I see that the minister of environment of South
Africa, has lifted the moratorium on culling of elephant.
Like most people, I admire elephant greatly,
although I know very little about them. In my pursuit of cats and
while building Londolozi, I have had some unique and rare
experiences with elephants which I would like to share with you.
In Kenya's Tsavo National Park, with the late Bill
Woodley, the warden of the park, I had the privilege of flying over
a herd of 1 500 elephants.
Londolozi Pic: Sunette
Indeed, as Woodley buzzed the herd in his small
plane, the dust was so thick from the fleeing herd, that Woodley was
forced to take the plane up higher to safety. The scene is still
vividly imprinted in my memory.
Bill Woodley told me that the fact that 1 500
elephants were congregated together, meant they were being heavily
poached. He explained to me that Tsavo had once been a thick
Comiphira woodland (when they first arrived, they had to cut their
way into Tsavo), now it was an open grassland.
The off take of trees by the elephants, had caused
Tsavo to become more of an open grassland. The water table had
lifted and fountains had begun to flow. Animals that thrived in the
grasslands had increased. There were many advantages to the change.
In short, Bill Woodley had had the rare privilege of seeing a
natural cycle of nature moving from woodland to grassland, somewhat
speeded up by the big numbers of elephants, in the space of his
Londolozi Pic: JV
Scientists had claimed that the Black Rhino was
lost to Tsavo because of the habitat destruction caused by the
elephants. They argued that the elephants should have been culled
before this was allowed to happen.
Bill Woodley refuted this, he said the Black Rhino
disappeared to poachers, not to habitat destruction. He conceded the
opening of the bush assisted the poachers in locating the rhino.
Finally, nature took her own course and large numbers of elephants
died in the drought.
In contrast to the Tsavo example, I had the
opportunity of observing the intense management system of Kruger
National Park employed during the 1970's and 1980's
Londolozi Pic: Sunette
Londolozi is situated in the Sabi Sand Private
Game Reserve, which lies on the south western side of Kruger
National Park. Sabi Sand is a small reserve of approximately 55 000
hectares. When we started Londolozi is 1973, the Sabi Sand had only
5 elephant bulls. Between the Sabi Sand was a Vetinary wire fence
which divided Kruger Park from the private game reserves. This
restricted the natural movement of elephants herds.
The situation was ironic. At Londolozi, we were
clearing the bush with bulldozers to create open grasslands to try
to save grazer species like blue wildebeest and next door in Kruger
Park, they were culling elephants, an animal which could naturally
create grasslands as they had done in Tsavo.
We did two things. Firstly, we campaigned heavily
for the removal of the vetinary fence so that the elephants could
move freely between Kruger National Park and Londolozi. This was
achieved in the nineties due to the vision of the then Director of
National Parks, Dr Robbie Robinson. In the early eighties
we purchased 60 elephants from Kruger National Park and translocated
them to Londolozi.
The operation was a success and the Sabi Sand had
for the first time breeding herds of elephant.
Today with the fence gone and the elephants
increasing, in excess of a thousand elephants can be seen in the
Sabi Sand / Londolozi area, mostly in the dry season. Every elephant
expert and scientist has an opinion on what should be done. I don't
pretend to have any answers, but I make the following observations.
Under the elephant management policy during the
eighties and nineties, the Kruger National Park maintained their
elephants at around 7000. Every year the surplus was culled. This
was after intense aerial counts were done to determine the numbers.
The Kruger Park was divided into sections and a
certain number were culled from each section. Often the section
ranger, with the assistance of the ground crew, did the culling
which involved shooting the elephants with a dart loaded with a
chemical called scolein. This caused the respiratory system in the
injected elephant to stop functioning and death occurred within a
few minutes. The culling was conducted over 9 months of the year
(the cooler months) by highly trained individuals with the best and
state of the art equipment at their disposal. The size of Kruger
allowed them to cull elephants far away from tourist camps and
The helicopter pilots employed by Kruger Park were
air force trained and the finest in the land. Literally hundreds of
hours were flown without a serious accident.
As the culling operation moved into a section, the
area was heavily impacted by helicopters, trucks, front end loaders
and people. Then the operation moved on to the next section,
giving the elephants respite until the next year when the culling
It's important to understand that a culling
operation is not the same as a captive operation. Once an elephant
is dead, the carcass has to be butchered. Meat, skin, ivory, all
have to be preserved. The Kruger Park built an abattoir to
accommodate the culled elephants.
