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Elephants in South Africa


The idea for this story came about when I was reporting on efforts to develop a contraceptive for male coyotes. One of scientists I interviewed, a professor of zoology and physiology at the University of Wyoming, mentioned that wildlife managers in many game reserves in South Africa are using birth control to manage burgeoning elephant populations.

That piqued my interest. I had assumed African elephants were universally threatened by poaching, their numbers dwindling dangerously low. But here was a place where the animals were doing so well that people were curtailing their reproduction.

I saw obvious parallels to wildlife issues in Wyoming. The contraceptive that’s used on many elephant herds in South Africa, called PZP, is the same drug the BLM has been trying out on wild horses in the American West. Like the horses, elephants are charismatic animals, iconic to their native landscapes – something tourists come to see. And yet, there’s a concern that if their populations grow too large, they’ll decimate the available vegetation, to the detriment of other species.

In the U.S., fertility control has been used on wild horses only in small pilot projects. But it’s been a key management tool for some South African reserves for more than a decade. I wanted to know how it was working out for them, and what other alternatives they had tried. I thought Wyoming’s wildlife managers might be able to learn something from another country’s experience.

Willow Belden
Willow interviewing Sam

I already had some funding for international reporting. Two years ago, when I graduated from Columbia University’s journalism school, I received the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship, an award that’s granted to four top students each year for international reporting. This story seemed like a fitting use for the money.

Reporting the story was a pleasure. After a few interviews in South Africa’s capitol, Pretoria, I drove to Makalali Game Reserve, a beautiful safari destination that boasts all of the “Big Five” – elephants, rhinos, lions, leopards, and buffalo – plus a generous supply of giraffes, hippos, and antelope. Driving around in an open jeep, I spent two days following elephant herds with my microphone and camera. Nights were spent in an airy cottage, with a delightful outdoor shower, a thatched gazebo for afternoon siestas, and a deck overlooking a river. (Swimming was not allowed, because of hippos and crocodiles).

Later, at Kruger National Park, I got a rare chance to leave my vehicle (something visitors are usually not allowed to do, lest they be eaten by a lion or charged by some other big game species) to conduct an interview by a secluded river. I watched hyenas nursing babies, stopped to see baboons wrestling by the roadside, and introduced local residents to s’mores at a barbeque outside the bungalow where I was staying. One evening, I was even invited to evening cocktails (“sundowners,” as they’re aptly called) at a lake in the park’s staff village.

My main regret is that I wasn’t able to go to South Africa at the right time of year to see birth control being administered to elephants, or to watch elephant vasectomies being performed. No doubt, those would have been dynamic scenes to share with listeners. But I hope the story is of interest nonetheless, and will shed light on an issue that closely parallels challenges that wildlife managers face here in Wyoming.

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