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Elephant culling in Africa

Updated on August 12, 2014

So, here's a highly controversial subject. What do we all know about culling? Well, the general consensus seems to be that a bunch of animals are killed as humanely as possible in order to alleviate overpopulation issues. Most people seem to understand the necessities of these programs and except it.....unless it involves an elephant!

Take Kruger National Park in South Africa for example. They used to practice animal reduction exercises (culling) up until 1995. This was when animal activists took the case up to the high courts and put a stop to it. Funny really, as culling is still done to this day on the buffalo in the Kruger. Not one placard has been hoisted to help the plight of the buffalo. This is part of the problem right there. We choose the animals we want to save instead of concentrating on saving all species.

Do I support culling of elephants in Africa? Yes! Do I like the practice? No! That's conservation. Seeing what is best for all species, and practising those policies down the line. Why is culling necessary? Well, it's a long and involved story and I want to explain all aspects of it. In order to do so, I need to start from the beginning. If you are against all this its fine, just try read through it all and hopefully you will understand the big picture.

Tsavo, before elephant damage
Tsavo, before elephant damage
Tsavo, after elephant damage
Tsavo, after elephant damage
Example of the damage done by elephants
Example of the damage done by elephants

Elephants as a species

Why are elephants important as a species? This is a constant problem. People always think with their hearts. So we should save elephants because we love them, they're big and beautiful, etc, etc. Well, no, there's more to it than that. If we saved species out of love, then we can let cockroaches, spiders, snakes, frogs, etc go extinct right now! Not much love for them is there? Quite often you will get people describing elephants as wasteful and destructive animals, without further explanation. Well, in that case, lets make them go extinct right now. Can't afford to have something like that running around now can we? There's more to it than that. All species on this planet are functional. They perform routine jobs on a daily basis, which affect other species, mostly inadvertently.

Take a look at the pictures above. Just a few examples of what elephants are capable of. A bull elephant will push down about 1000 trees every year. Not always for food, sometimes just as a show of strength. I've seen elephants in the wild pushing down trees with a diameter of about 1 metre! That's pretty impressive. Pushing down a tree doesn't give us a right to call him destructive though. In doing this, he will provide food for smaller browsers that could not reach the leaves before the elephant pushed it down. He will provide food and homes for hundreds of years for insects, spiders, snakes, birds etc. The tree, rotting, will push nutrients into the soil and enrich that area. These fallen trees will halt erosion and promote natural growth in the area. These are all good things! They also give back, that's what nature is always about. The elephant has taken a tree so, in his roaming, he will push out rather large quantities of dung. Through this the elephant will assist in seed dispersal (they are in fact one of the best disperses in Africa today and studies are still being done on this). This dung will attract seedeaters and insects. This, in turn, will attract insecteaters. It will also provide manure for the soil. Please understand that this is all very simply put. You could write a book just on what an elephant does for the environment! So now we can see that an elephant is not just big and beautiful, he is in fact functional, and therefore, very important, as a species.

So, now we need to learn how to maintain him as a species alongside all the other hundreds of thousands of species in Africa. On top of this we need to ensure that all the local people are happy. They don't like elephants coming along and destroying their subsistence farmland, understandably so. We also need to keep the general public happy. They are probably the worst and hardest of all. This group consists of everyone that does not live in Africa and does not have any dealings with animals. They are the ones that try to control how we will best look after Africa. They are the ones that don't know the first thing about managing animals and conservation. Do you know what conservation is?

Coservation is the management and utilisation of your indigenous wildlife. It is done in such a way, that our next generation can manage and utilise just as much. Judged on this, there is no country in this world practising conservation today. Authorities are well aware of this, and yet we continue to go in the wrong direction. Why? Greed, power, naivety, all of the above?

So, why is their now an urgent need to control elephant populations in certain parts of Africa? First off, it isn't just now, this has been an ongoing matter for at least a decade. Second, it comes down to mistakes that we as humans have made in the past that cannot now be rectified.

