ADDO ELEPHANT PARK, South Africa (AP) _ The environment minister on Wednesday proposed a package of measures _ including limited culling and contraception _ to slow rampant elephant population growth but stressed there would be no mass slaughter.
The elephant population of 20,000 is growing at a rate of more than 6 percent per year, disrupting the delicate biodiversity in the flagship Kruger National Park and other wildlife parks, Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said.
He said the government proposed introducing new management measures, including removal of elephants to other areas, creation of special enclosures to protect other species, expansion of parks, contraception and culling.
``I would have preferred not to consider the options of both culling and contraception,'' he said, but added that the reality left him with no choice.
But he said slaughter would only be considered as a last resort.
``The government will never give a blank check to culling,'' van Schalkwyk told journalists at the Addo Elephant Park.
Environmental groups and other interested parties have until May 4 to comment on the proposals and even after that it may take many more months to bring the measures into force.
Wednesday's announcement followed months of impassioned debate, with some conservationists arguing that overall biodiversity should take priority and animal welfare groups outraged at the prospect of slaughter.
The government is fearful of upsetting tourists but van Schalkwyk ruled out the risk of a tourist boycott, saying the government action was designed to preserve the balance of nature that so entrances visitors.
South Africa has been hugely successful in managing its elephant populations, once on the verge of extinction. But herds in the Kruger Park, and also smaller parks such as Addo, are expected to double by 2020.
``We can conserve elephants but we have to start to worry about what we conserve with it,'' said Graham Kerley, an elephant expert who works with officials at Addo National Park, which currently has some 450 elephants.
The country culled a total of 14,562 elephants between 1967 and 1994. Without that cull, the population would have rocketed by now to 80,000, according to park estimates. On current trends the population is expected to reach 34,000 by 2020 if not curbed.
In 2005, the South African National Parks said culling should be considered one way to limit the population boom.
Van Schalkwyk declined to predict how many elephants might be shot if culling does get the green light. But he said now there were more sophisticated management options _ such as improving fencing and expanding parks _ offered new alternatives.
``There is a huge difference between what we had then and now,'' he said of the pre-1994 era.
There is no regional consensus on the issue. South Africa, Namibia and Botswana all have booming elephant populations, while East African nations such as Kenya are struggling. Trade in ivory has been banned since 1989 to try to combat poaching despite appeals by South Africa to resume sales and invest the proceeds in its parks.
Botswana has by far the biggest elephant population, with an estimated 165,000 elephants, according to van Schalkwyk. He said Zimbabwe was host to an estimated 80,000 and Mozambique some 20,000.
Conservation experts say there are also signs that elephants are beginning to move from the Kruger into Mozambique, where populations are much more sparse because of the long civil war, thanks to the removal of national fences in a new trans-frontier park.
A single elephant devours up to 660 pounds of grass, leaves and twigs a day. And they are messy eaters _ 60 percent gets wasted.
``The feeding impact of elephants is enormous because of their large size and the way they feed,'' Kerley said.
Addo was established as a national elephant park in 1931, after a sustained campaign by local hunters and farmers had decimated the herd to just 11 beasts. With the acquisition of more land and extensive fencing to protect the animals from harm, the population has mushroomed.
Already the crowding is leading to tensions, according to Kerley.
The females live to about 65 years old, but fighting among the bulls has reduced their average life span to 45 years _ not long enough for them to grow the mighty tusks that are the trademark of other South African elephant populations.