Wildlife groups meeting with South Africa's environment minister Monday were split over a proposal to cull the growing elephant population in the country's flagship national park.
The Environmental Affairs and Tourism Ministry said earlier this year it was considering resuming the elephant kills in Kruger National Park, one of South Africa's top tourist attractions, on the advice of South African National Parks officials.
South Africa stopped culling in 1995, partly because of local and international pressure.
"The Kruger National Park attracts 1.3 million tourists a year and South Africa's reputation as a custodian of wildlife can only suffer if the shooting starts again," Jason Bell-Leask, southern African director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said in a statement Monday.
Bell-Leask called culling a "cruel, unethical and a scientifically unsound practice" and said the government should first consider other options such as the use of cross-border "megaparks" to allow greater movement of elephants between countries, and more widespread use of contraception.
The World Wide Fund for Nature expressed support for the government approach, however, saying it was sure culling would not be undertaken without due consideration of alternatives.
"Given elephants' ability to transform an entire landscape, action is needed, or the result will be the mass starvation of elephants and other species," Rob Little, conservation director for WWF South Africa, said in a statement Monday.
Kruger officials have said that without action, the elephant population will triple to 34,000 by 2020, posing a threat to other animals and vegetation in the Israel-sized reserve.
South Africa is consulting neighboring African countries also affected by increasing elephant populations, but there is no regional consensus about how to manage the herds.
Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk has said adjacent parks and game reserves are also full, and that contraception is expensive and poses practical problems.
The Elephants Alive Coalition of environmental groups said tourists would "be disturbed by the prospect that the elephants they enjoy watching and photographing during their safari one day, could easily be hanging upside down from a meat hook ... the next."
Environment Ministry spokesman J.P. Louw referred to claims that a resumption in elephant kills would prompt a boycott by foreign tourists as "intimidation tactics."
He added in an interview that van Schalkwyk was holding consultations with authorities in Europe — the source of most foreign tourists to South Africa — to ensure they understood the problems involved in managing elephants.
Representatives of communities bordering the park are in favor of culling, saying the proceeds would provide badly needed jobs and revenue. They say that, with the increasing population, elephants break through park fences more often and pose a threat to nearby villages.
South Africa slaughtered a total of 14,562 elephants between 1967 and 1994. Without that cull, the population would have rocketed by now to 80,000, according to parks chief executive David Mabunda.
South Africa, Namibia and Botswana all have booming elephant populations, while East African nations such as Kenya struggle to increase their herds, which were decimated by poaching in the 1980s. Trade in ivory has been banned since 1989 to try to combat poaching.
South Africa has repeatedly appealed to the U.N. body monitoring endangered species to lift the ban on trade in ivory to allow the proceeds to be invested in parks.