The first big mistake is that we cut off their natural migration routes;

In South Africa, there is an area along the East coast known as the Elephant coast. We haven't had elephants there for at least 150 years, but it speaks of what we used to have. These elephants used to roam up through South Africa, parts of Mozambique, Zimbabwe, parts of Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania and up to the bottom end of Kenya. That was their home! Now they live in reserves. Granted, they are big reserves, just not big enough. Kruger is 2 million hectares in size, as big as Israel! In that area, we can safely house no more than 8000 elephants. At this present stage, Kruger's population is around 18 000 elephants. That's 10 000 more than that reserve is ever capable of carrying!!

Our second big mistake is that we took away the only true "predator" for elephants, Anthrax.

This bacteria is naturally found in Africa and is Mother Nature's way of naturally controlling animal populations. It is a disease that is capable of staying alive in the open air for up to 2 years and underground for up to 50 years! It will kill any mammal that eats it within 8 days! The only mammal it does not affect(that I personally am aware of), is the hyena.They don't have an immune system for it, just a cast iron digestive system that kills off the bacteria in its stomach before it has chance to absorb into their body. Stands to reason as they are the cleaners of Africa, and would not be very efficient if diseases killed them. Elephants are very susceptible to the disease and used to be killed off in their thousands years back This naturally kept their numbers in check. Again, there is way more involved than this. Both hyena's and vultures fit perfectly into this system and help control as well as spread this disease through Africa. It makes these two animals extremely important to the system. Africa would never have lasted this long without them. We, as humans, of course fear diseases of any kind and are always quick to invent ways to irradicate them with our technology. As soon as there is an outbreak of Anthrax, we go out and inoculate more susceptible animals and burn any carcasses found in the bush. A perfect example of this is Botswana, Okavango swamps. This area holds the best conservationists in the world, the Tsetse fly! He carries a disease called Trypanosomiasis (trips or sleeping sickness) that is fatal to cattle and makes us humans ill. The wildlife in the area are immune to it. So what did we do, we filled aeroplanes to overflowing with poisons like Dieldrin and DDT and dumped it all over the swamp. Now, before you think this is all old school stuff, this was last done in 2001, completely supported by the Botswanan government! Why? Because the EU wants to support an oppressed African country and their exotic cattle, but they're scared of the diseases so stringent controls had to be put into place. Do you think I'm being cynical? Do you think I'm exaggerating? Look it up, its all there, nothing to hide. Their veterinary fences (put up to separate wildlife from cattle so that cattle would not get diseases) killed around 1.2 million wild animals, mostly wildebeest, to support an exotic cattle industry. So you see, we are very good at controlling things.

So, there is now nothing left to control the elephants population boom. They are over breeding and not capable of moving on as they are fenced in.

To cull or not to cull?

Does anybody working on ground level with these animals take the idea of culling lightly? Of course not.

We are still in the process of looking at all the other options available. This is what they are:

Transfrontier parks(peace parks)

This is also known as conservancies. It is the dropping of internal fences of adjoing properties in order to give the animals more space. This is easy enough within a country as all the farm owners will benefit from it. It becomes a problem when separate countries look to do the same across their adjoining borders. This is why they are also known as peace parks. Kruger in S.A. has dropped fences to the Mozambique side officially almost doubling the size of the park. Kruger is 2 million hectares and Mozambique reserve is 1,5 million hectares. It is a wonderful concept and means that we can take our carrying capacity from 8000 ellies to around 15000. We have approximately 18000 at present and rising. As good as it is we are still overpopulated by around 3000 ellies. It also doesn't automatically alleviate the situation as the animals don't immediately go walking over the border to find new homes. They already have established home ranges and could thus take years to establish new homes in Mozambique. You can't "chase" them across as their built in homing instincts will bring them straight back to where they started.

This park has been 20 years in the making. A lot of politics and logistics has been involved to make it happen. There are still plans to open up to Zimbabwe, Zambia and Tanzania. Botswana and Kenya might be involved as well. The final plan is a 1,2 million square kilometre corridor to give back the ellies original migratory route. Wonderful idea!! Lets hope it can come about, but lets not talk about Zimbabwe and their problems just yet.


This is an expensive, dangerous and stressful job. Only small groups can be moved. The elephants don't like the drugs used and certainly don't like the stress of being moved. Generally, 10 ton crates are needed to move the bulls. Your'e talking about 5,5 to 6 ton animals capable of immense strength. Only 2 bulls are allowed in the specialised boeing aeroplanes at a time. 2 bulls and 2 crates works out at around 32 tons on average! These animals need to be kept semi-sedated all through the move. Too sleepy and they will collapse, their own body weight thus injuring or killing them. Too awake and they "rock the boat", quite capable of crashing the plane. Starting to understand what it takes yet?

