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Africa’s Gentle Bulldozers

Is our character due to nature or nurture? 

My love for wildlife comes from both. I was born in a small town in the east of South Africa and spent much of my childhood in the back of a car with my grandparents, plying the dust roads of the Kruger National Park and spotting wildlife.

I prefer to think that I inherited my love for nature from them, and my childhood exposure to the mysterious and exciting wildlife of Africa certainly helped.

I recently returned from my first trip with guests since striking out on my own as wildlife guide. I may be over half a century old, but the excitement and happiness that engulfs you in a wildlife area has not waned one little bit.

And once again I saw things for the first time. While hiding in the camp from the 47 degrees Celsius heat, we saw a sight that few are privileged to see.

A big male elephant was standing under a huge jackalberry tree trying to keep cool in the heat of Africa. The next minute he found a comfortable spot under the tree with a steep incline down to the riverbed. He lay down with his legs downhill and drifted off to sleep. With a fan of an ear every now and then, the only sign that he was still alive, he slept like this for almost an hour. Up he stood, shook his head as if to clear his head from the sleep and disappeared into the bush.

Seeing this made me realize how much there is about our amazing elephants that we still need to discover. They are wonderful animals with a remarkable social life.

I admit I am not objective when it comes to elephants. (Or any other animal, for that matter.)

I have always believed that elephant society embodies the principles we idealize in human society. They respect their elders. They protect their young with all their might. Despite their herculean strength, they do not wage war. Many and varied herds will converge at a waterhole, yet they will drink, take mud baths and interact in a thoroughly civilized way.

Spending a great deal of time in Botswana, I was privileged to see how the herds communicated with each other when they get to an overcrowded waterhole.

An incoming matriarch of a herd would signal with a loud rumble that they intend to come and drink water. One of the herds already at the waterhole would then signal back with the same rumble that they would soon be moving out.

The incoming herd would then patiently wait until the herd drinking starts to leave before they move in to join the crowd.

Sometimes related family groups that have broken up for some reason would meet up at the waterhole, and then pandemonium breaks out.

It’s like a big human family coming together. Hugs, shouts and trumpets, absolute chaos until they leave the water together, sometimes feeding a while together and then breaking up again before disappearing into the African bush.

The question always comes up and it always saddens me that people have such a narrow view of these wonderful beings. “What are your views on elephants destroying the trees so much?”

Some concerned conservationists have even used photographic evidence from around 50 years ago of a region and compared it to recent photos to show how destructive elephants are. I do not think of elephants as being destructive in the long run.

Recently, I read an article that was collaborating my views to the full and I would like to touch on just a few of the points that they discussed at length.

A report titled “The management dilemma: Removing elephants to save large trees” by MD Henley proves that there is not necessarily a direct connection between elephants and the loss of big trees.

Historically, elephant populations had to be managed in the fenced-off Kruger National Park to achieve the “ideal state” with regards to trees. This was to comply with the expectations of tourists and the “ideal treed” state.

Yet the “ideal state” was measured from a time when elephants were already exterminated from almost all of South Africa from a former population of about 100,000 individuals, by ivory hunters, poaching, trophy hunting and subsistence hunting. This left the land bereft of elephants and the trees grew unchecked.

And this overgrown landscape is what we regard as ideal. This was helped along by the crash of herbivores in the 19th century by the outbreak of rinderpest which now could not browse on young saplings. Trees took over the savannah landscape in southern Africa.

Elephants use trees for nutrition and may debark, break branches or push over an entire tree to get to the nutrient rich roots. Some of these trees subsequently become vulnerable to insects and fire.

But this “ecosystem engineering” of elephants improves local plant diversity. They open up areas and create grasslands, which are essential to grazers.

Elephants are also important dispersers and germinator agents for tree seeds, sometimes depositing them up to 65km away from the mother tree in their ball of organic fertilizer. These seeds have a higher chance of germination after being exposed to the digestive acids in the elephant’s stomach. Elephants leave behind up to 150kg of dung a day, promoting biological diversity and creating micro-habitats teeming with insects, toads and reptiles. SO NEVER DRIVE OVER ELEPHANT DUNG.

There is also a misconception on the carrying capacity of elephants in the Kruger. Today people are clamouring that the 20,000 elephants in Kruger are too many and therefore causing considerable damage.

