Page last updated at 20:42 GMT, Monday, 17 March 2008

Cull concerns 'miss bigger picture'

Richard Leakey (Image: WildlfeDirect)
Richard Leakey

It is too soon for conservationists to ring the alarm bells over South Africa's elephant management plan that includes culling, argues Dr Richard Leakey. In this week's Green Room, he says the measures are necessary and based in animal welfare concerns.

Elephants (Image: AP)
The issue of culling is highly emotive

Last month's report on elephant management in South Africa has sent alarm bells ringing throughout the conservation and animal welfare circles, and headlines have been screaming that culling is about to be re-introduced.

This is a highly emotive issue and I have studied the government's report before making any judgment. Indeed, the report goes far beyond culling, and the headlines I have seen have been rather misleading.

Let me explain my position. By 1990, long-term research in Kenya and elsewhere had revealed that elephants have highly organised societies and a surprisingly well developed ability to communicate.

We consider them sentient creatures like whales and apes that deserve special consideration when it comes to their management.

I was part of the community of concerned professionals who objected to the culling of elephants in southern Africa during the 1990s and before because, at that time, the body of knowledge about elephants was ignored.

An elephant in Kruger National Park
Elephants... will become an increasingly serious problem unless some key populations are reduced and maintained at appropriate levels

Culling appeared to be largely commercially motivated (for ivory and trade in baby elephants); it was not managed in a scientific manner and was unacceptably inhumane.

Unable to ignore the global concerns for the ethical and inhumane treatment of elephants, the South African government then banned the culling of elephants in the 1994.

The statement made by Marthinus van Schalkwyk, South Africa's Minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism, on the publication of the final Norms and Standards for Elephant Management, reveals that the nation has come a long way since its position in the 1980s.

The country has clearly looked seriously at the issues raised by experts from around the world by consulting widely within and beyond South Africa, and has prepared a carefully considered position on the management of elephants that aims to serve the interests of elephants as a species, their welfare, their impacts on biodiversity and ecosystem integrity, and their effects on the people - both locally and nationally.

Pleasant surprise

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the guiding principles behind this piece of legislation begin with an acknowledgement that "elephants are intelligent, have strong family bonds and operate within highly socialised groups, and unnecessary disruption of these groups by human intervention should be minimised".

Elephant tusks seized by Portugese officials (Image: AP)

The welfare of elephants is further emphasised in the statement: "Management interventions must, wherever practicable, be based on scientific knowledge or management experience regarding elephant populations and must take into account the social structure of elephants.

"(It must) be based on measures to avoid stress and disturbance to elephants, and, where lethal measures are necessary to manage an elephant or group of elephants or to manage the size of elephant populations, these should be undertaken with caution and after all other alternatives have been considered."

While I will never "like" the idea of elephant culling, I do accept that given the impacts of human induced climate change, and habitat destruction, elephants in and outside of protected areas will become an increasingly serious problem unless some key populations are reduced and maintained at appropriate levels.

Human pressures

A part of the problem is caused by increasing demand for resources by humans, and I believe that we have a responsibility to check habitat impacts in order to reduce conflicts between elephants and humans by controlling human activities as well.

Reducing elephant populations may therefore be a necessary part of population management, and this will be done in a humane and considered manner.

South Africa intends to reserve culling as a last resort after all other options such as translocations and fertility control have been exhausted.

African farm (Image: BBC)
Rising demand for resources is reducing land for elephants
Though I find elephant culling repugnant, I can see the sense in it in these scenarios, as I imagine many others do also.

If culling is deemed necessary, then I would personally like to see the management authority ensure that entire families or bond groups are removed intact to eliminate or minimise the emotional trauma to remaining individuals, and secondly, to maintain smaller populations using tested and approved fertility control.

It means that the authorities have much work to do in terms of studying the family and bond groups and maintaining good records. If done well, culling entire bond groups would reduce cases of rogue elephants and would eliminate or reduce the frequency of further culling in the future.

Finally, it is with great relief that I note that the minister has prohibited any further capture of wild elephants for captivity.