Once relocated, these animals need to be kept in small pens/enclosures known as boma's for around 3 months. This will "break" their homing instinct and, once released, will then stay in that area.

It is a very expensive operation depending on how far the animals need to go. Ellies that were moved from South Africa to Angola in 2000, cost approximately $40 000 per elephant. There were 20 ellies altogether. That's around $800 000. Now imagine that we need to move at least 3000 ellies. That works out at $120 000 000. Anyone got that amount lying around that we could have? Never mind the time, resources and manpower that it would take to get this done. Don't forget that this is just South Africa's problem. Zimbabwe is at around double their carrying capacity and Botswana has at least 80 000 elephants over their carrying capacity! This makes South Africa's problem a drop in the ocean in comparison.

Bearing in mind that most countries in Africa today do not want any elephants. Most of Africa's reserves have as many as they want right now. Please understand, this isn't just about elephants, its about all the other species and also, most importantly, about the local people living in these areas. They don't want these animals in these areas as they will destroys crops, peoples livelihoods.


This always has and always will be a difficult one for a number of reasons. First, understand elephants. They are the only mammals (that I know of) where the male comes into season, as does the female. He is a bit different to her though. He has what is known as musth. When he goes into musth, he has such a high quantity of testosterone in him that it mixes with his urine and dribbles constantly from his penis. A musth male will dribble approximately 20 litres of liquid every day that he is in this musth. A male can be in season for anything from 1 day to 9 months! Can you imagine losing 20 litres of liquid every day for 9 months. That's a total of about 5400 litres!! No wonder he is in a bad mood when you encounter him at this stage.

Up until recently, the drugs have only been designed for the cows, not the bulls. Controlling her means big (6 tons) problems with him. A new drug being tested in a private reserve in South Africa seems, after 10 years of study, to be bringing about positive results. No cows are pregnant and the bulls are still mating. This seems to work! Good news, bearing in mind though, that all the cows in Africa are going to need this drug once every year, further monitoring will always be a necessity and they will also need to be allowed to breed. This means taking them off drugs for a few years to allow natural cycles to occur. Understand also, that this does nothing to alleviate the immediate problem of mass overpopulation.


The most controversial of all! Please understand that I have never been involved with this operation. I do not speak from experience. I do, however, have a good friend that did culling ops in Zimbabwe in the 80's and 90's. I base my explanation on his accounts, and trust wholeheartedly in his word.

It involves a lot of studies of the area to decide which groups go, and which groups stay. This is not set in stone as you will read. A ground crew, of about 8 men with high powered rifles, are sent in. They are followed by a helicopter. The pilot will guide them as to where to go. Once in place they wait for orders from the pilot. The pilot does a recon of the area and ensures that there are no other elephants within 5 miles of this herd. If there are, the ground crew is pulled off, and sent to another area. This herd might never be touched again. If there are not, the crew is given orders to move in. This is done as elephants can communicate in infra-sound(below human hearing). 5 miles means that no other elephant will hear this herd being shot. This ground crew is so efficient, that a herd of 30 elephants is dead on the ground in 20-30 seconds! Like it or not, these guys should have our respect. Once down, a trucking crew is brought in. The animals are processed, and everything barring the stomach and tusks are used. As we do with cows, lambs, etc, we can eat the meat and make products from the skin. i.e. wallets, belts etc. I myself wear two bangles made from elephant tail hairs.

This is conservation in place and working! Since its beginning in 1898, Kruger National Park has benefitted every generation to date.


I am proud to call myself a conservationist, but have, and do, take a lot of 'flack' for speaking out about what I have done and seen. A 'cheesy' phrase I picked up whilst doing free flighted bird shows is this; We do not inherit the planet from our parents, but merely borrow it from our children. Cheesy, but true. We can make a difference, all of us. We just need to think outside the box. Forget the animal! Save the habitat, and save the species within that habitat, all of them!!

Thank you for reading, I hope this creates a better understanding and gives some food for thought.


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      Haerne 10 months ago

      As I started reading this post, I stopped to check the date it was written, clearly expecting it as some thesis from the 70s. To my surprise it was updated in 2014.

