PRETORIA, South Africa – South Africa announced Monday that it was reversing a 1995 ban on killing elephants to help control their booming population, drawing instant outrage from animal-rights activists.
Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk did not say how many elephants could be killed, saying only that some animal-rights groups' estimates of 2,000 to 10,000 were "hugely inflated."
"Culling will only be allowed as a last option and under very strict conditions," van Schalkwyk told reporters. "Our simple reality is that elephant population density has risen so much in some southern African countries that there is concern about impacts on the landscape, the viability of other species and the livelihoods and safety of people living within elephant ranges."
The Johannesburg-based group Animal Rights Africa threatened to call for international tourist boycotts and protests and to take legal action.
South Africa's elephant population has ballooned to more than 20,000 from 8,000 in 1995, when international pressure led to a ban on killing them.
Elephants require great tracts of land to roam in order to get their daily diet of about 660 pounds of grass, leaves and twigs, and they are increasingly coming into conflict with people in the competition for land.
Van Schalkwyk also announced that the government is prohibiting the capture of wild elephants for commercial purposes — a move likely to draw fire from a fast-growing industry in elephant-back safaris.
In addition, he said, the government is drawing up regulations to govern treatment of the country's 120 captive elephants.
Van Schalkwyk said his department had received "numerous complaints" about cruel training practices including the use of electric prodders.
All three measures are part of a comprehensive update to South Africa's elephant policy that the government calls an attempt to manage the needs of elephants with those people, killing some of the animals humanely while eliminating the unnecessary and sometimes treatment of tamed elephants.
The new regulations on managing elephants, effective May 1, say killing must be through "quick and humane methods and a rifle with minimum caliber of .375," and used along with other measures such as contraception by injection and moving elephants to new areas.
Van Schalkwyk said the debate over killing elephants was marked by "strong emotions."
"There are few other creatures on earth that have the ability of elephants to 'connect' with humans in a very special way," he said.
In addition, elephant populations in other countries are low, elephants are classed as "vulnerable" worldwide, and trade in ivory has been banned since 1989 to try to combat poaching.
The new regulation said that elephants' survival often depends on their operation as a family unit, and "an elephant may not be culled if it is part of a family unless the matriarch and juvenile bulls are culled as well."
It said killing may be carried out only under a plan prepared with a recognized elephant-management ecologist and approved by relevant authorities.
Animal Rights Africa said killing elephants was "undeniably cruel and morally reprehensible" as well as counterproductive.
"It's hugely problematic and it does the opposite of what they want it to do," spokeswoman Michele Pickover said.
She argued that when elephants are killed, the herd automatically breeds more, and other elephants move into the space of the slain elephants, resulting in a larger population than before the killing.
Her organization also argues that there are not too many elephants in South Africa.
She also said the latest research has proved that elephants have a sense of self-awareness and cognitive powers that place them in a special category together with great apes, dolphins and humans.
"How much like us do elephants have to be before killing them becomes murder?" Pickover asked.
A total of 14,562 elephants were killed in South Africa between 1967 and 1994. Without that campaign, their numbers would have rocketed by now to 80,000, according to the national parks service.
Many elephants were traumatized by the killings and some became aggressive as a result.
Bob Scholes, lead author of the elephant management regulations, acknowledged to reporters that there is a "down side" to killing.
"It changes the way they behave, there is a lot of evidence for social behavioral consequences as a result of culling" he said.
The new regulations say that killing should not be carried out near other elephants.
Contraception also is fraught with problems. A female normally breeds every four years and does not mate while nursing.
With contraception, a female comes on heat every four months — but does not fall pregnant — and so suffers the physical stress of frequent copulation with bulls four times her weight.
And moving elephants, another alternative, can be prohibitively expensive.
The era of the big white hunter in the 1900s brought Africa's elephants near to extinction. South Africa had just 200 elephants at the turn of the century.
Now South Africa, Namibia and Botswana all have booming elephant populations — a result of their conservation efforts — while those of east and west African nations are struggling because of large-scale poaching.
Van Schalkwyk said he had discussed the new regulations with other southern African countries facing the same dilemma.
Botswana has by far the largest population, with an estimated 165,000 elephants. Zimbabwe has an estimated 80,000 and Mozambique some 20,000.