Putting elephants on the pill
Johannesburg – Concentrating on his computer screen, brow furrowed, JJ van Altena reaches distractedly for his cellphone as it beeps.
It’s an alert from an anti-poaching unit. A death knell. His expression changes. Two rhinos have been found killed and dehorned by rangers in the North West Province.
“That makes it seven this week,” van Altena sighs, turning back to his computer, the backlight briefly illuminating frustration in his eyes.
He's 34... maybe 40, and the director of his own wildlife ranching company, Global Supplies - the by-product of 18 years as the go-to-guy for just about anything wildlife-related.
"There's a wild dog in a snare, call JJ. The anti-poaching unit needs extra hands," call JJ," van Altena smiles rather proudly as he recalls his days as a young game ranger, quickly climbing the ranks at the Kruger National Park because of his willingness to take on any job handed to him, often in the face of danger.
He’s captured, darted, translocated, treated and administered birth control to hundreds of animals, a lot of them elephants.
Poaching and culling have been an every-day reality throughout for van Altena, but it’s clear loss of life still has an impact on him when his phone beeps again an hour later.
“They killed an elephant at Thembe,” van Altena says quietly, after a long pause.
A female – one of van Altena’s immunocontraception patients - poached for her tusks, has been found mutilated at the national elephant reserve. It's the first report of elephant poaching in South Africa in some time.
“There aren’t any rhinos left in the rest of Africa to cull so they’re not putting much attention on the elephants here,” he says, pushing the phone away from him.
“It’s just a matter of time until the rhinos dry up and [the poachers] go back to poaching our elephant population.”
With the region’s rhino population taking the hit from Asian horn syndicates by the hundred each year, elephants in Southern Africa have remained largely unscathed by the slaughter.
Their counterparts in Central and East Africa, which are being wiped out at a rate of 12,000-plus a year, according to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), also seem to be keeping elephant poachers preoccupied.
It’s given the South African elephant population a grace period in which to recoup the loss of more than 16,000 of its species to culling between 1970 and 1995.
Unluckily though, it turns out growth is not in their best interests either.
For elephants, poaching is the rock. Population growth is the hard place.
Elephant specialists say the hard place - in the long run - is far more uncomfortable than the rock.
“In Eastern and Northern and Western Africa, elephants are primarily seen as threatened species,” says ecologist Dr Sam Ferreira, who works for Scientific Services at Kruger.
“That is where the largest onslaughts of poaching are busy happening, and also where you do have most of the traditional human-elephant conflict interactions.”
“When you get to Southern Africa it’s entirely switched over, where the concern is more the threat that elephants [pose] to other values.”
For more statistics on elephants check out the African Elephant Database
Those other values include the landscapes, habitats and plant and animal species - the ecosystems - that elephants form part of in the game reserves and parks they're confined to.
Elephants are highly destructive animals, regularly pushing over and stripping the bark off trees. Large bulls are able to bring hardy baobabs crashing to the ground.
They also eat on average around five percent of their own six-ton body mass every day, so specialists like Ferreira describe them as "key drivers" of their ecosystems.
"We realised that our assumptions on how elephants actually affect biodiversity may not have been completely true or completely correct," says Ferreira, who admits that, until recently, hardly anything was known about the real causes of the animals' impact on their environment.
Their impact on the Kruger National Park, one of the largest reserves in Africa at roughly 20,000 square kilometres and soon to become part of the Great Limpopo Transfontier Park, has been noted with growing concern.
But there are some 7,000 elephants in other, much smaller reserves and private game farms throughout the country.
Their impact on those landscapes cannot be ignored.
Visuals courtesy NHU Africa
Throwing the baby out with the bath water
After culling was banned in 1995, conservationists realised they would have to devise other, more humane methods of keeping elephant numbers down.
"It's part of our evolution from a command and control type of thing, where we had this approach that talked about the balance of nature, to a more systems-based approach where we're trying to restore natural processes," says Ferreira.
"It's not about how many elephants we've got, it's actually about where elephants are spending time," he explains.
"What determines where elephants are spending time is where their critical resources are, which are water, food and then comfort things like [shade]."
Elephants rely on water predominantly to stay cool. Calves overheat extremely quickly and die if exposed to heat for very long.
As a result, conservationists at Kruger realised elephants were spending the majority of their time at the numerous man-made waterholes and reservoirs built to give tourists game viewing opportunities.
The abundance of water meant breeding herds did not have to walk more than a couple of kilometres to take a leisurely mud bath every day. It also meant they were content to stay near those water sources indefinitely, putting enormous strain on the ecosystems surrounding them.
After 2006, SANParks took a decision to close two-thirds of the waterholes, forcing the elephant herds to migrate to natural rivers and dams farther afield on a regular basis, as they would if the manmade sources were never installed, and giving the landscape they vacated a chance to recover.
Exposed to the sun, their water intake quite drastically reduced, weaned calves and elderly elephants died from the unfamiliar heat and the thirst.
"The growth rate has dropped from 6.5 percent to two percent, and it's still dropping," says Ferreira.
"We're observing the typical natural processes playing out on the population."
Choosing the best option
Restricting water is ultimately a hands-off elephant management option that is working in Kruger, but there are several other methods currently being implemented country-wide, with varying results.
Because many wildlife specialists are against the practice of culling, organisations like Humane Society International (HSI) have spent more than a decade researching and implementing more humane interventions.
Immunocontraception was developed by HSI in the late 1990s. It has subsequently been adopted by game reserves in South Africa.
Visuals courtesy NHU Africa
Sitting in the garden of his Johannesburg home, JJ van Altena describes elephant management as a tool box full of tools, each one a specific implement for a specific job.
"I'm going to look at my tools and I'm going to look at the area that needs specific management and I'm going to choose [one]," he says.
"Every single place is unique and needs to be approached that way. It's not a one size fits all."
He should know. He's tried and tested almost all of them - and been charged by an angry bull or a broody mother more times than he can remember for his trouble.
One run-in with a tranquilised cow nearly ended his life.
Like many, van Altena is pragmatic about elephants and their future, almost to the point of cynicism.
"Our most limiting resource to wildlife is space and habitat," he says. "We’re in that race for space too. And unfortunately, no matter which way you look at it, we’re going to win that race.”
For people who prize wildlife and are anxious about its continued wellbeing, it's by no means a comforting thought.
However, the ongoing management of elephant herds by established nature reserves, no matter how controlling and interventionist it may be, shows South Africa's nature conservation authorities are prepared to explore all options in the battle to preserve this beloved species.
- This multimedia feature was produced in collaboration with Wyoming Public Radio.