Tracking collars and sophisticated telemetry are a good way to see where wild elephants roam. They can also lead to grisly discoveries about where they die.
The world-famous Kruger National Park is being blindsided by its attachment to Mozambique’s Parque Nacional de Limpopo (PNL) on its eastern boundary, and “Charlie” the elephant is its latest victim. He died in a hail of bullets just metres across the southern Kruger-Mozambique boundary, only weeks after having a tracking collar attached.
“We first spotted Charlie from about 700 foot up over the arid Mozambique savannah,” wrote Jacqueline Lahoud, who was part of the collaring team. “And it was love at fist sight. A majestic African elephant bull, approaching his prime with strikingly handsome tusks.” The last point, it turned out, was the problem.
Charlie was the first of 40 elephants to be collared by researchers attempting to track elephant movements in and around Parque Nacional de Limpopo, the Mozambican section on the huge Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park (GLTP) administered by the Peace Parks Foundation. The aim was to understand the area’s “fear landscape” – how elephants navigate within risky human-created areas.
And in that area, the risks are great. A recent census in Mozambique’s PNL ecosystem found that, within the past five years, the population had more than halved with only 1,254 elephants remaining.
The death of Charlie at the hands of ivory poachers is a synecdoche for a much larger problem. The Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park straddles the borders of Mozambique, South Africa and Zimbabwe. It connects some of the most established wildlife areas in southern Africa into a 37 000-square-kilometre conservation area (the size of the Netherlands). A second phase was planned to expand it to nearly 100,000 square kilometres, but poaching, poor administration and bureaucratic snarl-ups have made this increasingly unlikely.
Kruger Park has been involved in an ongoing shooting war with poachers who have killed thousands of rhinos, while in Mozambique, Tanzania and Kenya, elephants are being plundered in staggeringly high numbers.
In September, Michelle Henley of Elephants Alive flew the northern sections of the PNL and found no elephants. “It was a huge shock and a wake-up call,” she said. “Part of the problem is that Kruger has consolidated its forces to the south to curb rhino poaching, leaving the central and north [areas]open to elephant poaching.”
According to Henley, the annual offtake from elephant poaching in Africa is now much higher than the natural reproductive rate, and is of grave concern.
“When we found the elephants in the south – where we collared Charlie – they were huddled rather than spread out, and highly aggressive, indicating raised fear levels. Just before we arrived, the Peace Parks technical adviser had flown the southern part of the PNL and he found 66 live elephants and 53 carcasses.
“We’re looking at a rapidly declining population. Poaching in PNL is definitely out of control and elephants are now being killed right on the Kruger border. It will soon be happening in the park itself.”
Thirty years ago, most of the continent’s elephants were in Central and East Africa. Today, the greatest percentage is in the southern African states, which now have over half the continent’s population. That’s mainly because of massive poaching of forest elephants plus decimation in East Africa.
The Greater Limpopo Transfrontier Park is the last holdout of a free, relatively unfenced elephant population – and Kruger is where 78% of South Africa’s elephants live. But the elephant contagion is now definitely heading south.
“We’re the final stronghold of African elephants and poachers know that,” said Henley. “That’s why we’ve had a 53% decline right on our borders in the past five years. In the last 12 months, 68 elephants were poached in Kruger – the highest they’ve ever had since the 1980s. So elephant poaching is now a South African problem.
“Kruger’s our treasure box,” said Henley. “And right now, poachers are stealing our jewels. Elephants are an example to us of a moral society. They revere the old and adore the young. It’s something we humans are fast losing. And by taking out the old tuskers, we’re crippling the wisdom of the species. We should be very concerned.”