In South Africa, Where Elephants Are Fenced In, Choosing Contraception Over Culling

Fleeing the sound of a helicopter, elephants in Ithala Game Reserve run through the Pongola River Valley, on the park's northern boundary. Photograph by Michelle Riley/The Humane Society of the United States.

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.

Fleeing the sound of a helicopter, elephants in Ithala Game Reserve run through the Pongola River Valley, on the park’s northern boundary. Photograph by Michelle Riley/The Humane Society of the United States.

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.

Veterinarian Dave Cooper, dart gun in hand, walks toward a helicopter that will take him to vaccinate female elephants in Ithala Game Reserve with the contraceptive PZP. The park began treating its elephants in 2014. Photograph by Michelle Riley/The Humane Society of the United States.
Veterinarian Dave Cooper, dart gun in hand, walks toward a helicopter that will take him to vaccinate female elephants in Ithala Game Reserve with the contraceptive PZP. The park began treating its elephants in 2014. —> Read More

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