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Why elephants get vasectomies

Published October 11, 2006

LAKE BUENA VISTA - At Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom, head veterinarian Mark Stetter demonstrates the 5-foot tool for a procedure that he hopes will help control Africa's elephant population: vasectomies.

The theme park's plan is the latest attempt to deal with what African officials say is overpopulation, although conservationists dispute that. While those who live far from elephants may think they are endangered, thousands of them have been killed in Africa because of concerns that they had overwhelmed certain areas.

Eating up to 600 pounds of vegetation a day, they can destroy their environment if too many are in a confined space.

In South Africa's Kruger National Park alone, more than 16,000 were culled from 1966 to 1994, when a moratorium was enacted due to public pressure. Some parks like Kruger are still lobbying for that option.

"I think that obviously everybody would agree that culling has caused a lot of social issues with the elephants," Stetter said. "Part of our hope is that there will be less culling in the years ahead if we are able to use this tool."

But some African wildlife experts and advocates say the vasectomies plan is ill conceived, blaming the problem instead on elephants in parks being confined to small areas that don't resemble the natural ecosystem.

"When it comes to conservation, we excuse ourselves and deal with the symptoms instead of the causes," said Rudi van Aarde, director of the Conservation Ecology Research Unit at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. He advocates linking parks together to create larger ecosystems that will naturally limit elephant populations.

The vasectomies plan was devised to help solve problems with culling and transplanting elephants, which can adversely affect the animals' families.

Experts say younger elephants who grow up without discipline from their dominant fathers can suffer developmentally. An increase in elephant attacks on humans has been seen in parts of Africa where they live side by side.

With a three-year, $60,000 grant from Disney's Conservation Fund, Stetter developed his procedure with help from an animal anesthesiology expert from the San Diego Zoo's Wild Animal Park and a laparoscopic horse surgeon from Colorado State University. Stetter trained several African vets in the procedure this summer.

[Last modified October 11, 2006, 00:47:01]

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