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Research Magazine > ARCHIVE > Winter 00 > Article

An Elephantine Success
by Jennifer T. Daly

In one of Africa’s bitter ironies, elephants that find refuge from poachers in the haven of a national park may still face destruction — the victims of the need to control overpopulation of elephants within those sanctuaries.

But a new contraceptive vaccine developed by Richard Fayrer-Hosken and his colleagues in the UGA College of Veterinary Medicine may save these majestic endangered creatures. (Research Reporter, Spring 1998)

Delivered to the animals by a dart gun, the revolutionary vaccine provides conservationists a humane way to control elephant populations in the parks.

“We know now it really does work, and it’s safe,” Fayrer-Hosken said. “We really feel we’ve made a difference in saving these animals.”

This conclusion comes after more than five years of detailed field study in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, where Fayrer-Hosken and his team tracked the vaccine’s effect on 60 elephants.

Traditional hormone-based contraceptives are difficult to administer and also can carry a risk of infection and even cancer. However, Fayrer-Hosken’s vaccine is made from a protein, which is extracted from pig ovaries. The vaccinated animal then makes antibodies that interfere with egg fertilization for up to one year.

With the resounding success of the program at Kruger, Fayrer-Hosken said he now hopes to establish a foundation that will enable researchers to administer the vaccine to the park’s entire female elephant population, allowing park managers to vaccinate rather than kill elephants as a means of population control.

Animal welfare groups seem to be very supportive of the effort, Fayrer-Hosken said. In fact, the elephant trial was funded in small part by the Humane Society.

Fayrer-Hosken believes this work, along with the work of a handful of other researchers around the globe, will pave the way for a dramatic shift in how population control is approached in other species.

“In the next 10 to 15 years, hormonal contraceptives, even in people, will go by the wayside,” he said.

To make the vaccine more affordable and readily available, Fayrer-Hosken and his colleagues also are studying a synthetic version of the vaccine. He also studies the vaccine in dogs and horses.

But his true passion remains with the elephants he grew up with as a child in Africa — and which, during his young adulthood in the military, he saw slaughtered by park rangers trying to reduce the population.

“That badly affected me. It’s something you never forget,” he said.

“Back then I didn’t realize that someday we could do something about it,” he said, “that you could prevent that kind of suffering through science and technology.”

For previous story, access ../spring98/elephant.html.


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Elephant contraceptive

Richard Fayrer-Hosken (third from left) developed a safe, effective protein-based contraceptive that is keeping South Africa's burgeoning elephant population in check. (Photos courtesy of Richard Fayrer-Hosken)