By Penny Parker and Claire Allison
Poaching levels of African elephant is on the increase across our continent with the amount of illegal ivory seized worldwide in 2011 breaking the record since international monitors began in 2002. The illegal ivory seized equaled tusks from more than 4000 dead elephants, reported the New York Times. Wildlife conservationists across Africa are fighting for the survival of these gentle giants, yet in South Africa, many parks face a different challenge: that of overpopulation.
Growing numbers of elephants within fenced game reserves significantly deplete natural resources. They also convert woodland areas into grassland, which results in the loss of both plant and animal species adapted to woodland habitats. This has led to ongoing debates as to how conservationists can manage the balancing act between the livelihood of elephants and that of other species, essentially seeking to control their growing numbers and decrease rapid habitat destruction.
Some parks and reserves have decided to implement contraception before their elephant populations become unmanageable. One such reserve is &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve.
Phinda Private Game Reserve, located in KwaZulu Natal, is a well-known success story in terms of animal relocation, the Zulu word Phinda meaning “The Return”. A total of 58 elephants were introduced as young animals from Zimbabwe and Kruger culling operations in 1994. The number of elephants on Phinda almost doubled within only 10 years and as a result Phinda decided to embark on an experimental elephant contraception program (The ICP) in May 2004.
The Immunocontraception Program (ICP) involves the use of a drug, essentially proteins extracted from the eggs of pigs, known as PZP or Porcine Zona Pellucida, which is darted into the elephant either on foot or from a game vehicle. This drug stops the male sperm from binding to the female egg during ovulation, effectively preventing fetilisation and pregnancy. This process, as well as the actual make-up of the drug, is in no way harmful to the animal and relies solely on the elephant developing an antibody to the PZP proteins.
The dedicated team at Phinda are involved in continued monitoring in order to report on the effectiveness of the contraception as well as assess any impacts on the elephant’s social behavior in the long term. Thus far, the efforts carried out on the reserve have been proven to be safe, reversible and a very effective and thus a feasible means of population control, especially within smaller reserves and enclosed conservation areas. The ICP has effectively halved population growth rates compared to the projections when no contraception is implemented. That being said, long-term effects of the PZP hormone on female fertility still need to be tested, and Phinda is currently undergoing such research.
Concerns have been raised about the negative effects on group behaviour that could arise from immunocontraception plans including changes in feeding patterns, social effects on females who are unable to calve, the effect on learning capacity of first-time mothers and the potential influence on allo-mothering – the combined mothering effort of a herd’s females on all of the calves. However, a major advantage of immunocontraception is that the process is rotational, which essentially permits females to calve, but prolongs the inter-calving interval i.e. the time period between pregnancies of a female elephant to a research and management determined level. This eliminates the need for irreversible and permanent contraception, which could potentially have a greater and longer lasting effect on the social behaviours within the elephant herds.
Thus, with Phinda Private Game Reserve’s ongoing research, elephant contraception in the form of an Immunocontraception Plan, seems to be a successful and ethical method for elephant population management.
Phinda Private Game Reserve is part of a collection of conservation focused private game reserves across Africa called the Open Africa Safari Collection. All of the reserves and safari lodges endorsed by Open Africa are committed to the conservation of African wildlife and their natural habitats, particularly endangered species. Open Africa and its partners are also committed to sustainable community upliftment as well as minimizing the ecological footprint and environmental impact of their operations.
Click here for more information on other conservation initiatives at &Beyond Phinda Private Game Reserve.
Previous post by Claire Allison:« Get front-row seats for the world's biggest mammal migration
Next post by Claire Allison:There are less lions than rhinos in Africa »