Elephants in South Africa, which just a century ago could count only 100 among their number (a fact that they, being elephants, have assuredly not forgotten), have in recent years seen such a resurgence in population that they now face a quite different problem–overpopulation. But how, one might ask, can there be too many elephants? As it turns out, an adult African elephant consumes an average of 220 to 660 pounds of vegetation a day–a habit that, due to the pachyderms’ increasing numbers, has left sizable swaths of the South African landscape completely devoid of plant life. This situation has dire implications not only for other local herbivores, but also for environmental stability, with erosion and soil depletion posing serious threats. The South African state’s solution? Birth control.
Seeking to humanely control the threat posed by burgeoning elephant populations (South Africa abandoned the practice of culling in 1994), the KwaZulu-Natal province in southeastern South Africa is beginning to expand a decade-old project to inject female elephants with a potent vaccine that blocks the reception of sperm from the males. In tests, the non-hormonal vaccine has shown no behavioral side effects, giving hope that this may provide a viable solution to South Africa’s elephant conundrum. And indeed elephants are a conundrum for most of sub-saharan Africa–for different reasons. In neighboring Botswana, for instance, the elephant problem is even worse, with fourteen elephants for every one human. But the situation elsewhere swings far in the opposite direction. Most countries in the region have seen a lethal combination of poaching and disappearing habitats shrink their elephant populations to alarmingly low levels, to the point where some scientists have warned of the creatures’ total extinction by the year 2020. A complicated situation in a complicated region, and one whose careful handling will help to ensure the survival of these beloved giants. // Patrick Barrett