      It is my understanding that African elephants are being decimated everyday. An average of 70-100 elephants are poached for ivory where extinction is imminent. How is culling/killing even an option at this time? Has every news global agency, elephant/animal welfare group and every country including China who recently passed laws to phase out ivory processing by the end of 2017, been lying to the world in passing international anti-poaching laws and in banning the trade of ivory? Was Prince William just pulling our leg about wanting to ger rid of the ivory in the crown's collection?

      Aside from the issue of the looming elephant extinction, I do not understand how you can criticize one human intrusion of nature while promoting another. You point out the short sightedness of humans that resulted in the death of millions of wildlife in the attempt to eradicate the tse tse fly at the interest of EU's cattle agenda. How does the culling of elephants not violate the same molesting of nature's own culling methods? I'm trying to understand the following logic that I gathered from your assertions but please correct me of I'm wrong:

      1. Humans wiped out Anthrax which created the current overpopulation of elephants. To correct the supposed overpopulation, further human intervention by culling is necessary to make up for humans having disturbed their natural culling from Anthrax?

      3. Humans disturbed the natural migratory routes of elephants. Humans then penned the elephants in conservatories, but space has become inadequate. Therefore, elephants should be relocated to the places that humans designate, once again disturbing the natural habitat. Since it would cost millions in the logistics of relocating elephants to where humans see fit, it's better to kill them?

      4. In the hypotheticals provided, the projected cost to move an elephant is 40k, which in your projections would add up to an estimated $120 million. Instead of let's say, posing a hypothetical of giving an entire village of people 40k or all the villages to relocate voluntarily with the $120M, the implausibility of moving elephants (as the only option) at such costs necessitates their culling and killing?

      5. Instead of promoting contraception use by humans to keep future overpopulation and encroachment into wildlife, the lack of viability in forcing contraception onto 10 ton bull elephants necessitates culling/killing?

      6. Elephants have been felling trees and damaging them for milleniums as part of the natural ecosystem but now it's a problem?

      7. Instead of considering alternative creative ways to conserve both elephant and human coexistence other than the hypotheticals you provided, it's better to justify culling/killing?

      How is culling also not a violation of further molestation of nature by humans? Does one human interference correct another? So in effect, two wrongs DOES make a right?

    • Great Uncle Bill profile image

      Mark Jones 3 years ago from South Africa

      Hi Diana,

      Well, I've put out my "new & improved" blog now. It is totally different and I have had no comments so still truly unsure what it is worth to anyone. If you get this give it a look and see what you think.

      Comments are truly welcome.

    • diana1000 profile image

      Diana Harvey 3 years ago from Philippines

      Thanking you Great uncle please do send me a notification when your new line of Blogs start.

      I myself have also been off the blog scene for a few years now and have just started rewriting my old blogs and am pleased to say I actually now have 3 featured when finished this I will be starting a niche to gain some interest as up to now have just been blogging about anything that made me cross at the time.

      Look forward to your future blogs.

      Take care Diana

    • Great Uncle Bill profile image

      Mark Jones 3 years ago from South Africa

      Thank you Diana, I appreciate the comments.

      I haven't done more for some time now but am about ready to start posting new hubs again. These will be along a whole new avenue and will hopefully lead up to where I find myself at present.

    • diana1000 profile image

      Diana Harvey 3 years ago from Philippines

      Hi Uncle Bill,

      You carrying on speaking out especially about elephants.

      I have spent most of my life in Africa and have spent a lot of time watching these amazing creatures.

      Thank you so much for an interesting article.

      Take care Diana Harvey.

    • profile image

      A.L.D.O 5 years ago

      I was looking up information on the killing of elephants in the Kasai region (Congo) in 1956 to control tsetse flies and sleeping sickness. I stumbled on this article. A very interesting read. Thank you.

    • profile image

      ShonnieJamie 5 years ago

      you are an idiot i agree with katie

    • profile image

      Katie 5 years ago

      we need to stop culling and whaling... is very bad and sad

    • profile image

      Beverley 5 years ago

      I wonder if somebody can help me. I am busy with a task The question is. "Culling of elephants ensures that the environment is conserved"Discuss two ways in which the culling of elephants is beneficial to the environment" I cant find any information on this Thanks

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      Lilli 7 years ago

      Is elephant culling still happening now (2010) in south africa?

