(Adds reaction from WWF in paragraphs 5-6
By Stella Mapenzauswa
ADDO NATIONAL PARK, South Africa, Feb 28 (Reuters) - South Africa on Wednesday unveiled a new policy to manage its swelling elephant population, including resuming a controversial cull of the animals if needed.
Government experts have been pushing for a targeted slaughter of some of the country’s 20,000 elephants, as well as a birth control programme to preserve habitat endangered by the voracious eaters.
"We are adding culling and contraception to the range of management options because, based on the information that we have, it is necessary," Environment and Tourism Minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk told journalists at Addo Elephant Park near the coastal city of Port Elizabeth.
"But it is a difficult decision," said van Schalkwyk, adding the government was willing to consult with environmentalists in the next two months before its proposals became law.
The World Wildlife Fund, a leading conservation group, applauded the government’s consultative approach but noted that culling should not be the main tool for controlling elephant populations.
"WWF encourages all governments to use culling only as a last resort when all non-lethal options have been investigated and there is conclusive evidence that non-lethal approach would not be as effective in managing elephant populations," it said.
Government scientists say the elephant population, which was once near extinction in South Africa, is growing at a rate of more than 5 percent a year and is expected to double by 2020.
At Kruger National Park, the jewel in the nation’s game park system, the number of elephants has risen to around 14,000 since culling stopped in 1995 after an outcry from animal rights activists and the public.
Last year South Africa postponed resuming a cull at Kruger after opposition by conservationists who said the practice, which involves rounding up and shooting entire family groups, was cruel.
Supporters of the cull say the elephants pose a serious threat to the environment because of their huge appetites. A single grown elephant can devour hundreds of kilograms of grass and leaves per day.
South Africa culled thousands of elephants in the three decades leading up to the mid-1990s because of fears their ballooning numbers would overwhelm the environment.
Graham Kerley, a zoology professor and elephant expert at Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth, said it was important for the country to maintain culling as an option, not least to protect rare species of plants.
"We can conserve elephants, but then we have to start having to worry about how we are going to conserve what else goes with them. It would be good if the elephants weren’t quite that successful in breeding," Kerley said late on Tuesday.
Opponents of culling say forced migration and contraception -- sterilisation and other forms -- are more humane alternatives, while supporters argue that neither option is a long-term solution to overcrowding at Addo and other parks.