Southern Africa has a problem: Elephants.
Not, as you might think, the problem of elephants being poached for their ivory or of a declining population due to human encroachment, but a virtual baby boom.
It seems that the ban on the killing of elephants has been wildly successful. There are thousands and thousands of healthy, hungry elephants, right in the prime breeding age, busily trying to make as many baby elephants as possible.
From a distant point of view, this might seem a good thing, since it was only a few years ago that we were seeing the virtual collapse of the elephant population. Alas, a closer look shows a different picture.
The elephants don’t have all of southern Africa to roam around in anymore. And their browsing is flat-out destroying the trees where they live. And as the trees go down, the elephants are wont to go outside their protected zones, raiding farmers crops.
So how do you fix this problem?
A highly unpopular (at least internationally) solution is to cull (i.e. kill) substantial numbers, and a lot of that has been going on, in a quiet way, for years. But the quiet killing hasn’t been enough and anything like the required amount looks to be politically impossible.
What to do?
Enter Western medicine.
Why not, they say, dart the females with contraceptives? Not a bad idea, and it is being tried, but it has to be renewed every year for every cow, so it has its own problems.
Okay, how about giving the males vasectomies?
Don’t laugh. That is being tried even as we speak. It is not a trivial operation. Elephant testes are internal, located up on the back by the kidneys. Still…
It works like this: First, they get a large crew, at least one helicopter, a couple of large flatbed trucks, a heavy-duty crane, and a slew of specialized medical equipment. They take all this out into the bush, select the target bull, and the fun begins.
From the helicopter, they dart the bull with a fast-acting, reversible anesthetic. Then they use the helicopter to herd the sleepy animal away from where he wants to go, the deepest thicket available.
When he finally goes down, the helicopter directs the crew with the flatbed and crane to his location. The crew ties the elephant’s feet together, hooks the crane on, and lifts him by his feet (a good sized bull can weigh 14,000 pounds) off the ground and onto the flatbed. Then they truck him to the clearing where his surgeons await.
To minimize the trauma to the elephant and to speed up the procedure, they have developed a set of heavy-duty laparoscopic surgical tools. This, however, introduces another problem. In order to go in and have enough room to work (i.e. to have gravity move the guts out of the way), the elephant needs to be upright.
So they bring the crane in again, lift the elephant off the truck, put slings under his chest and belly, and lift him up so he’s upright with his legs dangling. But this presents yet another problem. The pressure of the slings holding the whole weight of the elephant during the entire surgery would put too much strain on his internal organs.
So now the crew brings in some box-like wooden structures, unbolts them, and bolts them around the elephant’s legs (no, I’m not kidding). These serve as splints to keep the legs from buckling when the crane lowers the bull to the ground, allowing much of the weight to be taken off the slings.
Now the vets move in, cut small holes in each side of the back, insert their laparoscopic tools and, monitoring the procedure via video, snip out sections, left and right, of the vas deferens. They close the wounds and the high-tech part is done. From now on this bull will be shooting blanks.
The crane lifts the elephant up again, they remove the splint frameworks, and lower him back onto the flatbed. They drive him back to where he was captured, lift him (by his feet again) off the truck and lay him on the ground. A vet administers the anesthesia-reversing drug and gets the heck out of the way.
Soon the bull rouses, gets up, and wanders off into the bush, no doubt with one heck of a story to tell his friends. (Interestingly, bulls wake up sleepy and docile. But they’ve also tried this procedure for tubal ligations. The cows wake up really pissed and ready to attack anything they see.)
Now, I am the last person to criticize the wonders of modern science and the generosity of Western medicine in trying to attack Africa’s problems. And I know that these good folks have learned a tremendous amount about conducting surgery on mega-mammals. And I also know that they have developed a whole new set of tools in the process.
Still, I have a mental picture of a line of bull elephants stretching out into the distance and growing ever longer while a weary crew operates and operates and operates.
“Sorry, Dumbo, you’ll just have to take a number like all the rest.”