    • CMHypno profile image

      CMHypno 7 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Interesting Hub. Unfortunately conservation will always involve making some hard choices, and what people sometimes don't understand is that a cull can be kinder than animals starving to death because there are too many of them. It is very hard to develop a conservation strategy that will please everybody, as we humans tend to jump on our own little bandwagons and stay there!

    • Peter Dickinson profile image

      Peter Dickinson 8 years ago from South East Asia

      An interesting read. I liked to hear it from the 'inside' and appreciated the commented dialogue from Yvette too. So often people jump in feet first with guns blazing which was nothe case here. Thank you.

    • profile image

      Yvette Taylor 8 years ago

      Hi Mark,

      I haven't had a chance to follow up with you. If you need to get hold of me use our info line:

      Are you coming to South Africa?



    • profile image

      Yvette  8 years ago

      Hi Mark,

      I do understand, My life fluctuates between crazy and insane. I would love to meet with you if you are going to be out in SA. Let me know if are indeed going to be out here.



    • Great Uncle Bill profile image

      Mark Jones 8 years ago from South Africa

      Hi Yvette,

      Sorry, I've taken a bit long. Just had six kinds of crap hit my life and things are a mess at present. I've been desperate to read your comment since I got an email alert about it, and have finally been able to browse over it.

      It all looks very interesting. I'm not entirely convinced by all I've read, I'm nowhere near a scientist(in fact, I'm probabaly borderline dimwit), so I want to take some time to mull it over in my brain, and hopefully run it past a few friends of mine. It certainly is food for thought though. I can never stop marvelling at how little we know, considering how much we learn on a daily basis about the natural world.

      My 'unforseen circumstances' might just be bringing me back to South Africa soon, maybe I could look you guys up if I do?

      Keep up the good work, Its always nice to know people are out there trying to do good work.



    • profile image

      Yvette 8 years ago

      Hi Uncle Bill,

      Only got back to your blog today. Sorry for the delay. I probably should have given you our website address last time so that you could fully understand where I am coming from. I have done so now.

      We have been figthing the culling issue for some time now and have managed to stave it off thus far. Although we are sometimes attacked for acting emotionally this is not the case. Our claims are based on the the advice of leading scientists in South Africa. Please check all the documents as published on our website. You may want to contact me through the info' line as I don't want to take up your entire blog with information.

      Just a few points to mention here. Yes you are correct the elephant population was decimated by poaching, my mistake (sort of like a mental typo, you think one thing and type another). Considering that poaching is up by 45% it is again a factor that must be considered. The ivory sales earlier this year

      We were very disappoint when Sir Richard Leakey spoke in favour of culling especially when the leading South African scientists are still opposed and groups like IFAW and us (The Earth Organization) spoke out strongly against it.

      There is still a great deal of research to be done on elephant communication, I didn't have the time to put together more info for you but here is what is available:

      Out on the savanna, it has been shown that environmental conditions follow a pretty regular diurnal cycle. Around evening a strong temperature inversion usually forms and doesn't dissipate until dawn. The greatest calling areas are achieved during the formation and dissolution of these nightly inversions, especially with cloudless and relatively undisturbed weather. Under such conditions it is possible for an elephant to have a calling range of 300 km2 - an area almost the size of the entire Amboseli National Park! In other words an elephant may be able to detect the calls of another elephant almost 10 km away. During the day, without the help of an inversion and with factors such as heavy sun and wind often coming into play, calling area size is drastically reduced, ranging from a couple dozen to 150 square km.

      Not only are the elephants' low frequency rumbles well suited for long distance communication, but being sounds with a rich harmonic structure they also allow a listening elephants to calculate the distance of the calling elephant. This is because at close range the full harmonic structure will be intact while with increasing distance the upper frequencies will become relatively weaker eventually leaving only the lower and mid range frequencies to persist.

      Name: African Elephant (Loxodonta africana)

      Location: Africa

      Ability: Hearing with their feet

      How it works: Elephants can produce low frequency noises which can travel for hundreds of miles though the hard African ground. Other elephants detect these vibrations through their feet. By placing one foot on tiptoe, the elephants can increase their sensitivity to the vibrations. Elephants have also been seen to "listen" for these vibrations using their trunks.

