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Newsletter 13

Response to Elephant Trust
by Daryl Balfour

Londolozi    Pic: Sunette

Hi John, 

Received your circular about elephants, culling, capture etc and agree with you whole-heartedly. We will do anything in our power and with our resources to help in educating people in any way about the folly of meddling with ellies. Let us know! 

In 1992, for example, while they were still culling, we spent a year in Kruger photographing elephants exclusively while working on our book African Elephants - A Celebration of Majesty and also spent several days with the culling teams photographing their activities. When we started our project for the book we were actually under the impression we would be producing something showing the world how well the South Africans were managing their elephants and what a success story SA elephant management was, much like we'd done with rhino and Natal Park Board. As we saw more and came into contact with other elephant biologists and behaviourists from around the continent, apart from the South Africans, such as Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Daphne Sheldrick, Chris Thouless, Simon Trevor and others, we realised that SA was in fact a disaster, and we were witnessing extraordinary cruelty towards other sentient creatures. 

We soon learned that while the culling teams were operating, almost every day of the week for months on end, not only were elephants in the section where the ops were taking place, but elephants everywhere were disturbed and distressed. Of course, it was at that time that huge advances were being made in the understanding of elephant communication, but we could see that elephants even 50 kilometres away or more were distressed when the herds were being hounded by the helicopter gunship. Of course we now know that the herd that is being chased sends out its infrasonic signals to nearby herds, who flee and pass on the message to the next herd, who start to panic and pass on this message to others in the vicinity - as much as 15 km away from them, or more, according to Katy Payne's studies. So it is not inconceivable that every herd within the entire Kruger ecosystem is aware of what is being done to them. 

It was quite evident to us too that breeding herds, or cow herds, were simply not encountered in the daylight hours in Kruger back then. We had hoped to photograph breeding groups at the waterholes, bathing and frolicking the way we photographed herds in the Chobe River, in the waterholes at Hwange and Etosha, but not once in a year in Kruger did we see this. In fact, during 12 months in the park we only managed to photograph breeding herds TWICE and on both occasions this was on a management track well away from the tourist roads and on both occasions the elephants grouped into a protective herd, showed panic and distress at our presence and even charged the vehicle. 

When we queried this behaviour with the then elephant biologist in the park, Ian Whyte, we were told that: "Oh, breeding herds are very nocturnal and only drink/visit waterholes at night." 

Yes...this was true...but this was behaviour that was forced upon them because they were terrified of humans and did all they could to avoid them. Conversely, the big bulls, certainly the big tuskers, are never culled because of their perceived tourist attraction value, and as a result bulls/big tuskers are generally seen anywhere along the roads, at waterholes etc. 

Come 1994 and the new government and park management called a halt to the genocide and persecution of elephants. Within less than 2 years the breeding herds had settled down and relaxed. It became common to see herds at waterholes, feeding alongside the road, and crossing the roads even between tourist vehicles without aggression towards them. In fact on my first return there after an absence of almost 3 years after leaving in 1993 I was startled to find a breeding herd slumbering alongside one of the main roads, babies flat on their sides and mother's napping under a knobthorn, less than 50 metres from the road.  

I visited section ranger Kobus Kruger later that afternoon, one of the "marksmen" from the culling days, and he too was astounded at how quickly the elephants had settled down since the suspension of hostilities. He agreed then that perhaps the culling operations had had a profound effect on Kruger's elephants that had not been understood at the time. 

In 1994 while Sharna and I were in Tsavo with Iain Douglas-Hamilton, taking part in their annual aerial census, Iain Whyte and Gertie Gertenbach (then acting Chief Director of Kruger) arrived. For years I had spoken to Iain about the Amboseli Elephant and Cynthia Moss's studies there ("We don't need a woman from America to come and tell us about elephants") and been poo-poohed. Iain rushed across to us in Voi, Tsavo to say hello. "Have you been to Amboseli? Have you seen those elephants? The cows and calves just walk past the side of the car, no fear, no aggression? Have you met Cynthia Moss...what an incredible lady. What knowledge!" It all came tumbling out. Gertenbach concurred. Then they came out with the statement that "perhaps we have been wrong all these years. perhaps we need to reassess what we have been doing to elephants in Kruger. The culling..." 

A few years ago in the Mara Iain Douglas-Hamilton spent a night with me in my camp to celebrate my birthday. SA had just embarked on the Limpopo Trans-frontier park project and were trying to force elephants to move there, catching them and transporting them, releasing them there and then being astonished when they simply walked home again.  Iain's opinion was that you could not force it, that the elephants would, in their own time, discover they had a new range to explore. "It could take 50 years, or it could take 10. They will find it, and once they know it is safe, has water and food, they will move there. Now what is needed is for the park managers to sit back and let Nature takes its course." 

I agree wholeheartedly. With the "mirror" park we have given the elephants a huge new range. We cannot force them to go there - for years it was a battlezone, for them and for humans. There were hunters and poachers. How many of our big tuskers returned from their Mozambique forays with bullets in their skulls? So initially there will be overnight raids, then they may spend a day or two, then a week...and eventually once they discover, on their own terms and in their own time, that it is cool to be in Mozambique, will they settle there.  Already it is happening. Elephants were translocated there (the old government used to do that with people and look at the trouble that caused, then and now!) and returned as soon as they could to their old stamping grounds. But recent counts have shown elephant numbers rising in the cross-border areas. The elephants will move there of their own accord, specially if they feel they are being crowded in Kruger. Of course, if we start culling them again and deplete the numbers there will be no incentive to trek to Mozambique... 

The resumption of culling and capture operations in Kruger and Sabi Sand will destroy the trust that has grown between elephants and Man over the past 13 years. No longer will visitors to Kruger and SS be able to sit and watch elephant mothers and their young at play. Sure, we will still see the big males...but the females will take their families and retreat to the thickets, return to the hills, get away from  those murderous humans and their helicopter gunships, smoke-belching lowbed loaders and tractors carting carcasses back to the meat factory. Once again they will offer elephant meat pies in the park cafeterias, elephant hide briefcases, elephant foot umbrella stands, elephant ivory trinkets in the park curio shops.

Once again I will refuse to visit Kruger! Who after all wants to visit the killing fields? 

When I spend time, months each year, in the parks of East Africa, with their tens of thousands of elephants, I can only chuckle amusedly, sadly though, at the SANParks contention that 8000, or 10 000, or 12 000 elephant is too many in Kruger. When I do drive the roads of Kruger and battle to see game through the thickets of Dichrostachys, through the bush encroachment that blights many of the game drive routes...I wonder, where are Natures bush clearers?'If anything, Kruger needs double the number of elephants, if not more... 

But then of course, if the Serengeti-Mara wildebeest migration occurred in South Africa SANParks's scientists would be advocating culling too (and processing the meat, hides, hooves, bones etc, for good profit!) 

Best regards,
Daryl & Sharna Balfour

Wildphotos Image Library & Safaris
Tel (+27) 13-7440611
Cell (+27) 82-3428658
PO Box 26535
Nelspruit 1200
South Africa


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