He acknowledges the unacceptably cruel practices that are common in captive elephant care and training in South Africa where baby elephants are beaten and tortured to "break their will" in order to train them for tourism, circuses and even zoos.

I look forward to seeing new legislation that completely eliminates cruelty in the captive care and training of these highly intelligent and feeling animals.

Dr Richard Leakey is the founding chairman of WildlifeDirect, a former head of the Kenyan Wildlife Service and a leading palaeontologist

The Green Room is a series of opinion articles on environmental topics running weekly on the BBC News website

Do you agree with Dr Leakey? Should culling be allowed as a last resort in the effort to control elephant numbers? Does the South African report show that governments have made progress when it comes to understanding conservation? And should more attention be focused on limiting human consumption of natural resources?

Perhaps all those who suggest culling humans would go outside and do the decent thing starting with themselves. Or do they only speak so freely about culling other less deserving humans?
Paul Martin, London

instead of wasting resources harrasing whalers ( there are enough whales for people to see them and to eat a few ) use the funds to relocate elephants and curb poaching. also remember dr.leaky's opinion is not always the most rational, his opposition to hunting in kenya resulted in the near total collapse of wildlife there as poaching simply exploded after the hunting ban

I am frankly disgusted that a very sensible and thoughtful article by Richard Leakey has provoked so many posts calling for the "culling of humans". Just who exactly are these people suggesting should be culled? Are they saying that they, the writers, are prepared to sacrifice their own lives, and the lives of their friends and loved ones in order to help halt human population growth? Are they willing (as one writer so prosaicly puts it) to die from "disease and pestilence" in order to help reduce the population pressure on the planet? No, of course not. These spoilt individuals, writing from the safety of "developed" countries that have already wiped all but the last traces of their natural environment in pursuit of comfort and security, want other, less important people to do the dieing. People who are far away from them and out of sight. People in Africa. The less drastic proposal that we should be "moving the humans away who are causing this population pressure on the elephants" is also selfish and obnoxious. It is, after all, a very easy thing to propose that people should just be "moved" when it is not you and your family who must do the moving!
David Easterling, Durban, South africa

I too understand the need for culling animal populations because they are not sustainable due to human impact. But I don't believe it's fair at all. In fact, I think that for every animal 'culled' a human ought to be 'culled' as well. It's not the elephant's fault that its habitat is being destroyed by us - we should be the ones paying the ultimate price for our uncontrollable population expansion. Imagine that - a population cap and meaningful controls on growth for humans. And, I can think of a lot of people who don't really contribute to society in any meaningful way and thus we can also minimise the disruption to our comnplicated social interactions just as effectively as we can for elephants! This might meet with a lot of concern out there, but all the arguments supporting culling can be turned around to support this argument. Thus if you're against this argument but support culling, you have a human-centric view of the world. We're not the only ones here and we're not the only ones who deserve to survive. The sooner we realise that and stop our ever-expanding population from becoming unsustainable the better off all life will be.

Humans are overpopulated too and are leaving a lasting negative impact on the environment. Should we suggest culling humans?
Shubhobroto Ghosh, Kolkata, INDIA

I am a kenyan and I remember so well all the hard work Dr Leakey and his team put in to save the elephent - We need to be careful how we say things as it can be mis interpreted - culling of course can be done in many way but killing is really not an option here - why un do all that work - like many have said the population of humans need to be controlled in order to leave large areas for the wildlife. We can barley make ends meet now with large familys - contraception and maybe one wife only ?
Sara, Brighton, UK

Just one comment, I wonder if those that calls for "human culling" will stand first in the line to be culled!
Grim reaper, South Africa

