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Elephant Contraception in Kwazulu-Natal’s Tembe Elephant Park

02/04/2008 13:37:27
February 2008. Contraception of female elephants in one South African game reserve began in June 2007, well ahead of the news this week that the government has put culling back on the table.
Tembe Tusker. © KZN Wildlife.
The birth control method, developed over 10 years, hopes to slow down elephant growth rate to prevent having to use culling to reduce numbers. In 1995 pressure from the conservation and tourism lobby around the world forced the SA government to put a moratorium on culling in Kruger National Park. However since then there has been growing concern in many South African game reserves that elephant populations are having a visible impact on the land, thereby threatening biodiversity. Some scientists believe there are too many elephants, some don’t.

Environmental Affairs and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk has released the Norms and Standards on Elephant Management, drawn up after lengthy and wide scientific and public consultations. This identifies culling as a last resort to reduce elephant numbers but recognises intense public emotions surrounding the issue.

Only when all other options like translocation, Transfrontier Conservation Areas and contraception have been exhausted will culling get the legal go-ahead.
Tembe Tusker. © KZN Wildlife.
Contraception at Tembe Elephant Park
Meanwhile contraception is being tested in KwaZulu-Natal’s Tembe Elephant Park, a 30,000 hectare game reserve on the KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa border with Mozambique. It contains rare sand forest habitat, home to the rare Suni antelope, as well as about 220 elephants. These are the only indigenous elephant in the province and very large in size with magnificent tusks. Many of the older bulls are estimated to weigh over 7000 kg and are considered to be the largest elephants in the world. They are part of the vast herds that once migrated between the two countries before South African conservation authorities fenced the border in 1989. Some elephants were displaying visible wounds from the civil war in Mozambique, so these elephants were confined to Tembe Elephant Park, where they have flourished, while another 350 reside in the Maputo Elephant Reserve in Mozambique.

Contraception was recently identified as a viable option to slow down the population growth of elephants in Tembe. Henk Bertschinger, Emeritus Professor of wildlife reproduction in the Veterinary faculty of the University of Pretoria at Onderstepoort was involved. He has completed 10 years’ research in elephant contraception using a vaccine that inhibits sperm from entering the egg. It can be continued indefinitely with boosters, but also has the benefit of being reversible.

Currently 80 elephant cows in Tembe have received boosters following last year’s initial vaccine. They are being closely monitored.

Tembe Extension
Another ongoing initiative is the proposed expansion of Tembe into southern Mozambique through the Futi Corridor to link with the Maputo Elephant Reserve. The neighbouring Tembe Tribe , after whom the National Park is named , gave some of their lands to create Tembe Elephant Park in 1983 are also willing to put more land to the east and south-west of the park under conservation.
Tembe elephants. © KZN Wildlife.
In addition, a portion of Tembe Elephant Park has been fenced off from elephants in order to preserve the sand forest - and the suni.
Says Ezemvelo KwaZulu-Natal’s resident ecologist Wayne Matthews: ‘The dream is to have more space for elephants. We are all trying to work on that. Contraception is a ‘holding pattern’ before this. We very much hope we do not have to go the culling route before elephant habitat is expanded.’

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