Sydney Morning Herald

Habitat loss: the elephant in the room

By Claire Miller

14 October 2018 — 12:15am

In 1977 I was 13-years-old, the world felt young and elephants still roamed Africa. One day I knew I would make it there to see them. They would be everywhere, lords of their vast domain.

Fast-forward 40 years and I have made it at last. I am in the Letaba Elephant Hall in Kruger National Park in South Africa, staring at the distribution maps. To my left, a broad swath of unbroken red in 1977 across eastern and southern Africa. To my right, just scattered blobs of red by 2017.

It was a startling reality check. In 1977, an estimated 1.3 million elephants roamed Africa. Just 352,000 were counted in the last elephant census in 2014.

The existential threat from poaching is well-known, but the maps reveal another, more insidious threat at play: diminishing free range and loss of habitat.

Turns out that even if we could wave a magic wand and put an end to poaching forever, elephants may still not live happily ever after. The fact is, we just haven’t left them enough room to be left alone to manage themselves. And with that comes diabolically wicked management choices.

Kruger National Park, in north-eastern South Africa, is on the frontline of the dilemmas. Elephants are the one thing you will be sure to see. In a cruel irony, when an elephant dies every 30 minutes at the hands of poachers in eastern Africa, elephants are easy to find in Kruger because there are rather too many of them.

And that in itself creates an existential threat to other species sharing the same islands of habitat left in the ocean of human occupation.

Elephants drink at a waterhole in Kruger National Park, in north-eastern South Africa.

CREDIT:

CLAIRE MILLER

Elephants are naturally destructive. They drink 200 litres of water and eat 150 kilograms of grass, roots, bark and leaves a day. They ringbark trees, and push down many others for food, in male dominance displays and sometimes just out of sheer ill-temper.

The behaviour creates a diversity of habitat niches supporting a variety of browsing and grazing animals, in turn supporting a diverse suite of predators such as lions, hyenas and wild dogs. It is an environmental dynamic that earns African countries millions of dollars in tourism.

And it worked when elephants had half a continent to wander across, allowing trashed areas to regenerate and recover. But now confined to reserves and national parks, elephants will push over so many trees that giraffes and large antelopes are robbed of their food. At worst, large areas can be reduced to near-monocultural shrublands in which elephants, and not much else, survive.

It is a common challenge for national parks and nature reserves across southern Africa, and Kruger is a case in point. Like so many environmental problems, Kruger began with the best of intentions.

By the late 1900s, elephants had been hunted out in South Africa. With the creation of Kruger National Park to protect big game, elephants started coming back from neighbouring countries.

The population grew very slowly and was still under 1000 in 1960. But then it exploded as additional water reservoirs, troughs and tanks were installed throughout the park to help elephants survive drought and provide more viewing sites for tourists.

Reliable water sources also drew giraffes, zebras and antelope varieties into arid parts of the park that were strongholds for Roan antelopes. Lions followed the newcomers, and the Roan population crashed so hard the animals had to be rounded up and put into a special enclosure or lose the lot.

Reliable water also led elephants to breed more frequently. With fewer deaths among the young, the old and the weak during hard seasons, Kruger had 6500 elephants by 1967, close to what was then thought to be upper limit for the park’s capacity, 8500. Annual culling was initiated, holding the population for the most part between 7000 and 8500 elephants for the next 27 years.

Culling then stopped in 1994 in the face of international outcry. Today, Kruger has an estimated 20,000 elephants and not many options.

Contraception is costly and impractical. The park simply hasn’t the resources to implant or dart contraceptives into enough female elephants to make a difference.

Immuno-contraceptives have the added issue of elevating hormones so males think the females are on heat when they are not. Calves have been separated from mothers and died in the ensuing fracas. Vasectomies for male elephants are similarly impractical. Each procedure takes three hours, involves cranes and requires teams of vets to safely sedate, and then wake up the animals.

Translocation? Well, it’s also expensive and time-consuming, and involves cranes and trucks. And then where to take them? They can’t be moved into eastern Africa to replenish populations decimated by poaching. That’s a death sentence.

But other national parks and private reserves in southern Africa generally already have as many elephants as they want and their habitats can stand.