I work in conservation but am also a humanitarian. While I might not like the idea of culling elephants, as elephant numbers increase in reserves, they destroy the very habitat that they, and so many other animals, depend on. Translocation of large numbers of big mammals is both extremely difficult and unbelievably exensive. Even if it weren't prohibitively expensive for African governments to relocate large numbers of elephants, where are they going to relocate them to? Habitat suitable for elephants persists mainly in national parks, and those parks can only support a certain number of animals before being becoming severely degraded. And where is the money going to come from? Can we justify diverting money away from health care, AIDS, education, etc into translocation of elephants? Personally I can't. I may not like the idea of culling elephants, but sometimes it is necessary to kill some animals for the good of the species as a whole - and all the other species that depen! d on the habitat that elephants are capable of destroying. Blaming population growth in Africa is not helpful, and curbing it, though it may reduce some pressure on wildlife habitat, will not make the problem go away. Europeans must also take some responsibility for the reduction in both habitat and numbers of mammals. Colonisation, urbanisation and changes in pastoral / agricultural systems contributed to the problem, and the numbers of elephants, rhino, and other large animals were depleted to near critical levels by white game hunters before poaching started to take its toll. Whatever other criticisms we may throw at South African countries, they know how to manage culling to cause the least physical and psychological pain to the animals.
Deb, Cairns, Australia

It may be time to reconsider all of the traditional approaches to conservation as a whole, as their efficacy are becoming less and less apparent. Several proposals that merit closer scrutiny and consideration have been to establish large nature reserves in America's midwest plains replete with non-native species but established to merely guarantee that viable populations continue to exist, allowing private ownership of certain animals in a more regulated animal trade and pet ownership style scheme with registration and monitoring of gene pools and breeding, and of course a means that truly empowers legal enforcement directed at conservation management. Wealthier nations with large land expanses and a regulated animal trade & ownership scheme to maintain populations both have the further benefit of market forces driving their operations, whereby profits provide ulterior motives to prevent abuses of these schemes. Having visited national parks and conservation areas in nearly all of the 28 countries that I have been to has left me with the impression that current methods simply do not provide an appropriate means to guarantee the survival of viable populations of any of the larger mammal species with a few exceptions always invariably found in 'developed' countries. As things are now, the ever growing plethora of animals whose impending demise is certain, is simply growing in numbers day by day. Market forces, land use, resource exploitation and livelihoods have consistently shown themselves to be much stronger forces in the ongoing effort to guarantee conservation.
Jeff Richardson, Hanoi, Vietnam

I grew up in Tanzania circa 1949-1970. On the way to boarding school a 2 day journey by bus, we would stop to let elephants & other wildlife cross the "road". In some of the bush towns we lived in we would keep our dogs in at night afraid they would be taken by leopards. I returned to Tabora in the centre of Tanzania in 2003 for the first time since leaving in Jan. 1964. I was shocked to see the amount of people there 3 times as many at least. This in a country where so many are dying of HIV/AIDS? There was no wildlife to be seen at all there or anywhere outside the national parks. It was very depressing, there needs to be a government program to sterilize the men/women, similar to the one in China which sterilized women after giving birth to one child. Humans need culling, we are the ones causing the environmental problems on the planet.
Jacqueline Simone Ambrose, Wailuku Maui Hawaii

This is a very balanced article. Most people who comment against culling have very little information on the elephant conservation efforts in Southern Africa. South Africa is going about it thoughtfully and it must be commended for it. Visit a few national parks where elephants live to get a clearer picture of the ecosystem. You mgiht not change your views, but you'll certainly be more enlightened.
Russ, Gabrone, Botswana

I am doing the only thing to stop culling. I am canceling a trip to South Africa and will not travel to a country that even considers this cruel solution it human overpopulation.
Carol Botten, Newport Beach California USA

I agree, we have got to manage both our material resources and biodiversty resources. There are many complexities to the process but its refreshing to hear the approach outlined in Dr leaky's article. If other issues where dealt with in this way the world would be in a better place. ..
Luke Smith , Manchester,UK

To those who recommend culling don't mean yourself of course, just the poor folks trying to scratch out a living in these areas that conflict with the elephants, right? I'm not arguing for human supremacy over all non-human animal life, but these 'cull the humans!' calls seem as insensitive to the complicated dynamics at work in these conflicts between people and animals as those who simply say 'it's only a dumb animal'.
D Racey, Carbondale, Illinois, United States

