A Glimmer of Light for the African Elephant
Every environmental article we read these days seems depressing but there are some positive stories
As someone who writes frequently on the subject of the environment, I am all too aware of how easy it is to fall into a state of depression when surrounded by an onslaught of seemingly endless disaster stories. That is why, from time to time, I deliberately seek out conservation success stories that I hope will stop people becoming numb through bad news burnout and at the same time prevent me from pouring gin onto my breakfast cereal.
Addo National Park lies near Port Elizabeth in South Africa’s Eastern Cape region. It was established in 1931 to protect the eleven remaining Addo elephants in the area. Like much of southern Africa, the area had been heavily hunted in the 17 and 1800s and the large herds of elephant that had once ranged the region were now hovering on the brink of extinction.
The initial park was just 2000 hectares but even though it was that small, it still drew animosity from neighboring farmers who wanted the elephants destroyed. The boundaries may have made sense on a map but the elephants paid little attention to that and when they wandered out of their designated protection zone, conflict with farmers quickly followed. In 1954, the park manager, Graham Armstrong, developed a form of elephant proof fencing using lift cables and tram rails. The park still only contained 22 elephants but with the powerful Armstrong fences in place, at least they were now safe from irate farmers.
Today, the park extends for 170 000 hectares and is home to over 600 elephant as well as the other animals that make up the famous big five that is such an important drawcard for tourists.
With wild elephant numbers falling by one in three over the past seven years, this project offers not only a degree of hope but also a roadmap to what can be done in other areas in Africa. South African National Parks are currently negotiating public-private partnerships that they hope will eventually see 240 000 hectares fall under their management. They are also participating in an ambitious project to create a further 120 000 hectares of marine protection zone.
Although it is now the third largest of South Africa’s twenty National Parks, Addo still remains somewhat unknown when compared to it’s largest park, the Kruger. On my first visit many years ago I drove for an hour without seeing a single elephant. I was beginning to wonder if the park’s publicity would live up to the hype when I came across a loan bull feeding behind some thick bush. I spent nearly twenty minutes taking random photos of the bits of him that I could make out. Determined to come away with at least one decent elephant photo, my thinking was that if I had enough shots I could at least copy-paste some of them together to look like something real.
After using up most of my memory card I drove on, only to turn a corner and find myself face to face with dozens of elephants. It was like an elephant tsunami slowly rolling toward me and there was nothing I could do but wait for it to descend upon me. The herd paid me little attention. They simply wound around my vehicle at a distance of mere inches; close enough to make out their eyelashes and the contours and ridges of their wrinkled hides. We grow up from childhood knowing that elephants are large but when you are that close to them, the word large takes on a whole new meaning. It was an experience that was both intimidating and exhilarating at the same time and not one to be quickly forgotten.
Part of what makes close contact with these creatures so powerful is the complete silence with which they move. I could hear their breathing but not a single giant footfall. I make more noise tiptoeing across my bedroom to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night.
Mounted on the wall of one of the park’s restaurants is the head of an elephant called Hapoor. He was the dominant bull from 1944 right up until 1968. Hap is derived from the Afrikaans word for nik or rip and Hapoor’s ear had a pronounced cut that is thought to have been the result of a hunters bullet grazing him. Hapoor definitely hated humans and would frequently pose a threat to park rangers and other staff. In 1968 his authority was finally usurped by one of the younger bulls and Hapoor left the herd. Eventually, he became the first elephant to climb the Armstrong fence and escape into the neighboring farmland. His ferocious temper made him too dangerous to ignore and he had to be shot.
Today, Hapoor’s descendants live on and thrive in the park. It has become much more than just a reserve for elephants but also a valuable island of biodiversity. Farmers have come to not only accept the park but also to appreciate it. Many of them have converted traditional farming operations into private safari resorts and further broadened the natural regeneration that Addo pioneered. One of the most positive activities in the park are the regular visits from nearby schools. Hopefully, this will help expand the vision for nature conservation in Africa and show future generations just what a precious resource wildlife can be when efficiently managed.