By Lindy Taverner for #WorldElephantDay
As night falls on the Greater Kruger conservation area in northeast South Africa, adventurous elephants investigate the edge of the lengthy fence that holds them out of neighboring croplands. Cleverly and meticulously they probe for weaknesses in the barrier and work their way out. Moving through rugged and unfamiliar territory, they quickly happen upon the R40, a busy arterial road where they encounter speeding traffic, unsuspecting motorists — and the potential threat of serious injury to people and elephants.
This is a regular scenario for elephants in reserves adjacent to busy roads. Severe drought and the corresponding lack of nourishing food sources inside their sanctuaries drive these gentle giants to explore uncharted territory where they are not always welcome. In doing so, they set themselves up for conflict with their human neighbors.
The enormous unfenced area of spectacular wilderness of the Greater Kruger National Park (GKNP) is a joint venture between Associated Private Nature Reserves and the Kruger National Park. The two reserves combined cover approximately 20,000,000 hectares and allow free movement of game.
The exploring bulls are being studied by a local NGO, Elephants Alive. Their mission is “to ensure the survival of elephants and their habitats and to promote harmonious co-existence between people and elephants.”
Michelle Henley, Elephants Alive co-founder, manager and principal researcher says, “We celebrate the adventurous nature of these young bulls as they are the pathfinders of populations compressed within their range. However, we are bound to ensure the elephants remain safely within the reserves adjacent to and within the Kruger National Park. To safeguard these and other elephants who may follow them to dangerous locales outside the reserve, a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft is deployed to herd the animals back into the reserve. We have even trucked immobilized elephants back into the reserves at great expense.”
The Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit (APU) form part of the rapid-response team that identifies breaks in the fence, moving fast to mend them and herd the escaped animals back to safety. They are the first anti-poaching unit of its kind, in that the majority of the teams are women from local communities. They protect the entire 400km² Balule Nature Reserve within the Greater Kruger National Park, an area constantly plagued by rhino and bush meat poachers.
Since February this year 21 elephants have escaped into the tribal and agricultural community areas, the height of the drought season. They were all returned to safety, as were three rhinos and some lions and cheetahs.
“The fence is the thin green line that keeps animal safe from poachers and human wildlife conflict and the Mambas are all we have for boundary integrity. If animals get out they cause conflict and the usual course of action is they get shot to reduce the threat to human life,” says the Black Mambas Commander and Chief Warden of Balule, Craig Spencer. “The Mambas detect when poachers come in and elephants get out; they have a very small window of time to work in and need to patrol the fence continuously.”
The Black Mambas also work to create a strong bond between people and wildlife through education programs in local communities, teaching how conservation of natural heritage provides essential benefits to their communities.
“We believe that the war on poaching will not be won with guns and bullets, but through the local communities and education,” says Spencer.
Elephants Alive is meanwhile experimenting with other viable methods to influence the movement of elephants. These include beehives which can be used to protect human infrastructure, natural assets such as large trees or even fences while providing income from honey sales for communities, and reducing the potential for human-elephant conflict.
In Kenya, Dr. Lucy King founder of the of the project, has provided evidence that elephants are afraid of honey bees and their stings. She constructed fence-lines with beehives around crop fields and found that crop-raiding elephants avoided these fields and also ran away when the recorded sounds of swarming honey bees were played on speakers.
The current disastrous dry season and prolonged drought has raised the stakes for those working to enhance harmony between elephants and human communities. The cooperation between Elephants Alive and the Black Mamba APU represents a good example of a synergy made to benefit the protection of pachyderms. Collaboration is critical to keeping elephants alive in harmonious co-existence with the communities surrounding their sanctuaries.
Lindy Taverner is the director of TOM Productions a PR and events company based in Cape Town, South Africa. She has specialised in elephant conservation over the last five years, including production of a documentary, fundraising events and managing online media presence for various conservation NGOs.