Killing yet more elephants? Why not just hire the poachers. It's no difference really. "If done well, culling entire bond groups would reduce cases of rogue elephants" Killing entire elephant families that means. So a rogue elephant is really an angry elephant. Angry because his or her family has been murdered in front of them. Population management? It is called killing elephants. So Richard Leakey wants to kill entire elephant families so there are no elephant witnesses. Stop hiding behind niced-up language and think of a better solution instead of the final solution.
Toners Bruxtin, Great England

To all the people who suggest that humans should be "culled" before elephants, I would like to suggest that they should be culled before anyone else! Then someone from the elephant impacted areas can move into their cozy condo in the first world. The answers to conservation issues are not always straightforward and easy, and yes, they involve difficult choices. I applaud Dr Leakey for having the courage to take this stand.
Daniel Pike, North Bay, Ontario

I totally agree with the above comments... why do humans have to dominate and manipulate every aspect of this planet we live on for our own ends at the expense of any and every other living creature who also have equal rights to live out their lives? We need to respect the rights of the other living species we live along side, and manage ways to live in co existence not abolish any creature that comes in our way. Given that we refuse to respect the rights of other livng creatures family planning as a means of 'control' may be the best way forward and more should be directed towards these such methods.
victoria martindale, derby, uk

The elephant is not the problem! Overpopulation in Africa is the problem. African custom allows for too many wives, children and grand-children…BIG families, whether or not they can be fed - hence the continuing 'poverty problems' here! The cure all for Africa's present (and future) woes, lie in the national distribution of family planning material, on-site education in the mother tongue…and triple-thick condoms!
Derek Ramsden, Durban, South Africa.

I applaud Dr. Leakey for his attempt to look objectively at the ecological principles behind managing elephant populations instead of bellying up to animal rights extremists who don't take the time to look at the hard science. I am a field ecologist and active supporter of a variety of conservation programs for elephants in East and Southern Africa and I have seen first hand some of the areas where elephants are overpopulated and destroying the environment and neighboring communities. Places where the elephants and locla people are stressed and in direct competition with eachother. When there are too many elephants in a limited amount of space (over an ecosystem's carrying capacity) the result is desertification; which leaves no trees, birds, herbivores or carnivores ... in essence a savanna wasteland where large numbers of elephants then die of starvation after there are no plants or water left. A complete loss of biodiversity. While translocation seems logical, the costs a! ssociated with moving entire families of elephants is in the hundreds of millions of dollars and utterly unrealistic. Not to mention the practice is extremely questionable to many elephant biologists for its effect on family social structure, social organization, and individual behavior. This has been proven in South Africa before, in the Pilannesburg mountains, where the relocated elephants began killing all of the endangered white rhinoceros in the nature reserve because their social structure was artificially created and the young bulls killed the rhino simply because they enjoyed overpowering the rhino when they were in musth. I do not know of many conservation organizations, or African governments for that matter, who have a few hundred million dollars extra to put towards moving elephants into areas they haven't been found for decades and likely would not know how to survive in.
Nick, Seattle, USA

Dr. Leakey, you have my deepest sympathy. It's a miserable problem; with no happy solution. And quite obviously, no end to the humans who are quite willing to offer vehement opinions that start: "I'm not a trained scientist, BUT..." "I know nothing about elephants, or animals, BUT"... "I don't live in Africa, BUT"... "I've owned Siamese cats for 30 years, AND..."
Paul, Minnesota, USA

As harsh and inhumane as it sounds to cull elephants in South Africa, it is the last resort they have in that country. We must remember culling exstites here in the USA. Land Reform is a big issue in the country, which was caused by the apartheid system. Relocating the elephants is a gread idea. South Africa does not have the resourses to move the elephants. I believe Peta and other animal rights groups should be lobbying their governments for the neccesary cash and logistics for relocation. Most of these comments fail to see that consevation has been working. Most of the human population that leaves in these areas were put there because of the apartheid system, so they could have the farmlands and offcourse the mining. Most of these farmers and mining companies are from the Western Countries. Should they not all so be held liable. I am from Africa myself, and would like to look forward to a brighter future for the humans and animals. In conclusion people should r! ealiaze that the human population in these rural areas, it not there by choice. Please be more open minded and lets find a lasting practicle solution. Land Reform as harsh it sounds in the media is the long term solution. Thanks everybody for your comments. George, USA
George Sachirarwe, USA

