The life of an elephant bull in his prime is hanging in the balance as a tug of war ensues between private reserve owners and conservation groups.
Riff Raff, a 40 year-old bull who has lived in the Greater Makalali Private Game Reserve (GMPGR) in Limpopo for most of his life, has been labelled a “problem-causing animal” for breaking a recently erected elephant exclusion fence.
His actions are in line with natural elephant behaviour, and yet he may be killed if no further mitigation measures are implemented to keep him and the four elephant breeding herds and other bulls away from the exclusion fence and out of the northern part of the GMPGR, known as Pidwa North.
Riff Raff was initially relocated from the Kruger National Park to the GMPGR 22 years ago and has matured into one of the top three bulls on the GMPGR. He is not only crucial from an elephant social and behavioural perspective, but genetically and socially as he is important for the population demographics and hierarchy of the GMPGR population.
However, his presence has become a nuisance for some landowners on the reserve, even though his “problematic behaviour” can be directly linked to a recently erected elephant exclusion fence in the middle of the reserve.
For 15 years, Riff Raff and the elephants of the four herds roaming the GMPGR was able to use the Pidwa North property since it was opened to and incorporated with the reserve around 2004. Three years ago an exclusion fence was erected by Pidwa, separating the elephants from the northern section. The fence was erected unilaterally, in contravention of the GMPGR’s elephant management plan.
The elephants started to breach the fence as soon as it was up, making their way back to the area they had been using for years, and back to two major water sources, the Selati River and a large dam. These water sources are the drivers of the elephant’s seasonal range distribution and utilisation.
Contravention of elephant norms and standard
GMPGR management sent formal statements of concern to the Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism (LEDET) in October 2016 and again in January 2017, stating that the exclusion fence separating the sections “took place without any consultation or input with the members and management of the GMPGR or its Executive Committee”. The statement adds that the exclusion fence, which in effect constituted a change to the boundaries of the GMPGR, was done “with the intention of preventing elephants from entering the Pidwa North section of the game reserve.”
The GMPGR elephant herds have also been continually harassed by microlights, helicopters, or “spring-guns which fire .22 blanks along the elephant exclusion fence by the northern owners to keep them out of their section,” GMPGR management says.
This violates South Africa’s national Norms and Standards in terms of elephant management, which states that “measures to manage elephants must be informed by the best available scientific information and be based on measures to avoid stress and disturbance to elephants”. The firing of spring-guns along the exclusion fence could affect other larger animals, including rhino and giraffe.
GMPGR warden Rob Panos and Chairman Gary Elmes confirmed that Riff Raff’s “problem behaviour” only started only when the “two-strand electrical fence dividing the Greater Makalali and Pidwa Nature Reserves, was erected”.
This two-strand exclusion fence does not meet standard elephant-proof specifications which, according to the National Norms and Standards, “must have at least three strands of electrical wire”. Sub-standard fencing is also easier for elephant bulls to breach, making it easier for the animals to be labelled “damage causing”. Giraffe also commonly break these exclusion fences.
Ongoing harassment hampering relocation
In 2016, an infant elephant died after its herd was chased from the Pidwa section of the reserve by helicopter. In March 2018, an elephant cow died during a relocation exercise, which had to be aborted after the herds “splintered and bomb-shelled”.
According to elephant specialist Audrey Delsink, who has worked with the Makalali elephants for more than 18 years, “Both elephant breeding herds and bulls have been repeatedly chased out of the northern section with either a microlight or a chartered helicopter, undertaken by Pidwa both with and without GMPGR’s permission or consultation”.
“To prevent further stress on the population, it is critical that this repeated harassment by chasing and driving with helicopters be stopped immediately,” Delsink says.
A recent relocation of Riff Raff to the greater Balule Game Reserve failed when he immediately migrated back to the GMPGR, in less than two days.
Responsibility of landowners
It is the responsibility of all the landowners where the elephants traverse to manage the elephant populations on their land according to the National Elephant Management Plan (EMP), which states that lethal solutions are only to be used after “all other alternatives have been considered”.
The EMS Foundation and Ban Animal Trading sent a legal demand to LEDET and the NSPCA requiring inter alia that Riff Raff not be harmed and that the rest of the elephants not be harassed further. LEDET replied that approval for the destruction permit had been granted but the GMPGR ,the owners of the elephants, requested that LEDET wait and not actually issue it as this would be the last resort.
The permit was granted under Section 25 of the elephant management Norms and Standards, which refers to ‘escaped or roaming’ elephants. As the two-strand exclusion fence does not constitute an ‘adequately enclosed area’, which Section 25 requires, nor is Riff Raff either ‘escaped or ‘roaming’, his killing would be a contravention of the national requirements for elephant management.
Humane Society International (HSI) – Africa also issued a letter of motivation supporting the bull’s relocation, requesting LEDET to oppose Riff Raff’s killing especially as he is acting according to natural instinct to return to his historical range.
HSI – Africa is calling on the public to help #SaveRiffRaff by making a donation to help HSI’s wildlife programme fund this critical rescue and keep Riff Raff alive. Click here to find out more and make a donation.
The HSI-Africa motivation letter further states that Pidwa owners should start taking ethical responsibility for the elephants on their properties, and adhere to the reserve’s approved Elephant Management Plan.
“Given the extraordinary lengths to accommodate the Pidwa owners, and the interventions undertaken to date, HSI-Africa are deeply concerned that the situation has now elevated to a serious welfare concern,” the letter reads. “The elephants cannot continue to be subjected to this level of harassment. The bull is reacting to his biological drive to return to his traditional home range, which has been compounded by the prolonged droughts.”
Riff Raff is but the face of a growing HEC issue on GMPGR, and in the rest of Africa. “The fundamental problem at Makalali is the exclusion fence. This is a problem for ALL the elephants there and the problem will continue until this is resolved,” Delsink says.
Elmes and Panos agree, saying reserve management is in the process of trying to find a reserve to relocate Riff Raff to, but ultimately, “we endeavour to get the elephant fence removed”.
Multiple attempts to reach the McCormick family, owners of the Pidwa, for comment on the management of the Greater Makalali elephant herds, and especially Riff Raff, have gone unanswered.