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How big tuskers brought calm and peace to a group of traumatized and unruly teenage elephant calves!

Published 24 JUNE 2024

Latest research suggests African elephants call each other by name!

In 1981, nearly a century after the last East Coast elephant was shot for its tusks in the ivory trade of the time, South African wildlife conservationists endeavoured to return elephants to their original territory in the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve (now Hluhluwe- iMfolozi Park) in KwaZulu Natal.

By 1996, almost 200 Kruger National Park juvenile elephants had been transferred there, all were orphans younger than five years of age, survivors of culling of their families. But something went terribly wrong. The youngsters did not behave as expected. They broke fences and chased cars and people. They came into musth far too early and could not keep their aggression in check. They attacked and killed scores of rhinos. Things got so bad that some had to be shot.

But, as Sandra Swart, professor at the Department of History at Stellenbosch University, explains in her fascinating book ‘The Lion’s Historian’: “We now know what went wrong.”

“They were living with chronic stress caused by the slaughter of their families in front of them, and their removal to a strange place… Their behavior was comparable to that of humans who have experienced deep trauma.”

They had lost their culture. There were no older elephants to teach them how to be an elephant.

“We now know,” says Swart, “that matriarchs carry the herd’s wisdom and that the older males enforce polite society. Without these teachers, the little band of orphans were lost…

“In 2000, in an effort to restore order, a squad of 10 adult bulls were introduced from the Kruger National Park to put an end to the teenage craziness. It worked!...The juvenile delinquents learned from their elders and became respectable citizens.”

Professor Swart believes animals are key to how humans understand the world. She contends that learning or rather relearning from deep history to live with wild animals in close proximity, brings a new understanding whereby conservation does not try to separate the human and the so-called wild through old-school ‘fortress conservation’ that excludes and evicts. Rather, she suggests, conservation can be decolonized with a completely new approach.

She says: “There are creative ideas coming out about how best to manage coexistence.”

For more on this fascinating subject, read:

The Lion’s Historian

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