I totally agree with Dr. Leakey's clearly reasoned and empathetic comments, and happily the report does seem to suggest progress in factoring in the realities involved in conservation. Though not easily done, more effort should be made toward understanding natural resources and limiting human consumption of them. There is simply more to life on earth than just us humans. We have the power and freedom to make choices and with that comes the responsibility to care for our natural resources - especially the living ones.
A. Devereux, Philadelphia, USA

Now that Leakey seems to "understand" what overpopulation of elephants could lead to, which has been a product of his conservation campaigns in 80s%90s. Does he now together with other conservatist realise what consevation can mean to nature? Because conservation is not Natural let the "Survival for the fittest rule"! Rahab
Rahab Kinyanjui, Nairobi, Kenya

During the last big cull the elephants were distressed just hearing the approach of the helicopters, as though they knew that their extermination was imminent. If a cull is absolutely necessary, have the South Africans learnt anything, or will they approach the matter in the same gung-ho manner (I suspect that we may be kept in the dark over this until the completion of the cull)
Babar the elephant, Co Durham

I am simply and utterly oppposed to any action which cull's animals simply to make more space for the human species or because it is inconvenient for us. We are the ones taking up the space, inconveniencing the animal population on the planet and are the ones who need control...
Rich, Reading, UK

I love all the cull the humans comments. Will each and every one of the humans who said this now kindly cull themselves? And don't forget to leave your house/ job/ bank account to someone relocating from an elephant area.
Jacky, UK

i do agree with dr. leakey's insights. i have great respect for his work and contribution to conservation. mine are queries more than comments: 1) is it feasible to castrate/spade the elephants so that they dont reproduce beyond what is sustainable instead of culling? creating limits right from the beginning instead of at the end? 2) what happens to the diversity of the gene pool if whole familes and bond groups are eliminated? 3) what programmes are in place/being developed to help with the human impact around these conservation areas? eryll jalipa
eryll jalipa, nairobi,kenya

Why do they call it culling? It's KILLING, plain and simple, and wrong.
Kathy, Boston, MA USA

Yes population control is the answer but I mean the human population which is already at unsustainable levels and rising. I know the west per capita uses far more resources than those in the majority world and we must curb our population growth and our consumption but in Africa etc population control is also vital. Too many people take up too much space and use too many resources (eg. food - land cleared, energy - greenhouse gases) and inevitably create waste and pollution. There are over 900m people in Africa - a much lower density than say China but does Africa really want to end up in the environmental mess that China is in today? A little forethought now could save a lot of trouble in the future. It must also be remembered that the level of desertification in Africa means that the usable/useful to life landspace is shrinking.
Helena Forsyth, Edinburgh, Scotland

No I do not agree what gives us the right to say when a population of any animal is "too much" and should be kept in check, when we can't even keep our own numbers in check. I don't understand why we think we own every bit of land on this planet and that if animal numbers are too high they need to be kept in check but it's fine for the Human species to carry growing. Elephants aren't infringing on Human land we are infringing on their habitat for Christ sake. it is barbaric how the hell is a population of 18,000 excessive? Yet 6 billion and growing is fine isn't it? I'm glad the report says disturbance should be kept to a minimum but let face it thats probably just a front to make them seem to be taking a scientific view, but if they aren't going to make money out of culling them then thats a load of bull. Why can't they leave them be and maybe practice safe sex and keep their own numbers in control and maybe demand for land wouldn't be high enough for Elephants to get the c! ull to make room, it's sick they make them sound like an old building that needs to be removed in order for a new project to take place.
William Heyes,

Although as a biologist I do understand the arguments of Dr. Leakey, I still believe that an option to culling entire families is to translocate entire families to other parts in Africa where their populations are low. I am sure that the S.African gov will find both economic and moral support from African and European countries for such a measure. Culling should not be an option.
Matthew, Malta