Live caught elephants are very different. Each
elephant needs its own crate. Despite what they say, larger
elephants are more difficult to handle. For this reason, large cows
are often cut away and the smaller elephants are captured. This
means traumatized cows are left behind and traumatized young
elephants are separated from their mothers.
Less elephants can be caught than can be culled
and therefore to remove elephants, more captures and more impact
While anyone would prefer capture to culling, the
outcome could be very different.
The executive committee of the Sabi Sand (55 000
hectares) have decided to catch 500 elephants and donate them to
neighboring African countries.
I applaud the creative thinking, even though some
of the African countries involved, do not have a good track record
in protecting their elephants.
Londolozi Pic: JV
However, Sabi Sand is small. It has numerous
tourist camps in close proximity to each other. At any one time,
more than 60 open landrovers, each with overseas tourists in them,
are criss crossing the land. Many of these people are wealthy high
profile people. The Sabi Sand does not have the luxury of vast open
sections of land as is found in Kruger Park. Indeed, one section in
Kruger may be bigger that the entire Sabi Sand.
More than 30 capture operations in Sabi Sand will
have to be carried out by the private enterprise to catch 500
elephants. They have neither the expertise nor the equipment or the
safety record that Kruger National Park had.
The private enterprise is profit driven, they will
not have the luxury of operating at a steady pace like Kruger Park
could do, moving from section to section. The helicopter pilots are
commercial, often flying many hours a month. They have nowhere near
the experience of Kruger Parks original pilots.
Helicopters are by their very nature dangerous
machines and the private enterprise's track record for accidents is
But it is perhaps the trust between man and
elephant which will quickly be totally destroyed.
I worked in Kenya's Masai Mara for 17 years and
filmed many elephants with wire snares on their trunks and feet. I
saw enraged elephants attack and kill Masai herdsmen.
I filmed in Zambia's Luangwa Valley for 14 years.
Luangwa once supported 100 000 elephants. At Shingalana camp, few
elephants if any had any tusks at all. The elephants with tusks had
One day I was chased by a tuskless female for two
kilometers before I found a suitable tree to climb. I vividly
remember the hatred in the elephant cow's eyes as she circled the
tree trying to get me.
Helicopter pilots in Kruger National Park told
stories of how cow elephants had lured the helicopter down and then
tried to smash the helicopter by using a tree. Another cow who had
lost her calf, got her trunk onto the skid of the helicopter and
tried to pull it out of the sky.
Londolozi Pic: Sunette
I remember watching two elephant cows standing
shoulder to shoulder with a darted calf in an attempt to keep the
calf upright and then extracting water from their stomachs and
spraying it over the calf in an attempt to revive it.
These are highly intelligent animals using
everything they can to ensure their survival against the
technological advantages at the disposal of the human beings.
Understandably, they have extreme hatred for human beings.
It is more than 25 years after we first introduced
breeding herds of elephant into Londolozi and today, one can sit
quietly in an open landrover and cow elephants with young calves
will graze and browse within a few feet of you.
A unique partnership with the worlds largest
mammal has been formed and it has taken a long time.
It goes something like this:
I have land and plenty of bush to share with you.
I have built many large dams for you to drink and to swim in. I have
removed the wire snares which can injure you. I have not hunted you
for trophies. I have not captured you and separated you from your
You have responded with trust. You have not
smashed up aeroplanes worth millions of rands standing on the
runway. You have not attacked the people in open landrovers and
turned the landrovers over.
This unique partnership of trust is in for a rude
awakening and the human beings who implement this decision to
capture 500 elephants in a small area called Sabi Sand, are in for
a bigger awakening. It could be a disaster for humans and
Ironically, after 25 years of increasing
elephants, I am still using a bulldozer to clear the bush to try to
save the grazers. In short, the elephants have not done it for me.
Like Tsavo, rivers at Londolozi have begun to flow
where elephants have killed trees in the catchments.
Yes marula trees and knobthorn's have been killed
by elephants at Londolozi and yes, many young marulas and knobthorns
are surviving and thriving. Many of these germinated in elephant
The only constant in life is change and yes, the
elephants are changing the habitat, but like the Tsavo situation,
that change can sometimes be for the better.