In a widely circulated video last week, billionaire GoDaddy CEO Bob Parsons brags about shooting a bull "problem elephant" in Zimbabwe, but one of the world's leading elephant experts has told Discovery News that the animal was likely a young female.
During the video, Parsons is shown shooting the elephant and then smiling while casually leaning against its dead body, gun resting on the animal's head.
"The 'bull' that GoDaddy CEO, Mr. Bob Parsons, brags about appears to be a young female," said Joyce Poole, an elephant researcher and conservationist who has studied the animals for over 30 years. Poole first worked at Amboseli National Park under the mentorship of elephant expert Cynthia Moss and is now director of research and conservation at ElephantVoices.
"The video is low resolution, but the elephant's very slender tusks and the lack of male genitalia, which would have been visible, leave me with little doubt," Poole said. "Was Mr. Parsons so ignorant that he was not able to sex the elephant he killed, or was his claim that the elephant was a bull just one more example of his macho arrogance and misjudgment?"
"The fact that he put out his video for the whole world to see shows both," she added.
The video suggests this is Parsons' second year of killing elephants in Africa. He portrays himself as a hero, ridding villagers of "aggressive" bull elephants that raid their sorghum crops.
Elephant specialists, however, believe that such hunters are actually putting villagers and others who encounter the pachyderms in more danger.
"What people need to realize is that elephants become very traumatized when one of their family members is shot," Johnny Rodrigues, chairman for Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, told Discovery News. "They have very good memories and the trauma makes them aggressive towards humans, which is dangerous for tourists."
"I have noticed a definite change in the behavior of the elephants in Hwange National Park since the shooting started there," added Rodrigues, who grew up on a farm in Zimbabwe. "Previously you could drive through the game park and stop and look at an elephant for quite some time. This never bothered the elephants. Now, however, if you stop to look at an elephant, quite often, he will become very agitated and charge you."
Poole agrees, saying that "since elephants are fully capable of retaliating, such killing can put villagers, and any potential conservation benefits, at risk."
Elephants are among the world's most intelligent animals, with females living in tightly knit social groups that include their offspring. Adult male elephants live mostly solitary lives, but may form loose associations with other males. Research suggests that both males and females grieve for lost relatives and associates, remembering the deaths over long periods.
In 2009, Zimbabwe Parks Management Authority estimated that 100,000 elephants exist in the country now, but Rodrigues says that a proper audit has not been conducted there in years. He estimates the elephant population as being around 35,000 to 40,000.
If there ever was an elephant "overpopulation" problem, he said, "Contraceptives can be administered to female elephants."
Parsons' video ends by showing numerous villagers feasting on the dead elephant, AC/DC music edited over the scene. Rodrigues, however, says that other meat protein sources are healthier and more sustainable, "such as beef, goat, chicken and fish."
As human populations continue to expand into elephant lands, encounters between people and these large animals will continue. In India, for example, the human population grew by 181 million in the last decade. Now elephant numbers in India are declining, according to Poole, due in large part to diminishing habitat.
"Wildlife management authorities can continue to shoot so-called 'problem' elephants until the last elephant is exterminated and still not solve the food challenge," Poole said, adding that other problems, such as poor land use planning, corrupt regimes and climate change, further complicate the situation.
She concluded, "As a global community we should deal with these issues rather than continue to blame and exterminate elephants."