A helicopter flies low over South Africa's Kruger National Park, descending onto a herd of elephants rustling through the savannah. On the chopper, a man perches, wielding a dart gun. His weaponry resembles a sniper rifle. The gun is locked and loaded with ammunition containing ectorphine, a narcotic between three and eight thousand times stronger than morphine. Such a sedative would almost certainly kill a human being, but it's only just strong enough to tranquilize a 15,000-pound male African elephant.
The sharpshooter, seeing his target, takes aim and fires. He scores a perfect hit to a large bull, one of the dominant males. It's a skillful shot, but then again, it's pretty hard to miss the broad side of a barn, and an African elephant bull is about the size of a small barn.
As the sedative starts to take effect, the helicopter pilot deftly uses the chopper to maneuver the animal away from the rest of the herd. When the woozy pachyderm finally succumbs to the drug, he's loaded onto a large flatbed truck and then hauled to a nearby clearing, where a crew toting over-sized scalpels and a veritable toolbox of surgical instruments awaits.
Here is where the vasectomy will take place.
The awkward procedure begins with the surgical team properly positioning the massive animal, an act which, given the elephantine size of the patient, isn't exactly carried out with nimble precision. As roughly described by San Diego Zoo veterinarian Jeff Zuba to OnWisconsin, "We put a sling under each arm pit and leg pit and lift him into a modified standing position."
From here, IV lines go into the elephant's ear, and an endotracheal tube is inserted down the animal's throat. The IV will allow the veterinarians to monitor blood-oxygen levels, while the tube ensures that the animal can continue breathing under anesthesia.
Now the operation actually begins. The surgeon makes an eight- to ten- inch incision into the elephant's side. An air pump is then inserted into the opening to inflate the animal's abdominal cavity. This allows the surgeon room to stare inside and negotiate a large pair of scissors to the vas deferens, the tube that transports sperm from the epididymis to the penis during ejaculation. (For comparison, the human vas deferens is a single narrow tube, while the elephant's is a complex of twenty! Talk about virility!)
To find the vas deferens, you first locate the kidney, Zuba told OnWisconsin. "Find that, and the testes, and then the vas deferens, and cut out an eight- to ten- centimeter section so that, obviously, the piping is shut down."
With the main procedure complete, the surgical team performs a few housekeeping duties: stitch up the wound, take some DNA samples, affix a radio collar to the elephant's ear, and use an electric probe to force an ejaculation from the bull (his last, somewhat sadly for him). The semen that's collected will be frozen and brought to the United States where it may be used to artificially inseminate elephants in captivity.
Finally, a drug is administered to counteract the sedative, and everyone backs off, fairly rapidly.
"If we did all that right," Zuba says, "the big guy's back to normal, but shooting blanks."
Why Snip Them in the First Place?
Why go through all the trouble to vasectomize a large, wild, aggressive pachyderm? Believe it or not, they're overpopulated. Kruger National Park has a capacity of 8,000 elephants, and a population of 16,000. The mammals are raining havoc on the reserve's terrain, turning thousands of acres of forest into grassland, rendering it useless to countless other species.
There are a couple choices to solve this problem. One idea is to cull the herds. But most people aren't fans of killing elephants. The other avenue is contraception. Condoms are obviously out of the question, as they don't come in elephant size. So the best option is to render infertile the breeding males.
The effort is still in the early stages, but results are promising. Elephant Population Management Program, the nonprofit that handles the vasectomies, has performed fifty sterilizations. So far, every patient has returned to its herd with no overt changes in behavior or health, and the whole surgical process has been streamlined to under forty-five minutes. On the group's last three-day outing, they completed sixteen operations in only three days.
Snappy snipping, indeed.
(Image: Herd of Elephants via Shutterstock)