What Dr Leakey says makes perfect sense. I just wonder why we aren't thinking in the same way about the human population; the major contributor to the elephants' demise and ultimately our own.
Quentin, Camberley, UK

I am completely opposed to elephant culling. The human race has done enough harm to these creatures, it is time to leave them alone. Stop the competition for land, move the humans to the cities and leave the interior areas to the animals, including elephants.
L. Lorraine, Eastbourne

Know, I do not agree with the doctor. I once had respect for him but obviously his will has been broken. The problem is man. The human population needs to be culled not Elephants. The good doctor needs to address the issue of "carrying capacity." In terms of humans not animals. Humans do far more damage to the land than animals and their destructive practices are aloud to continue in the name of progress. I think humans need to stop raping the land and stop thinking they are so superior to other species. I also think that the african people should stop killing one another. They should put their energy into saving their beautiful country. They should drive out the Chinese and British.
William B. Graham, Portland U.S.A

The same need for culling and/or population management could be said about humans too. But unlike other sentient species, humans have developed a higher sense of entitlement to natural resources. We look at those resources as a possession, rather than something to respect and use in a sustainable manner. I wonder how different this story would end if elephants, whales, gorillas, and other species knew how to use a high-powered rifle. Survival of the fattest, I suppose.
Scott Goldsberry, Ontario, Canada

I respect and believe Dr. Leakeys assessments about the current situation. And am grateful there is someone such as he to review South Africas policies and to get involved in the oversight of whatever action is taken. I feel distressed by the plan to cull elephants, knowing they have such developed social communities, and hope that no time or money is spared in looking carefully into what can be done alternatively. Thank you Dr. Leakey for your involvement and writting on this issue. Respectfully, Amie Walter
Amie Walter, Bellows Falls, VT USA

I think putting elephants in captivity is a much better solution than culling. You are wiping out entire generations of DNA - DNA which has survived for thousands of years. I do not know how anyone involved can sleep at night - as with any form of culling (unless animals are deseased of course). How would they liked to be culled along with their families so that thier DNA is wiped out from existance? Show some respect and find a solution to work with the animals not against them. Hypocrites - esp as he is a founder of a wildlife charity.
Dave, Bournemouth

" Elephants... will become an increasingly serious problem unless some key populations are reduced and maintained at appropriate levels " .. What about human beings?
Thomas, Heumen, The Netherlands

While the guiding principles of the elephant management plan are to be lauded, there should be greater acknowledgement that humans are the biggest contributors to habitat destruction, and unsustainable exploitation of natural resources. Perhaps we should first take the log out of our own eyes before attempting to deal with the speck in the eyes of elephants.
Tony, Christchurch, New Zealand

I think it rather daft. You go to all the trouble of investing in and guarding against poaching and now it's acceptable to eliminate entire bond groups in order to satisfy humans unchecked and mismanaged consumption of natural resources. It may be that the wrong species has been selected for culling...
George, Bass Harbor, Maine USA

Should we cull elephants? No. I think we are asking the wrong question. Should we cull the humans that are causing theses issues in the first place? Possibly yes. The only reason the elephant population is in trouble, again, is that instead of their natural huge area's that they should be allowed to roam, they have in comparison small strips of game reserve and protected areas which they are now over populating. We should be moving the humans away who are causing this population pressure on the elephants. It is our activities that are and always have caused these issues with most if not all animal population issues that occur in their own natural environments. We should be looking into real measures in how to curtail the unsupportable explosion of the human race. Not limiting the numbers of other animals we are supposed to be sharing this planet with.
Leon Cook, Sutton Coldfield

