves, such as the Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park in South Africa, the elephants are breeding in such numbers wildlife officials have announced they're taking up dart gun birth control.

Thanks to an abundance of habitat and a relative lack of poaching, South Africa's elephants "live long and multiply quickly," NPR pointed out last year. Some ecologists argue creating pathways between parks is preferable to controlling the population outright; but "moving them to other countries would be expensive and a political nightmare."

When elephant overcrowding in wildlife reserves becomes an issue, the animals can further degrade environments, already limited by a growing human population. That's not to shift blame on the elephants, of course. Instead, birth control is a measure "to slow their growth rates so as to prevent loss of biodiversity, to maintain ecosystem function and resilience, to reduce harm to human lives or livelihoods," says Humane Society International, which is working with South Africa's Ezemvelo KwaZulu Natal Wildlife agency in the area.

Administering contraception via dart might sound a bit unusual compared with the average human approach, but for wildlife managers, it provides a way to keep populations in check without resorting to culling or other lethal methods. From a distance, rangers can deliver a prophylactic payload - an immunocontraceptive vaccine, rather than hormones - without anesthesia.

As 2011 report in the American Journal of Reproductive Immunology notes, steroid hormones can have adverse effects as they travel throughout the ecological web. Vaccines can target a specific species, on the other hand, triggering an immune response that prevents egg fertilization. And should elephant numbers dip, the effects can be reversed.

"We're delighted to see more and more elephant managers count on this technology to control elephant population growth in a proactive, effective and humane manner," said Audrey Delsink, director of Humane Society International's Elephant Contraception Program, in a statement, "and hope it becomes universally adopted."

Elephants aren't the only animals receiving birth control vaccines - as of 2007, over 85 different animal species had been managed this way. In April, an Australian wildlife rescue group petitioned the Canberra government to use kangaroo birth control, rather than a cull.

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