Southern Africa has a major elephant issue and it is not one that animal welfare groups in the West like to highlight.

   

"Some people in the West are still under the impression that the elephant population in southern Africa is under threat. They're not a threatened or endangered species," South African Environment Minister Valli Moosa said.

   

"The fact of the matter is that southern Africa does have an elephant overpopulation," he said. That, for some conservationists, is a jarring assertion.

   

Millions of elephants once teemed across Africa, from the Mediterranean to the continent's southern tip.

 

"We are in the business of managing biodiversity. We are not quite in the business of sentiment"

Mavuso Msimang,  chief executive, South Africa's National Parks

But while their numbers have been decimated over the centuries for the ivory contained in their tusks, there is, quite bluntly, little additional space for them in the face of surging and impoverished human populations.

   

And once you fence them in - the case for all of South Africa's roughly 15,000 wild elephants - the population will eventually reach a breaking point where it can no longer be sustained without severely stretching the rest of the ecosystem.

 

This can have disastrous consequences for other animals.

   

Elephants have big appetites, with adults consuming an average of 170 kilos (375 lbs) of food a day.

   

"In any protected area that has elephants you have two choices - you utilise the area to maintain biodiversity or else you have an elephant sanctuary, you can't have both," says Dr Ian Whyte, a biologist with South African National Parks.

   

"At some stage elephants will start to impact on biodiversity," he says.   

 

Lessons

   

The struggle to conserve elephants holds some lessons.

 

When Nelson Mandela became president in 1994, South Africa introduced a moratorium on culling elephants, which have a long lifespan and an intricate social system.

   

"We've decided that we're not going to resort to the culling of elephants...But it forces us to look hard at other alternatives," said Moosa.

   

Those alternatives may well be running out.

   

Scientists are experimenting with contraceptives, but question marks still hang over this approach, both on grounds of cost and effectiveness.

   

South Africa's favoured valve to release the pressure of rising elephant numbers has been to relocate the beasts - but with only so much land and habitat available this is clearly not a process that can go on forever.

 

Mandela did his bit for
elephant conservation

More land in South Africa is being utilised for conservation, with former cattle farms being transformed into game parks and reserves as ranchers attempt to grab a piece of the lucrative and growing ecotourism industry.

   

About six percent of South Africa's land surface lies within protected areas and the country aims to reach the IUCN (The World Conservation Union) recommendation of 10% - but at some point a limit will be reached and relocation will no longer be an option.

   

The costs are also mammoth, while the task is huge and dangerous for the humans involved and stressful to the animals.

 

Relocate

   

A private South African reserve and Botswana have both begun to relocate elephants to a game park in Angola, where almost three decades of civil war wiped out the country's herds.

   

But that operation takes serious money and there is no guarantee those animals will be protected from poachers.

   

South African officials admit they may have to reluctantly go back to culling - a move sure to provoke outrage from animal welfare groups in the West.

 

"The fact of the matter is that southern Africa does have an elephant overpopulation"

Valli Moosa, Environment Minister, South Africa

"Ultimately, of course, if nothing else can be done because elephants can be so destructive to the ecosystem, you may be forced to start culling them," Mavuso Msimang, the chief executive of South Africa's National Parks, said.

   

"We are in the business of managing biodiversity. We are not quite in the business of sentiment," he said.

   

Other countries have even bigger problems, such as Botswana, home to an estimated 80,000 to 120,000 elephants. "A process of desertification is taking place (in Botswana) because as those elephant herds move through the veld they just leave a desert behind them because of the amount of biomass which they consume," said Moosa.

   

Back at Marakele, boundaries are being extended to accommodate the new bull and his mates, with the removal of the fence separating the park from a neighbouring 84,000 acre private reserve. This will create a park of 271,800 acres.

   

But in a few years’ time, the big bull and his offspring will need more room. And in a country with  huge income disparities and where the rural poor are in need of land, there may be no space left for the elephants.