The elephant population in South Africa is booming. That may sound like a good thing, but it’s actually a growing problem. The New York Times reported today that even Kruger National Park, the country’s biggest wildlife reserve, can’t handle the herds. Environmental minister Marthinus van Schalkwyk has come up with a potential solution: Kill some of the giants.

The idea, not surprisingly, is extremely unpopular with some environmentalists and researchers because elephants have a complex social structure, which makes it difficult to thin the populations without traumatizing the herd. An article in the New York Times Magazine last year discussed the affect on elephants when humans interfere:

"Decades of poaching and culling and habitat loss, [researchers] claim, have so disrupted the intricate web of familial and societal relations by which young elephants have traditionally been raised in the wild, and by which established elephant herds are governed, that what we are now witnessing is nothing less than a precipitous collapse of elephant culture."

Elephants are also very intelligent. Researchers at the Wildlife Conservation Society recently realized that elephants are self-aware, a characteristic that they share with few other species, including humans.  

"Unfortunately, they also have a significant impact on the lands where they roam. According to the article today in the New York Times:

That elephants are destructive is unquestioned. African elephants can eat as much as 5 percent of their weight and drink up to 50 gallons of water a day, and herds have been known to reduce forests and bushlands to treeless expanses of weeds, grass and broken stumps."

Perhaps understandably, some conservationists think that preserving the biodiversity in Kruger National Park should be prioritized over protecting the elephant population. (Government officials estimate that the number of elephants will grow to 34,000 by 2020 — up from 20,000 animals now.)

The expanding elephant population might be a problem, but humans have done much more environmental harm by clearing forests and ripping resources from the ground. If self-awareness is something that we share with these creatures, maybe we should not resort to killing them and instead think of ways to reduce our impact on the earth.

Story by Susan Cosier. This article originally appeared in Plenty in March 2007. This story was added to MNN.com in July 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2007.