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The Associated Press
PRETORIA, South Africa -- South Africa will allow elephants to be killed in an attempt to control a burgeoning population, the government said, ending a 13-year ban and setting a trend that could embolden other southern African nations confronting the same dilemma.
As outraged animal rights activists threaten to promote tourist boycotts, Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said Monday the government was left with no choice but to reintroduce culling "as a last option and under very strict conditions."
There would be no "wholesale slaughter," he promised.
"Our simple reality is that elephant population density has risen so much in some southern African countries that there is concern about impacts on the landscape, the viability of other species and the livelihoods and safety of people living within elephant ranges," he said.
South Africa has been hugely successful in managing its elephant population, once on the verge of extinction in some parts of the country. But it has now become a victim of its own success and herds are growing at a rate of more than 5 percent a year and expected to double by 2020, threatening the delicate balance of nature.
South Africa has about 18,000 elephants and southern Africa is home to about 300,000 -- half of all the elephants on the continent -- with the growing numbers taking their toll on the environment.
There is no consensus on the continent on how to manage elephant populations. Southern African countries favor culling while East African nations such as Kenya are struggling to keep numbers up. 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.
"We are the first country to come out and take this decision," van Schalkwyk said, adding that South Africa had consulted other countries in the region.
Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana -- which alone has the highest population of 165,000 elephants -- all used to cull before international outrage forced an end to the scenes of game rangers rounding up trumpeting, frightened herds and shooting the elephants.
The announcement follows months of impassioned debate, with some conservationists arguing that overall biodiversity should take priority and animal welfare groups outraged at the prospect of slaughter.
Elephants, which have no predators, can turn woodlands to grass and stubs in a matter of years. They need to roam widely to get their daily diet of about 300 kilograms (660 pounds) of grass, leaves and twigs and up to 200 liters (52 gallons) of water. And they increasingly clash with people.
The government is fearful of upsetting tourists who flock to see the "big five" animals -- elephants, lions, rhinos, leopards and buffalo.
Van Schalkwyk said the debate was marked by "strong emotions."
"There are few other creatures on earth that have the ability of elephants to 'connect' with humans in a very special way," he said.
The new regulations on managing elephants, effective May 1, say killing must be through "quick and humane methods," preferably by a single lethal shot to the brain delivered by a skilled marksman from a helicopter.
Van Schalkwyk did not specify how many elephants could be killed or when, except to say that figures of 2,000 to 10,000 being bandied about by animal rights groups were "hugely inflated."
The World Wildlife Fund cautiously welcomed the government's move.
"They are doing the responsible thing," said Rob Little, acting chief executive of WWF South Africa. "It is the right choice to have culling as an option but with strong provisos."
Little said neighboring countries were "watching us for guidance" and that he did expect others to follow South Africa's example.
"We all love elephants, no one wants to kill them, but we don't have the luxury for one species to dominate," he said.
However, Animal Rights Africa, which is threatening to promote tourist boycotts, said killing elephants was "undeniably cruel and morally reprehensible."
Spokeswoman Michele Pickover said South Africa does not have too many elephants and that the decision by the government posed a threat to the elephant population in southern Africa.
"South Africa has opened the door to en masse killing of elephants," she said.
She argued that the decision was linked to its push to have the ban on ivory trade lifted. South Africa has huge stockpiles of ivory but if it succeeded in getting the ban lifted it would "have to keep looking for more ivory," Pickover said.
Bob Scholes, who headed the assessment report of elephant management, dismissed Pickover's claims as "irrelevant".
He said elephants earned about 18.6 billion rands (US $2.42 billion) a year from tourists and only 1.14 billion rands (US $148 million) in ivory, hunting and sales.
"Elephants are worth much more alive than dead," he said.
Still, Scholes said, it was "quite likely" that other countries would follow South Africa's lead and using killing to control elephant populations, even eventually in East Africa, once the numbers which have stabilized begin to increase.
"I see little alternative to doing so," he said.
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