In South Africa, plying science to do the right and ethical thing by elephants

“Ethics is about knowing the difference between what you have a right to do and what is right to do” – Potter Stewart

The landing page of the Digital Elephant Magazine produced by IFAW’s South Africa office.Firstly, go and check out our digital magazine about elephants – and then come back and read this post – fair warning: it may not be so easy to come back because you’ll be enthralled by what you’re about to see, guaranteed.

Once you’ve looked the magazine over, I’m certain you’ll agree, elephants are amazing creatures who deserve our respect.

Now a few years back, I was invited to present at a gathering of the Ethics Society of South Africa (ESSA) aimed at addressing ethical considerations around elephant management. 

Following the heated debate and resultant moratorium on elephant culling in the Kruger National Park in the early 1990’s, there were still vastly differing opinions on whether culling should be re-introduced or not. 

Bringing ethical considerations to the table, presented an opportunity to move the debate away from a highly polarized platform based on personal opinion and hearsay, to one focused on defining the actual “problem” and working towards appropriate solutions. 

In a nutshell, culling was an approach dictated by a fixation on managing elephant numbers to no scientific or ecological end, i.e. an agricultural approach. 

The process also presented an enormous animal welfare challenge where, initially, adult elephants were killed leaving traumatized babies and sub-adults. In later years, this approach changed to one where entire family units were killed, even the babies.  

However, the approach was still appealing to some because it fell nicely into the sustainable use rhetoric and thus gained political support over time. 

Turns out, the approach wasn’t an appropriate management solution at all, and killing an entire family from innocent calf to elder matriarch is certainly a difficult practice to justify ethically.

It was time to go back to the drawing board. 

The role of science in conservation management decision making was put on the spot and the result was a firm commitment from the South African Government, through a dedicated scientific assessment, to address this.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare has partnered with the Conservation Ecology Research Unit (CERU) of the University of Pretoria for many years to shed light on elephant population dynamics in southern Africa with a view to moving forward ethically and scientifically sound management approaches. 

Our elephant digital-magazine was designed to highlight the great advances made thus far in using science appropriately to get the facts straight. 

And, we’re informing the larger questions of proper animal welfare management and land-use planning as we go – all in the best possible way.

I leave you with this cool poem, which, for me, sums the issue up – let’s at least know what we’re talking about before we make ethically questionable decisions and compromise the well-being of the animals concerned. 


John Godfrey Saxe's (1816-1887) version of the famous Indian legend,

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach'd the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -"Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he,
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!


So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen! 

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Azzedine Downes,IFAW President and CEO
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