/ 24 May 2002

Operation father figure

The translocation of young elephant bulls has taught scientists the value of the animals’ social structure.

It began like a classic murder mystery. In 1994 rhinos were being found dead in the Pilanesberg Game Reserve with their horns ripped out, their backs broken and their bodies mutilated. Horrified rangers were convinced that elephants were to blame, but no one could understand why the young tuskers would take such terrible revenge on these smaller animals.

The elephants of the Pilanesberg were introduced into the reserve when it was established 15 years previously. A massive animal relocation programme known as Operation Genesis had taken place to populate the area, which had been made up of cattle farms. The first elephants introduced were from the Addo Elephant Park and thereafter orphaned elephants from Kruger National Park culls were brought in.

Because of the size of elephants, it was only feasible to move juveniles. The problems and costs incurred through moving large elephant bulls were prohibitive and with the limited understanding of elephant social structure at the time it was not regarded as necessary.

However, the youngsters did not form a social group until two adult circus-trained females were introduced by United States elephant expert Randall Moore. They became the matriarchs of the young herd and a social structure developed.

“Not only did Durga and Owalla [the two circus elephants] adapt readily to the wild,” says Moore, “but within months came to assume the natural role of matriarchs to a thriving herd of translocated juvenile elephants. Before they came along the herds of little elephants were fragmented and in poor condition. My two elephants gave them the guidance and family cohesion they needed.”

But this was not the only problem facing the young elephants. About a decade later the teenage bulls began to leave the matriarchal herds, and this is when the trouble really began. In 1993 two teenage bulls attacked and killed a tourist. They were shot. Also, at around this time, the attacks on the rhinos began.

Animal welfare groups maintained that the ferocity of the elephants was owing to the trauma of translocation. But conservationists could not understand why the aberrant behaviour would take more than a decade to manifest itself and why it should manifest itself in a desire to kill rhino. Both bulls and cows had been translocated, so why would the aggression only occur in the males?

“There were lots of theories,” says Pilanesberg ecologist Gus van Dyk. “One was that there were too many elephants and rhino and therefore there was conflict for space. This would also explain why the elephants were attacking tourists that came into their territory. But their behaviour patterns were not consistent with this theory — there had to be something else.”

By 1996 28 rhinos reportedly had been killed by elephants. A professional hunter hired to cull one of the problem animals was also trampled to death. In fact, there were so many reports of aggressive behaviour towards tourists that the Pilanesberg elephants became known as an aberrant population of “savage beasts”, and park staff were desperate for a solution.

Van Dyk embarked on two years of detective work. “We would mark elephants temporarily with paint from a helicopter and then take photographs of them. The rangers all cooperated on a massive tracking exercise to keep an eye on them and follow their patterns of behaviour.”

A detailed identikit of each male elephant was compiled and his behaviour was recorded. A few things started to become clear.

“We found that all the culprits were male bulls of a similar age who were in musth,” says Van Dyk. “Oddly, elephants in the Pilanesberg were entering musth significantly earlier and for longer periods than elephants in other parks. For instance, in the wild a bull elephant will enter musth at about 28 years. These guys were coming into musth at about 18.”

Detailed research and the input of Joyce Poole, a world authority on musth in elephants, pinpointed the problem. Musth is a natural period of supercharged hormones in elephants that starts at about the age of 29 and increases as the bull gets older. But this is a confusing time for young elephants (just like hormonal changes in human teenagers). Older bulls are necessary in herds as they suppress the onset of musth in youngsters and teach them how to deal with it.

“The absence of the large and experienced bull elephants in translocated herds was playing havoc with the young males as they matured,” says Van Dyk. “In natural elephant populations nature used the presence of older bulls to ease the animal into musth over a period of years. This natural backstop was absent in Pilanesberg.”

The reason for the aggressive behaviour became clear — as did why rhino seemed to be the preferred victims. Most animals would quickly give way to a rampaging bull elephant, but a rhino would most likely stand its ground. The confusion of a young male, who could not understand or control his urges, was leading to episodes of uncontrolled aggression and unexplainable behaviour.

One particularly sad individual was Jack, who seemed to think he was a rhino. One of the original Addo babies, he had — in apparent loneliness — adopted a rhino herd and thus was rechristened Jace (just another confused elephant).

But once the source of the crisis was identified, a new problem presented itself. At that time it seemed the only solution was to identify the difficult animal and destroy him. But over time it became clear that all the males would go through a similar stage of confused adolescence, with the resultant danger to animals and people, and the loss of the elephant.

Park staff were desperate to solve the problem and it was decided that the only solution would be to introduce elephant mentors in the form of mature bulls.

By the early Nineties translocation methods of elephant had progressed enormously. The technique of transporting whole families of elephants was pioneered and perfected in Zimbabwe and it became feasible for large adult bulls to be transported if a large enough vehicle could be built.

This is where private enterprise stepped in. PPC Cement agreed to fund the building of a special vehicle to transport mature male elephants.

“Our logo is the elephant head and our motto relates to strength,” says PPC Cement’s Beth Harris, “so it makes sense that we would want to assist with an elephant relocation programme. So we offered the necessary funds to the South African National Parks to manufacture a custom-built transport trailer to relocate adult elephant bulls from the Kruger park to other reserves throughout South and Southern Africa.

“To further our commitment, we also sponsored full-time research assistants to study the effects of these introductions. The University of Natal’s life and environmental sciences department administered the projects.”

But despite the commitment from private enterprise it would still take at least a year before the structures were in place to move adult elephants.

During 1997 — while waiting for the new animals that could be the answer to their problems — park staff at Pilanesberg held their breath and watched their elephants. Only Jace appeared to be giving problems.

In August a bull elephant was reported to be chasing a rhino cow. He had ripped her horn from her face. The elephant was tracked and shot — it had been Jace in full musth.

In early 1998 six adult bulls were transported to the Pilanesberg reserve from the Kruger National Park. The first two were captured on the morning of February 2, loaded on to the trailer and into the crates and then transported to their new home, 800km away. They were met by anxious Pilanesberg staff members at about 10pm. The enormous truck reversed up to the gates of the boma and the elephants were moved slowly out of the truck and into the boma. The translocation had been successful.

Two elephants were moved at a time and by the end of March the Pilanesberg reserve had six new bulls. The new arrivals immediately moved into all the areas of the park. The young problem animals met up with them and there were some minor scuffles, but the Kruger bulls clearly dominated. The results were immediate and astonishing. The attacks on rhino stopped and the aberrant behaviour disappeared.

“It’s difficult to rectify mistakes made in elephant translocation,” says Professor Rob Slotow, project leader for the life and environmental sciences department of the University of Natal in Durban, “because of their size and social structure. In nature there is a complicated male hierarchy, which prevents youngsters getting out of control. The goal of introducing Kruger elephants to Pilanesberg was to establish such a bull hierarchy. We are confident that we have succeeded.

“Other reserves with translocated elephants may encounter the same difficulties. So we now have the structures and knowledge in place to solve these problems.”