The Killing Fields

The elephants are running. Months of blazing heat have dried up the seasonal ponds scattered throughout Chobe National Park in northern Botswana. Desperate for water, the beasts rush headlong toward the Chobe River, which straddles the border with Namibia. After slaking their thirst, they begin foraging for food, but there's little to choose from. Thousands of elephants have picked clean some of the forests that once lined the river, cutting a two-mile-wide swath along its banks. The desolate land is strewn with dead acacia trees, their bark peeled off, their branches broken, their trunks uprooted.

The elephants will survive this season, but many won't last another year. Officials in Botswana have decided that to save the elephants, they have to shoot some.

For governments and game wardens in southern Africa, the elephant shoot is never referred to as killing; the preferred euphemisms are "culling" or "cropping." Beginning next year hundreds of elephants will be culled-with rifles-in Botswana. The government wants to limit the size of the herds and thus preserve the forests of Chobe National Park. In neighboring Zimbabwe, officials say they, too, have an elephant-overpopulation problem. Culling operations have already resumed there after a yearlong pause. Greenpeace and other environmental groups have denounced such programs, and some have accused the governments of overcounting the animals.

The elephant problem is, in its own way, man-made. The animals are part of the African ecosystem. If there are too many, nature will adjust. Starvation will thin the herds, or the elephants may wander into new areas. But thanks to the advent of civilization, they no longer can migrate freely. Humans have decided that elephants can roam through national parks, but those living elsewhere are often viewed as giant nuisances that destroy valuable crops. And if there are too many within the parks' boundaries, the solution comes from the barrel of a gun.

The resumption of big-game culling may give new life to the ancient business of trading in ivory. Just two years ago, an international compact banned all commerce in elephant products: tusks, hides and meat. But Botswana and Zimbabwe have joined forces with Malawi, Namibia and Zambia to form a cartel called the Southern African Center for Ivory Marketing. Founded last June, SACIM will seek an exemption from the ivory ban next year. The group hopes to export tusks to Japan, Taiwan and other markets in the Far East. To cut out black-market middlemen, SACIM ivory would be shipped from a single Botswanan airport aboard specially commissioned planes.

The SACIM countries argue that their elephant herds are in no way endangered. They say they need the proceeds from ivory sales to help fund highly successful wildlife-conservation programs. But officials in Kenya and other countries with far smaller elephant herds don't want the rules changed. Otherwise, they warn, poaching will return to popularity and the elephants will once again become targets.

The fate of the elephants will be decided next March in Kyoto, Japan, at what is likely to be an emotional meeting of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). During the 1980s, wanton poaching slashed Africa's elephant population in half, from 1.3 million animals in 1979 to 650,000. In Kenya alone the elephant population dropped from 130,000 to 16,000, largely because the wholesale price of ivory had reached $90 a pound. Five years ago Tanzania became the first African country to prohibit ivory trading. By the end of the 1980s Western environmentalists and African government officials, led by Kenya's Richard Leakey, were lobbying for an international ban. Finally, in 1989, CITES declared the African elephant an "Appendix 1" animal, a move that effectively banned all trade in products derived from Loxodonta africana.

The ban has achieved many of its objectives. The ivory market in North America and Western Europe folded virtually overnight. An illicit ivory trade continues to operate worldwide, but at severely depressed volumes and prices. In Kenya a pound of poached ivory now sells for only about $1.35 on the black market. For poachers, the depressed prices mean that shooting elephants isn't worth running the risk of being caught by armed-and-dangerous federal police. Only 55 elephants fell victim to poachers' guns in Kenya last year, down from the annual average of 5,000 that prevailed throughout the 1970s and 1980s. Other east African countries reported similar results; in Uganda, for example, no dead elephants were found during a recent survey of two national parks. "The ivory ban has done an enormous amount of good for elephants all over Africa," says David Western, director of Wildlife Conservation International.

The SACIM nations argue that science can keep the ivory trade legitimate. By analyzing the isotopes of carbon, nitrogen and strontium found in a tusk, scientists can determine with a reasonable degree of probability whether the tusk came from a legally culled animal in South Africa's Kruger National Park or a poached beast in Kenya's Tsavo National Park. Critics counter that the isotope tests aren't foolproof. Until they are, they say, the ivory ban should stay in place. "I would strongly favor keeping the ban," says Western, "and exploring and developing those [chemical analysis] techniques."

The ivory ban has meant a loss of revenue for Zimbabwe, which has been forced to scale back its anti-poaching operations. As a result, officials reported that 100 animals were killed in 1990, a tenfold increase over previous years. In Botswana, where elephant hunting has been illegal since 1983, the population has exploded. At the current growth rate the country's estimated 55,000 elephants would double over the next 20 years.

Botswana is hoping to achieve zero population growth for its elephants. A "pilot cull" in mid-1992 will kill 300 to 600 elephants. Eventually, as many as 3,000 animals will be slain each year to keep the population stable. In Zimbabwe, officials plan to go a step further by reducing the current population of about 68,000 to 45,000 over the next 14 years. Reaching that goal will require an annual cull of about 5,000 animals.

The harvest is up close and personal. In South Africa, for instance, marksmen in helicopters herd the elephants into small groups and shoot them with tranquilizer darts. Game wardens and professional hunters then approach the animals on foot and shoot them between the eyes. To make sure the elephants die quickly, their throats are also cut. The corpses are catalogued, their tusks chopped off, their hides stripped and their meat cut up and sold. "When we cull, we can't just let the carcasses rot," says Gabriel Seeletso, director of Botswana's department of wildlife and national parks. "Something must be done to derive some benefit for the people who live in the area. They must see its value." Zimbabwe, meanwhile, has pioneered what it calls the "sustainable use" of wildlife. Under a program called Project Campfire, half a million rural villagers receive a portion of wildlife-generated revenues from such diverse sources as big-game hunting fees, conventional tourism and curio sales.

Elephant "management" is hardly new to southern Africa. It dates back to the preindependence era in Zimbabwe, where 44,000 elephants have been culled since 1965. Another 13,000 elephants have been wiped out in South Africa since culling began there in 1967. But it is a particularly nasty business. Elephants are not killed individually; they have tightly knit social structures, so entire families must be wiped out. Because orphaned calves cannot fend for themselves in the wild, killing them is deemed more humane.

Fortunately, there may be alternatives to culling. To relieve the intense pressure on trees along the Chobe River, some Botswanans have proposed building artificial watering holes throughout Chobe National Park. Others suggest that some herds could be used to recolonize nearby areas of southern Zambia and Angola. However, a full-scale elephant drive north to Kenya is impractical. Elephants are territorial creatures that would resist be ing driven from their regions. Despite their circus image, they're not as docile as longhorn steers.

CHECK YOUR CHESS SETS Elephant tusks are a major source of ivory-and controversy.

The United States and more than 100 other countries agreed in October 1989 to ban the shipment and sale of ivory.

The biggest consumers of ivory include Japan, Hong Kong, China and Taiwan.

Ivory is used to make jewelry, art carvings, chess sets and chopsticks.

Before the ban, poachers sold ivory for as much as $14 per pound. That price has since plummeted to $1.50 or less in some countries.