CSU professors manage changing elephant population

Dr. Dean Hendrickson goes in with his scalpel and Dr. George Wittemyer goes in with his words, but both arrive in Africa with a mission: Elephant population control.

The issues influencing numbers of elephants in Africa, a continent about three times the size of the United States, are complex. This might explain why these two are approaching the issues from very different standpoints; Wittemyer wants to boost populations, while Hendrickson is working to rein them in.

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Ten years ago, Dr. Mark Stetter, now dean of College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences (CVMBS) came up with the idea for the Elephant Population Management program. He was working as a vet in South Africa, and started asking what big issues folks in the States could help with. Overwhelmingly, the response was elephants.

“Some of the parks we worked at in Swaziland didn’t have a tree left standing,” Stetter said.09_04_03.indd

He approached Hendrickson, then at CSU, because Hendrickson had skill and experience with minimally invasive laparoscopic surgery in horses and Stetter wanted him to develop the procedure for elephants.

The procedure takes about an hour, and allows them to get through about two to three elephants per day, according to Setter. It’s minimally invasive, with a quick recovery period, and little chance of postoperative problems.

In Kenya where Wittemyer works, the opposite problem is true. Wild elephants are unprotected and vulnerable to poachers.

“Populations have been declining the last few years, which is a serious problem,” Wittemyer said.

He adds that poaching is becoming more organized since the price of ivory is going up.

Stetter agrees this is a problem in some countries, saying that poaching is now associated with organized crime. Before it may have been a few hunters in the territory, Setter said, but now they have GPS and helicopters.

Poaching is more of a problem in Kenya because most of Kenya’s elephant population is wild. Stetter and Wittemyer agree that wild elephants are more vulnerable to poaching. Most of South Africa’s hundred thousand plus elephants are in national, state and private parks.

Wherever they are, elephants are large and travel in herds. Wittemyer calls them “ecosystem engineers,” and says they have a very major impact on anywhere they live.

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Shifra Goldenberg, a graduate student working with Wittemyer, adds that they are major seed dispersers for trees, sink stream beds and alter sediment distribution.

“From an ecological perspective, they are really keystone,” Goldenberg said.

Stetter came up with the idea for Elephant Population Management in South Africa because elephant populations are growing fast.

“In South Africa where populations are separated [in parks], they can double in ten or twelve years,” he said.

Hendrickson adds that “elephants forage. They take down trees and strip habitat from other animals” and in swelling numbers this creates a problem for local ecosystems.

Wittemyer and his colleagues do a lot of anti-poaching research, which involves giving people other economic opportunities instead of poaching. They also educate populations in the communities to make sure people have a vested interest in the species.

“The Kenyan government has had a pretty good response to this,” he said.

In South Africa, Hendrickson says that their program is showing results. He adds that in South Africa, stopping deforestation, a result of the large elephant populations, has a huge impact for other species as well.

“We’re starting to see results,” Hendrickson said. “But there is still a problem with what to do with the elephants that are currently there.”

Wittemyer doesn’t think that vasectomies will have a huge impact, because you’d have to sterilize a lot of elephants to have a biological impact. However, Hendrickson insists that they are seeing results from the vasectomy project.

Stetter elaborates that the vasectomy procedure doesn’t change behavior like castrating would.

“The hormone levels remain the same, and so aggression toward smaller males and mating behavior is unaffected,” Stetter said.

He adds that after four years of observation, they are seeing less babies being born, and there doesn’t appear to be any change in social behavior.

Both camps seem to care a lot about elephant communities.

Goldenberg says that elephants have a social structure whose complexity matches our own.

“We’ve had such a different evolutionary path, but still have similarly complex social structures,” Goldenberg said. “Elephants can teach us a lot about how social systems evolve.”

On population control, Stetter points out, “elephants are smart, and have a complex social structure. It’s a very emotional issue.”

Collegian Science Reporter Remi Boudreau can be reached at news@collegian.com.