I think Dr Leakey is the one who is not seeing the "big picture". Contrary to his understanding, there is plenty of space for a growing elephant population in the brand new Trans Frontier Parks that border Kruger on the east and north. These are massive, pristine bushveld areas. However, these new park areas are inhabited by poor villagers who trap and poach wild animals to make a living. Elephants avoid these areas - clearly they are smart and sentient! Instead of culling, the South African government needs to implement education projects and to incentivate the inhabitants of the new transfrontier parks to keep wild animals alive, instead of killing them. The issue is not about lack of space for elephants, Dr Leakey, it is about lack of political will and lack of environmental passion. Furthermore, I cannot imagine how Dr Leakey can think there can be a "sensitive" way of "removing" family groups of large mammals such as elephants. It is always going to be traumatic, horri! fic, and every kind of scene from hell that one can conceive of. I wonder how Dr Leakey would feel if this course of action was about to be embarked upon in his own country? Furthermore, South Africa DOES allow ivory trading, while Kenya does not, so there will always be that taint attached to the culling exercise. I am personally bitterly disappointed in Dr Leakey's stance, and yes, I do think less of him as a person and as a conservationist in the light of his comments.
Marianne Birrell, Paarl, South Africa

You are so right when you say: "A part of the problem is caused by increasing demand for resources by humans, and I believe that we have a responsibility to check habitat impacts in order to reduce conflicts between elephants and humans by controlling human activities as well". But it's not just our activities, how about our responsibility to bring our human NUMBERS into balance? We are such a numerous species (and increasing by 79 million per year) that we relentlessly commandeer the habitats for all wildlife, not just elephants. That's hardly rocket science! Not talking coercion here, but my experience of Africa (born in what was then called Ruanda-Urundi, educated Kenya, regularly visiting) tells me there is an immense amount of unmet need among women for family planning, the simple choice to not have a baby yet that UK women can take for granted. Along with properly resourcing education and correct information about fertility and sustainability, we have a win-win opportunity we are just not taking all over Africa: voluntary family planning for humans as a truly cost-effective intervention for wildlife. PS And how about family planning rather than culling for the elephants ALSO? I'm not joking: As a medical specialist in family planning, if you get the dose right there's no reason why large mammals should not be given the same contraceptive hormones that work so well in humans. John Guillebaud, Prof of Family Planning and Reproductive Health, UCL
John Guillebaud, Oxford, UK

I am quite surprised a Dr Leakey's comments. Especially considering the wave of killings of elephants in Ambolesi Park in Kenya. I would like to understand what the term "culling" really means. To shoot from a distance is completely cruel and obviously not always accurate. Will they be culled by a dart tranquiliser which would send them to sleep I wonder instead? I would have thought Dr Leakey would have encouraged a different stance of actually moving whole "elephant families" to different parts of Africa to other National Parks where they will be protected. I do agree that there is a problem and agree with the fact that the human element needs to be looked at as well. There really needs to be "human only areas" and "animal only areas" putting up electric fences around these areas. I know this is costly and covers a vast area but it has to be worth it in the long term. I would like to know what the followers of Wildlife Direct think of these comments, as there are m! any regulars who write on there everyday and donate money to help conservation. To then have Dr Leakey suggests culling is a good option seems quite hypocritical.
Joanne, Newcastle, UK

The article states that "human induced [issues] will become an increasingly serious problem unless some key populations are reduced and maintained at appropriate levels." I fully agree. However it is not the elephant, but rather the human population which must be controlled! After all, it is our exponential population growth which is leading to uncontrolled climate change, the widespread depletion of our planet's resources and the extinction of animal species. I find it incredible that a leading conservationist's "solution" to increased human activity is to reduce the elephant population to a level consistent with their reduced habitat. It would be much wiser to implement a global program to reduce the human population to a level consistent with our voracious use of scarce resources!
Richard Chrenko, Milan, Italy

As a wildlife conservation student and having worked as a ranger in South Africa I agree with what Dr. Leakey is saying. I would say (as Dr. Leakey alludes to) that culling needn't mean killing. Contraception and translocation are alternatives - and both fall under the term culling - but often the economics become the pressing factor. I think the key point to highlight is that the need for a cull is due to these animals being restricted in areas by human made fences. The fences are in order to protect both the animals but also the human populations outside them. Therefore the need for the cull is the balance of importance on species. Are humans more important that elephants? How do we rank species importance? Discuss... In general I'm against culling but I understand the need to do so to preserve biodiversity in the current environment of game reserves and fences. It should be remembered that many other species are at risk due to the elephant over-population of areas too small for them.
Ben, Canterbury

