Disney vet to perform elephant vasectomies in Africa

At Walt Disney World's Animal Kingdom, head veterinarian Mark Stetter demonstrates the 5-foot (1.5-meter) contraception 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 the slaughter of elephants over concerns that they are overwhelming certain areas — a practice that has angered some conservationists.

Eating up to 600 pounds (270 kilograms) 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, but conservationists say the culls cause developmental problems among the elephants.

"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 confined to small parks that do not 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 (€48,000) grant from Disney's Conservation Fund, Stetter developed his procedure with help from an animal anesthesiology expert from the San Diego Zoo and a laparoscopic horse surgeon from Colorado State University. Stetter trained several African vets in the procedure this summer.

The are two major challenges. Elephants are the size of semi-trucks, and their testicles — the size of a "respectable cantaloupe," Stetter said — are under 2 inches (5 centimeters) of skin, (30 centimeters) of muscle and 4 inches (10 centimeters) of fat.

Using the tools doctors use for arthroscopic knee surgeries on humans — a laparoscope and a video monitor — Stetter can perform what he says is a two-hour procedure to sterilize male elephants without disrupting their important testosterone production.

The elephant must first be shot with an anesthesia dart, guided to an open area, and propped up by a crane truck so that he can stand while sleeping.

Stetter said field tests have revealed no postoperative complications for the elephants.

But Jason Bell, southern Africa director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, wrote in an e-mail he is concerned about the practicality and safety of vasectomies.

"This is only viable in small, confined and thus easily monitored populations," Bell wrote.


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