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COLUMN ONE

Africa's white elephants

Entire herds could face culling because of overpopulation, but birth control may be an option. A bull named Samson is one test case.

December 13, 2007|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

WELGEVONDEN GAME RESERVE, SOUTH AFRICA — Samson, otherwise known as Elephant No. 1, is twisting his trunk around some succulent young tufts of grass, tugging them up and throwing them into his mouth, perfectly aware we have sneaked up on him but willing to nonchalantly ignore us, for now.

We crouch on a rock about 40 yards away -- about as close to a wild bull elephant as it is safe to get on foot. Even though Samson shows no signs of irritation, it's nice to be with David Powrie, who is something of an elephant whisperer.

The tall, blond, sunburned ranger is always elated to find himself in a cloud of small flies, the telltale sign that an elephant herd is near. He knows each one of the 120 elephants here in the Welgevonden Game Reserve, identifying them by the nicks in their ears, their tusks and the unique patterning of their tails -- almost like a fingerprint. He sniffs the air for the bulls in must (they exude an oily secretion when they are looking for females) and follows their dinner-plate-sized footprints. He knows a turn of the wind can change an elephant's mood instantly.

He also knows that elephants hate loud noises. Samson, like most, does not like thunder, or helicopters, given the bad habit those shrieking metal beasts have of swooping down unexpectedly and leaving one forever changed, as happened last year.

Samson was darted, fell unconscious, was lifted by crane onto a flatbed truck and driven to a clearing in his home at the reserve. There, a group of American vets from Disney World's Animal Kingdom performed a vasectomy, a highly complex operation given the bush location and the difficult anatomy of the elephant. (Their testicles are located deep in the body, on either side of the spine, requiring a specially made laparoscope for the operation.)

Powrie's task is to study the effects of the vasectomies on the behavior of four sterilized bulls and the reactions of 42 female elephants to a contraceptive recently administered by darts from a helicopter. He spends his days with a tracking antenna getting as close to the Welgevonden pachyderms as possible, observing their behavior.

It is part of a national research effort to answer pressing questions about South Africa's elephant population: In short, given the animals' humongous appetites and destructive habits, is the 20,000-strong population threatening the habitat of other species? If so, how do you control population growth?

There are only four known solutions to too many elephants: birth control, relocation, so-called transfrontier parks that span borders and the one that people do not really like to talk about, shooting the animals from helicopters. The South African government's draft policy on elephant population control, released this year, includes all four options.

Some South African conservationists believe a cull (mass elephant kill) is inevitable in hugely popular Kruger National Park, which is nearly twice the size of Los Angeles County and had 12,500 elephants at last count in 2006.

Wanda Mkutshulwa, a spokeswoman for the government's parks agency, SANParks, refused to comment on the likelihood of a cull. "We made our recommendations in 2005," was her only comment, referring to SANParks' controversial call on the government to allow culling.

But shooting elephants would surely cause a storm of international protest, given human sentiments about the animals and the widespread perception that they are an endangered species (correct in other parts of the continent but not in southern Africa). There is talk among animal rights organizations of organizing a tourist boycott of South Africa should culling take place, threatening one of the country's most important industries.

Culls do not involve selectively shooting the oldest or weakest. They mean shooting whole herds, including youngsters, because the animals' social structures are so complex and interdependent.

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Luckily for Samson, ensconced in a private reserve with a vasectomy behind him, the men with guns in shrieking helicopters will never come for him. There is something to be said for being a research guinea pig, after all.

Before leading us into the thick rocky bush at the reserve here in South Africa's mountainous Waterberg region, Powrie has given us the drill: "If anything comes at us, we stand still."

Out here, only prey runs.

Samson has just had a lovely mud bath in a favorite pool and, given the ample quantities of fresh green grass, seems lazily content. He keeps on munching in the tranquil quiet, as the sun, falling lower in the evening sky, casts a golden glow.

For research purposes, the elephants are given numbers, but Powrie's name for him has a better ring to it than "No. 1."

Before we sneak up on Samson, Powrie takes out a rifle but puts the emergency bullet in his pocket. He also carries a pepper spray device in his belt. It's not hard to guess which of the two would be his weapon of choice in an emergency.

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