      He tells me about a study at Cornell University, the Elephant Listening Project, which measured the low stomach rumbles emitted by elephants. It established that they are a type of communication, like whale song. These sound waves showed that elephants were much more intelligent than had been previously thought. Anthony applauds the science but he didn't need it, he knew from personal experience that direct, two-way communication with the herd was possible.

      Kind regards,


    • Great Uncle Bill profile image

      Mark Jones 8 years ago from South Africa

      Hello Y Taylor,

      Thanks for the comments, I've been waiting to see what comments this would generate. Couple of things,

      You're right, there is some missing information, primarily because it would be a book before I finished writing it all down, but also because I prefer to draw from my, and friends, personal experiences rather than the internet. I don't claim to be an expert, but certainly do have some past experience.

      Their populations dropped in the 70's & 80's to 600 000 due to poaching, not hunting. Poachers destroyed the animals with inadequate firepower, for the ivory, and couldn't even be bothered to use the meat, what a waste!

      The culling wasn't stopped so much by conservationists as it was by activists. It was, however, supported by the likes of a man I have great respect for, Dr. Richard Leakey. Incidently, he has, for the first time, visited Kruger and he himself now says that culling will have to be an option. This was in an article in the Wildlife Extra magazine. I've tried posting the link but can't seem to get it right. If you search for the magazine and search for Richard Leakey in that, you will find the article there, should come up as the 2nd one.

      Since the 1990's, poaching has been far lower than the breeding. Please understand, I do not in any way condone poaching!

      I'd like to see the information on ellies communicating over hundreds of miles, could you post that info in a comment for me?

      As I wrote, they are investigating all other options, those are the ones I wrote about. All experts are saying right now is that it will most probably have to be a combination of 'all of the above'.

      Kruger closed a third of their waterholes over ten years ago already. That is as much as can be afforded, any more and all life within Kruger will die in the first bad dry season they have.

      I could be wrong here, for which I apologise, but it seems to me that the prices you are quoting for 4 ellies, is what hunters will pay for top notch trophy animals. That's a very different story and I might go into that in another hub. Yes, they will make good money off the animals, there is a lot of meat there for the African people. The products and money made will go a long way to teaching Africans the benefit of wildlife. Possibly even give them a reason to give up cattle, the BIGGEST destroyer of Africa at present.

      Thank you, this a very heated and passionate subject at the best of times, made harder by writing to a screen instead of looking into someones eyes when things are being said.

    • profile image

      Y Taylor 8 years ago

      I do believe there is missing information in your report. I know that culling seems like the right solution. There are a number of other factors that need to be investigated before one could justify culling.

      Firstly the fact that there us such a strong bond between man and elephant could lead one to believe that the elephant is rather more sentient than the buffulo.

      Elephants now only have 2% of the land that they once roamed, no wonder they are feelig a bit squashed. The elephant population has dropped from 1.3 million in the late 1970's to between 600 - 700,000 today. The culling of elephants was not simply stopped by conservationists. They were hunted to dangerously low levels with as many as 8 elephants being shot every hour in the 1980's.

      If the Kruger park cull were to go ahead it would mean shooting 7000 elephants. This would be a blood bath the likes of which the world has never seen.

      You state that they ensure that there are no elephants around for 5 kilometers as that is how far they can communicate. There is now evidence that they can communicate over hundreds of miles. One wonder how safe tourists would be in a park where 7000 elephants communicated their death to the remaining 8000 elephants?

      Kruger Park need to investigate some of the other options available before they can justify a cull of this size. The first thing that they can start with is closing some of the hundreds of watering holes that have been put in for the conveniance of the tourists. Yet again throwing out the balance of nature.

      Non-hormonal contraception is not as complicated as you may think but it costs about a $ 100 per elephant. Cullling earns about about 1 million dollars for every 4 elephants shot. I wonder which one authorities will choose?

      There is now also eveidence that alot more damage is done to the flora in Kruger park by large herds of deer than by elephants.

      The bottom line is there is not yet enough proof that this is the answer. Scientists in South Africa have condemned culling as an option say that there is not enough evidence prooving it's neccessity. So it is not just the hot headed conservationist that are condemning it.

      Lets have another look at the facts!