By Karen Lange
The elephants take off running as the helicopter banks around a hill, pushing headlong through the bush and low trees into the river valley in South Africa’s Ithala Game Reserve.
The elephants seem to be fleeing the chopper’s noisy approach as if it’s some kind of predatory beast, but, the pilot says, “They’re not really panicking—they’re quite relaxed.” It’s just reflexive running, not true terror.
As the chopper circles, they group and regroup. Some raise their trunks and wheel. It’s hard not to imagine that the price of this aerial view—of a breeding herd of mothers and daughters and pre-adolescent sons and calves hurtling along the valley floor—is their fear.
The helicopter is giving a photographer ammunition for an article about an elephant contraceptive called PZP, which provokes an immune reaction in cows, causing them to produce antibodies that bind to the surfaces of their eggs and prevent fertilization.
A previous flight that morning had carried no one more dangerous than a veterinarian vaccinating elephant cows with the drug: green splotches of dye on their hindquarters marking where the darts hit.
The older elephants in the photographer’s viewfinder might have been among those whose families were gunned down around them decades before during culling operations, which South Africa suspended in 1994.
During the 1970s and ’80s into the early ’90s, helicopter flights in Kruger National Park carried sharpshooters who methodically picked off one elephant after another to reduce the population in the fenced preserve.
During certain culls, calves were spared for relocation to protected areas without elephants. Around 50 of those calves ended up in Ithala reserve, which adopted PZP in 2014, because elephant numbers had increased so fast. (Ithala’s conservation manager is now trying to give away 30 elephants but hasn’t found any protected areas willing to take them.)
Now the chopper leaves the breeding herd and descends toward a smaller group of bulls who also flee along the mudflats, where they’ve just been rolling, the tan dirt coating their backs.
In 2008, the South African government issued rules that allowed culling again—but only as a last resort, after all nonlethal means are exhausted.
The contraceptive delivered to the Ithala elephants is a way to avoid any further killing. Proven effective in trials funded by Humane Society International at Greater Makalali Private Game Reserve, PZP will slow population growth so that the habitats on which Ithala’s elephants and other species depend can be preserved.
In South Africa, 20 protected areas now use PZP, including nine of the country’s 25 parks and reserves with the largest elephant populations. Ithala, with 154 elephants, is one. Addo National Elephant Park, with an estimated 600 elephants, is another.
At Addo, there’s no need to go up in a helicopter to find elephants. Supremely comfortable around humans, the park’s herds spill onto roads. Fortunately, they’re mostly forgiving of the people in vehicles who sometimes crowd them to get a look. (Quite regularly across South Africa, tourists who fail to heed the warnings and get too close to elephants end up with their vehicles crushed.)
On a recent afternoon, even visitors careful to keep a distance were caught in a traffic jam. One SUV stopped right next to some elephants, and several more vehicles lined up behind it.
The herd started to cross the road—one elephant, then three, then two, the full size of the group not revealed until they left the thicket of spekboom plants. More and more elephants emerged, barely able to squeeze between the vehicles.
Then, as if realizing that their route was blocked, the elephants began heading down the road on either side of the parked SUVs.
Tourists being tourists, they took pictures. The elephants passed still closer to the trapped vehicles, inches away from where people sat, windows down, clutching their cameras.
With patience and forbearance, the herd slipped past the vehicles lined up across their path. No amount of human intelligence spared the people stuck on that road. What saved them was the intelligence of the elephants. Their mercy.
PZP is a way to return that mercy. With PZP, culls need never happen again.