And some Kruger elephants are notoriously badly behaved, a legacy from the trauma they experienced in their youth when shooters in helicopters randomly took out adults and shredded the herds’ complex social structures. Few reserves want someone else’s problem elephant.

In recent years, Kruger wildlife managers have started decommissioning water sources to recreate more natural conditions where elephants have to walk further, particularly in droughts. This should increase the death rate among the very old, the weak, and the very young. Tougher conditions also slow down breeding.

The tactic has reduced the rate of population growth from 6 per cent a year down to 2.3 per cent – but the numbers overall are still growing. Culling remains a last resort option in the Kruger elephant management plan, but unsurprisingly the South Africa government is sensitive to international opinion and reluctant to approve such a step.

What to do? Experts dedicate their lives to trying to find workable solutions when our remaining wildlife now survives in what are effectively open range zoos.

Some are huge – Kruger at 2 million hectares is the size of Wales – but the wildlife is not free. Elephants and other ”angerous” animals such as lions that stray outside the boundaries are deemed to have ”escaped” and can be shot as a threat to people if they can’t be rounded up and returned.

Deterrents are being trialled: elephants don’t like bees, so swinging hives are being hung in branches. Elephants don’t like chilli plants, so hedges can be effective. Elephants also have sensitive feet so a broad band of large, sharp rocks around the base of high-value trees will put them off.

But such measures can only keep elephants out of small areas, like gardens, or protect individual trees. In Kruger, managers have resorted in some places to simply fencing rare biomes and posting human guards to protect them.

It all amounts to people trying to modify elephant behaviour so that it fits within the limits of free range that these creatures are being allowed. Except that elephants don’t much care for limits.

Elephants are awesome creatures. I have been privileged now with many close encounters with elephants of all sizes and in all moods. Huge males three metres high to the shoulder, protective females with their young, and the hilarious antics of adolescents pushing boundaries only to be smartly brought back into line by the nearest adult. They have all been marvellous and memorable.

And always, in the back of my mind, those shrinking maps. Sharing our world shouldn’t be so hard.

Claire Miller is a Melbourne-based writer. She regularly volunteers in wilderness conservation programs in Limpopo Province in north-eastern South Africa.

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What to do with a problem called Riff Raff?

I first met Riff Raff in 2016 on the Greater Makalali Private Game Reserve near Kruger National Park. He is large, impressive, memorable. A dominant male with one broken tusk as testament to his fighting spirit to keep his place and as many females in his gene pool as possible.

He is also notorious for his propensity to push down large trees and electrified fences.

Riff Raff, the elephant, in 2016 when he still had his tusk.

CREDIT:

NATALIE STEINER

He cannot not be contained and roams wherever he likes across the reserve and into neighbouring farms, leaving a trail of destruction behind him. The infrastructure is expensive to keep repairing, and the damage in areas fenced off for habitat restoration is frustrating.

The Humane Society International fitted him with a wire brace on his remaining intact tusk to send a shock into his jaw if he touches electric fences. But far from being deterred, Riff Raff was enraged and tore off the brace and most of his remaining tusk with it.

Without tusks, he can’t compete for females and lost his place in the herd hierarchy to rivals. Frustrated, he attacks more fences than ever, inflicting maximum damage on the structures that hurt him.

By early 2018, the reserve managers had decided euthanasia was the best option, but the Human Society International won Riff Raff a reprieve. They raised funds to move him to another reserve 100 kilometres away. He walked back in 48 hours, straight through every fence in his way.

Back on familiar territory, along with fences he is pushing down more trees than ever, as many as 10 in a night, a devastating loss on a reserve that needs every big tree it has.

For the reserve managers, this one elephant is costly, soaking up tens of thousands of dollars a year for fencing and other repairs that could be invested in endangered species programs, such as introducing and rewilding more cheetahs to the reserve.

The Humane Society International is trying to raise funds for another relocation, this time hundreds of kilometres away, in a desperate bid to save Riff Raff, but in the meantime he is passing on his bad habits to a new generation of young male elephants. If he is moved successfully this time, he still faces seeing out his days lonely and angry. It’s a bleak outlook either way.