But the ideal academic number of 7,000 is also based on the smaller Kruger Park of years ago. Seems to me that the people who are saying this forget that the Kruger has almost doubled in size with the opening of the original park to huge private areas to the west and the Parc National do Limpopo to the east in Mozambique. A static carrying capacity figure becomes invalid in an ever changing and dynamic ecosystem.

A 300-hectare area fenced off in the Kruger to breed roan antelope allowed no elephants or other browsers into the area. Yet in this area large marula trees disappeared at the same rate as outside. So not only elephants, but other factors are also at play in losing big trees in these areas.

Both Tsavo (Kenya) and Chobe (Botswana) have seen the result of poaching elephants and the ivory trade and the resultant impact on tree cover and the populations of grassland grazers versus browsers. Now, with the elephants protected in these areas, their population is recovering to what it was before the 19th century ivory trade. Here they are reinstating the landscape to fewer trees and more grassland, as it existed historically.

The report also mentioned that culling of elephants is not effective, as it causes a spike in elephant births. Trophy hunting is not a good practice either, as this targets only males with large tusks, resulting in an undesirable sex ratio and skewed age structure in the elephant population. Sadly, it also destroys the elephant culture of peace and harmony. In India, elephants traumatized over generations, have turned away from their peaceful traditions, becoming dangerous and cantankerous animals.

Would a better way to control the elephant population be to introduce contraceptives? Sadly, no. Elephant herds are led by wise old matriarchs who transfer their knowledge to youngsters from their baby stage. This old knowledge is lost between the missing generations, causing numerous problems for herds later on.

I would like to leave you with a story that touched not only my heart, but also the hearts of my guests on an afternoon game drive in South Africa’s Limpopo province.

The elephant in question is an orphaned elephant who grew up at the game reserve where I worked with the help of some remarkable humans. But she was reintroduced to the wild and was so successful that she became the matriarch of her own small herd.

She gave birth to a baby boy, and I saw her with him just a couple of hours after birth. He was still wobbly on his feet and mother and the rest of the herd had their “trunks” full in keeping him from falling over while they were walking.

Three days later I had a VIP group of guests on an afternoon drive, stopping late in the afternoon for sundowners near a waterhole.

As always, I made sure that all was safe before I allowed the guests to alight from the vehicle. Suddenly, there was a commotion from the bush to the right of us. Out came our matriarch, trumpeting and storming straight towards me with the baby in tow. The rest of the herd was nowhere to be seen.

In a hurry, I got all the guests back into the vehicle but was too late to get on myself and drive off.

But our elephant had no intention of killing or destroying. She came straight up to me, grabbed my hand, stuck it in her mouth and started sucking on my hand.

While she was doing this, making sure I was completely immobilized, she pushed the baby with her foot towards me, making sure he got a good look at me and even sniffing me.

This must have been as stressful for the baby as it was for me, for as soon as he had a good introduction he went straight to her breast for some reassuring milk and comfort.

As soon as he had finished, his mother let go of my hand, turned around and disappeared into the bush to join the rest of the herd.

After this introduction to her son, how can I view an elephant in any other way as intelligent beyond our understanding? They are not just merely an oversized animal trying to destroy all our precious trees.

There will always be a debate about elephants and trees and how they should be managed. But where there is conflict of interest, correct management becomes exceedingly difficult. Money always plays a disproportionate role, and the trophy hunting fraternity has a lot of that to throw around.

Let us not forget that Mother Nature has placed these animals on our earth for a purpose. And let us not forget the words…

We have no greater right to exist than any other creature on earth.

Sir David Attenborough

Pula to Mother Nature’s Bulldozers.

Pula to you, the reader.

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About The Author
Gideon Meyer
Gideon Meyer
Gideon Meyer has over 25 years of experience in the conservation and eco-tourism industry; specializing in animal conservation, wildlife, and natural environment education in southern Africa. This includes guiding, tracking and the design of programs for animal conservation in partnership with community-based programs. Gideon also has the rare skill of orphaned animal handling and rearing, with a focus of returning them to their natural habitat. His vision is to contribute to a tipping point where the majority of humanity comes to realize that animals have as much right as people to be on earth, and to reveal to as many people as possible the magic of the natural world. He has conducted many photographic safaris in southern Africa. Born in 1968, he comfortably falls within the Manopause criteria. Visit Gideon's website, Meyer and Keesi Safaris for more information. He can be found on Facebook and Instagram.
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