A hundred years ago, the only signs of elephants at Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa, which had just opened, were a few tracks in a dry riverbed. Game hunters of the 19th century had hunted the creatures almost to extinction. Conservation efforts were so successful that by 1967 the authorities decided they had to start culling elephants—shooting them from helicopters and hauling their carcasses away in trucks—to keep their populations between 6, 000 and 8, 000, considered to be the park's "carrying capacity." Few people questioned the policy, which was dropped in 1995. Since then, however, the elephant population has soared to 14,000. Conservationists now fear that this herd might devastate vegetation, threatening many life forms with extinction.
A new proposal to cull the creatures has created a dilemma for the national parks authority, South African National Parks. As a responsible custodian, it has urged that "decisive action is required" to safeguard the survival of the rich diversity of life forms in South African wildlife reserves. The culling of elephants, it argues, is needed as a precautionary measure to avert local species' extinctions in future. "A decision on the use of culling as a legitimate option for management of elephants," the park managers said back in 2005, "should not be delayed beyond March 2006." What has held up this action is fierce disagreement over whether culling the elephants is a morally responsible choice—a debate that didn't exist in 1967.
What's changed? Scientists have told us in recent years that elephants and other higher mammals, such as chimpanzees, gorillas, dolphins, whales and dogs, have aspects of consciousness, feelings and intelligence that until recently most people thought was the province of humans alone. Geneticists have shown that 98 percent of the human genetic code is identical to that of chimpanzees. Psychologists and neuroscientists assert that higher mammals experience emotions. Linguistic researchers have proved that many mammals have languages with a diversity of sounds and symbols. The debate over what to do about Kruger's elephants—like similar debates over the ethics of animal testing and the treatment of animals raised for food—is challenging us to reflect on how we treat other living beings.
The elephant is a fitting object of this dilemma because it has more in common with humans than meets the eye. Elephants typically live for 65 years, spending their first 14 years growing up in a social group. Females teach them about the geography and vegetation of their range, the social hierarchies of their species and how to raise their young. They are playful, compassionate with the sick and mournful of deceased family members. An elephant will pause and smell the bones of its dead, making mournful sounds too low for humans to hear.
The understanding that science gives us about what these animals experience—their capacity for emotion and awareness—supports the contention of some animal-rights activists that we must treat such creatures with more respect than we have in the past. There are some simple ways of going cautiously down this path. We could start by extending anti-cruelty laws to include a few legal rights for higher mammals. For example, laws could prevent us from killing higher mammals except in self-defense, or from limiting their freedom without good reasons. We could forbid people to harm such special beings without sufficient justification. What constitutes good reasons and sufficient justification would be left to judges.
Where does that leave Kruger's elephants? The South African government's minister of Environmental Affairs and Tourism got involved in these disputes by convening an Elephant Round Table in 2006, composed of eminent elephant scientists from universities and conservation authorities, to advise him on policies for elephant management. They found that culling is an acceptable option if scientific experts confirm an overpopulation of elephants that will seriously threaten biodiversity in a specific region, and if all else fails. To be sure, other options won't be easy to come up with. One alternative—capturing elephants and moving them to other parks—is expensive, and most parks in southern Africa have no room for them. Instead, South African authorities are negotiating a combined conservation area that includes land from nearby Zimbabwe and Mozambique in hopes that Kruger's elephants will slowly migrate there. Contraception, another alternative, would require administering two injections each year from helicopters to 3,000 females. The method is costly and its side effects are poorly understood.
Many elephant scientists and animal-welfare groups claim that there's no convincing evidence that the park is overpopulated with elephants. The destruction of vegetation, they say, falls within the acceptable impact elephants should have on African savanna ecosystems. Their robust feeding patterns, in fact, create opportunities for successful survival for many other species. When a bull pushes over a tree, the log provides protected spaces for young plants to escape the browsers and grazers of the savanna. Natural ecological processes, many experts say, must be allowed to play themselves out without human intervention.
The crucial issue for conservation authorities now is whether they can convincingly show that elephant numbers have increased up to a point where other life forms will be threatened with local extinction in the near future. If so, then culling will go forward, and that would be acceptable. Nations resist going to war with other nations unless no alternative is available. Resisting the killing of elephants until all alternatives have been exhausted would accord these creatures the respect they deserve.