Field study documents chilling effects of elephant culling

Several years ago, I read an editorial by Richard Leakey in which he gave his reluctant endorsement  to a South African plan to reinstate culling (aka “killing” – to thin a herd) as a last-resort method of managing elephant populations where they have outgrown their habitat (i.e., culling would be used only after trying contraception and/or moving some elephants to other locations).  Noting that he found the practice “repugnant,” Leakey said he could nonetheless see the sense of it in certain scenarios: “…I do accept that given the impacts of human induced climate change, and habitat destruction, elephants in and outside of protected areas will become an increasingly serious problem unless some key populations are reduced and maintained at appropriate levels.”  

And then he made a breathtaking recommendation… Breathtaking in the sense of sucking the wind out of one’s lungs, because of everything the idea conveys about the nature of elephant-being(s) and the evil of this “necessity:”

“If culling is deemed necessary, then I would personally like to see the management authority ensure that entire families or bond groups are removed intact to eliminate or minimise the emotional trauma to remaining individuals…”

For years, Gay Bradshaw and others have been warning about the psychological and social impacts of culling (and poaching, and other violent or hostile encounters with humans) on elephant survivors.  Here are a few examples:

Now comes direct evidence of what happens to surviving elephants when culling and “translocations” are done randomly, conveniently, and with no regard to social structures and bonds.  A study published in October in Frontiers in Zoology tested two populations of wild elephants, one that had experienced culling decades earlier (the Pilanesberg elephants), and one that was largely intact and comparatively undisturbed (the Amboseli elephants), to see how their members responded to playbacks of elephant “contact calls” recorded in each population over the years.  The researchers hypothesized that if the elephants were able to discriminate important social cues (indicating age, dominance, and familiarity) in the calls, they would respond accordingly – acting relatively relaxed when the calls signaled low threat (young or familiar elephants), and showing defensive behaviors and heightened attention when the calls signaled a potential threat (older or unfamiliar elephants).

The Pilanesberg group – the group that had experienced traumatic culling – showed no indication that they could discriminate these calls or respond appropriately.

This is a big, sad deal.  In an interview here, the authors explain: “These results highlight for the first time how traumatic experiences have the potential to disrupt the cognitive abilities and social functioning of elephants in the long-term, with direct implications for population integrity. Furthermore, they provide key insights into the likely impacts of trauma on other long-lived social species including primates and cetaceans both in the wild and captivity.”

The effect of culling is twofold: (1) the initial trauma has a lasting psychological impact, and (2) younger group members lose the opportunity to interact with and learn from older members that could – as the authors point out in the study – “act as appropriate role models or repositories of knowledge” (p2) and are comparatively socially unmoored.

Some argue that culling (or translocations, when that is feasible) will remain necessary (and even morally justified) in situations where an immediate solution to crowding, aggression, and habitat destruction is required.  But contraception is vastly more humane, and proven effective in the longer run.

Of course, the administration of contraception raises a different ethical question.  Should wild animals be treated as having a kind of autonomy – in the form of freedom from human manipulation?  And if so, do we owe some kind of restitution when we interfere with that autonomy?  It’s a legitimate question for some ethicists.  Imagine living in the kind of society that would ask it, let alone answer it in favor of the elephants!

(For some good, fact-based information on “managing” wild elephant populations, read the International Fund for Animal Welfare’s beautifully illustrated brochure, “Elephants: Facts & Fables.”)


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