I don't trust the motives behind this as South Africa has been shown to have some shady motives in the past. Why not relocate them? We really shouldn't be killing other sentient creatures because they pose a threat to our way of living unless we are willing to "cull" our own species as well.
Kim, US

I'm horrified. When we start culling humans because of over population and too few resources to support them, then I'll happily entertain the idea of including the animal population in that initiative
soo, West Midlands UK

As a practicing Social Ecologist in Southern Africa, i believe Dr Leakey has some valid points. It is important to note that conservation of elephants or any other natural resource can lead to overpopulation meaning that time and time again the ecological balance has to be maintained through certain inteventions. Elephants do not inhabit infinite space and once they exceed the carrying capacity of their habitats this poses a serious threat to other ecological elements in the same confine. The question scientist should be exploring is, "Is culling the best option?"
Dowsen Sango, Harare, Zimbabwe

While my thoughts are close a reflection of Dr. Leakey's, that it is, under the circumstances, perhaps in the best interest of the elephant populations, I also feel that it is a shame that the wise apes (humanity in general) that are making these decisions about how to manage other species don't find it reasonable that their own population could be rationally managed as well. Richard Dawkins is right, the genes are selfish - I wonder if human-kind is capable of changing that?
Jim Berneike, Salt Lake City, UT United States

"...ensure that entire families or bond groups are removed intact to eliminate or minimise the emotional trauma to remaining individuals, and secondly, to maintain smaller populations using tested and approved fertility control." I totally agree with this method of population control. For humans, I mean. We are the ones intruding on the elephants' territory, not the other way around. Why don't we limit the spread of the humans instead? Oh right, because the Bible says we're "above" the animals. Right.
Anders Lenart, Tokyo, Japan

Cull the humans!
Dane Traber, Raleigh/USA

I think that Dr. Leaky is right in that culling should be allowed as a last resort. Having done some conservation work in South Africa, I've seen the problems first-hand and in some areas the elephant populations are not only encroacing on human resources, but also destroying the habitats for other species. I am glad that the governments have made some progress and are putting culling as a last option as opposed to using it as an easy one.
Clare Simm, Oxted, Surrey

It is equally important to cull the human species in this world. There are too many humans swamping the globe and the other animals who inhabit the place alongside us, are gradually being killed off. We must find a a way to reduce the human species by 50% ! How should that be done? Allow disease and pestilence to cull us humans.
Ray Forder, Kalamunda,Perth, WA ,Australia

This is a very measured article by Richard Leakey and I suspect that most readers will not realize what it represents in terms of his previous position on the same issue: it means that the legislation must be carefully thought out and worded. Most remarkably, he is suggesting that economic interests might be made secondary to conservation and welfare issues (though I'm too cynical to swallow that completely)! More, there is much that lies between the lines here: ivory will be a by-product of any elephant culling operation. At some point (and possibly sooner than the nine years' ban agreed at the last CITES Conference of Parties), South Africa will want to sell its ivory stock pile ... Is this tantamount to a Leakey endorsement of controlled trade of ivory (and this, I realize, is a much thornier question than any you ask)? Humans and elephants cannot coexist when humans reach a threshold density. This means that as human populations grow (and in the big picture, Africa's population is projected to reach 1.76 billion by 2050 from about that it is today 800 million). One inevitability of this will be that elephant populations will be cornered in smaller and smaller areas (somewhat offset as human urban populations grow through immigration). These 'cornered' populations will have to be managed - and culling is one tool in the toolkit that will have to be brought out from time to time, unpalatable though that may be. And so culling is an inevitable outcome to the bulldozer that is humanity. Setting aside large enough patches of land in Africa to have free-roaming elephant populations that are regulated by anything other than culling operations (and the other management tools) is simply pie-in-the-sky dreaming in the political and socio-economic realities of Africa today and, increasingly, in the future. Keeping large patches of land (relatively) free of human exploitation is challenging enough in 2008, let alone in 2050 or thereafter.
s williams, Maputo, Mozambique

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