South Africa announced Monday that it would allow the killing of elephants as a population control, a move strongly condemned by animal welfare groups.
Beginning in May, the government will lift a 13-year ban on elephant culls, usually carried out by shooting entire herds, including youngsters, from helicopters.
The move could hurt the country's tourist industry, with animal welfare lobbies calling for a tourist boycott to protest culling.
South Africa slaughtered more than 14,500 elephants from 1967 to 1995, before halting the practice because of international pressure.
"From 1 May there will no longer be as a policy a moratorium on the culling of elephants. We will allow culling in certain parts of the country. But there is no intention of wholesale slaughter," Environment Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk said Monday.
The guidelines call for humane killing, specifying that a rifle of at least .375 caliber be used. Sharpshooters usually kill entire herds because of the complex social structure of elephants and because the young need to be taught social behavior by adults in order to survive.
Animal welfare organizations, which strongly oppose the reintroduction of culling, said there was no humane way to kill elephants. Animal Rights Africa vowed to campaign for a tourist boycott.
Though elephants are endangered in other parts of Africa, the population in South Africa is robust. But the issue of culling is emotional for many, because of elephants' intelligence and elaborate social behaviors. Elephants have been known to grieve for their dead.
South Africa has 18,000 elephants, including more than 12,500 in Kruger National Park, one of the country's major tourist attractions. SANParks, the agency in charge of parks and national game reserves, called for culling in a 2005 report to the government, arguing that too many elephants threaten other species.
Van Schalkwyk said Monday that there was also concern about elephants' effect on the landscape and the people living near the herds.
Before culling, reserve managers will have to prove that they have excess elephants and that killing is the only effective option.
"We don't support culling in any shape or form," Christina Pretorius, Cape Town-based spokeswoman for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said in a telephone interview. "We don't believe there's any humane way to cull.
"Culling elephants is not going to be popular. . . . Certainly people will take that into account when making decisions about where they're going to take their holidays," she said.
Pretorius called on the government to ensure that the guidelines allowing culling were properly enforced.
If culling is carried out, she said, "it has to be subject to very serious checks and balances."
Animal Rights Africa said culling was "cruel and morally reprehensible," and that elephants have emotions similar to those of humans.
"The latest research has proved that elephants have a sense of self-awareness, placing them in a unique category with great apes, dolphins and humans," the organization said. "How much like us do elephants have to be before killing them becomes murder?"
Pretorius said the IFAW did not believe that all other options had been properly examined, such as the creation of so-called transfrontier parks to allow elephant populations to roam freely from one country to another.
Proponents of transfrontier parks say that as elephant populations wander to different regions, season by season, the environment has time to recover. Some researchers are working on elephant vasectomies and female contraceptives, but these are expensive and are practical only in limited populations where all individuals are identifiable.
Susan Lieberman, global species director for the World Wildlife Fund, said in a telephone interview that she believed there were humane culling methods but did not want to speculate on which these were.
"It's not something anybody welcomes at all, but we also have to look at the broader conservation management issues," she said. "The option of doing nothing does not exist. We have immense sympathy for wildlife managers in South Africa. They can't just walk away and ignore it."