Elephants Join the Sexual Revolution

In African game reserves, elephants were eating themselves out of house and home. So the Humane Society International found a way to control the growing elephant population in South African reserves without resorting to cruel practices: elephant contraception.

“In a lot of places in Africa, elephants are confined by fences or barriers,” explains Humane Society International’s director of wildlife Theresa Telecky. “If the population isn’t controlled in some way, the elephants will out-eat the area.”

When the pachyderm population threatened its own existence, reserve managers had to take drastic measures. The most common ways to control an elephant population were culling — killing a portion of the elephants — or trans-locating — capturing and transferring the elephants to another area. Both methods cause stress and damage to elephant communities.

“We offer an alternative to managers that doesn’t involve cruel or invasive methods,” Telecky says.

The Humane Society has been researching an effective contraception for elephants. It tested the vaccine-inspired contraception over 10 years in South Africa’s Makalali Conservancy and the University of Pretoria.

It’s not a pill or a condom, but the dart vaccination can effectively render a female elephant infertile for a year without harmful side effects. The contraception uses the elephants’ immune system to attack possible fertilization.

Researchers claim the dart isn’t painful, especially when compared to culling, but the contraceptive task forces in reserves can raise a few alarms among the elephants.

Helicopter approaches worried the elephants. Vehicles didn’t. 

Which females get the drug? It depends on the preserve.

In some reserves, managers dart a percentage of the population at random. At the Humane Society’s testing site in Makalali, the reserve managers work closely with the elephants and determine which ones are ready for motherhood.

The contraception vaccine isn’t just useful for modern female elephants. Deer and horses in America have been darted to control growing populations. As for the continuing rise in human population numbers, we’ll have to wait for a solution.

“This technique is not approved for use in humans,” Telecky says.