Lessons of life from the Pilanesberg elephants

Every year as the school holidays start and the “good cheer” of Christmas looms it seems that some families face issues from young people going off the rails in some way or another. Now I’m no child psychologist but I have observed with interest how elephants deal with their misbehaving young!

When the Pilanesberg National Park was established in 1978 in the Bojanala Region of North West Province it had low numbers of wild animals. Over the first few years of its existence the Reserve’s re-introduction program (termed “Operation Genesis”) was responsible for the re-introduction of many thousands of mammals – from antelope species such as impala and sable to large pachyderms (thick skins) such as rhinos and elephants.

In those early days little was known about elephant behaviour and to start with a small number of immature elephants were introduced. They were often “orphans” from culling programs and were smaller and easier to translocate. And this is when the problems of elephant misbehaviour in the Pilanesberg began for , over the next few years around 40 rhino’s were killed by them and a number of tourist vehicles were attacked – with one attack in 1993 resulting in the death of a tourist. Not good!

The culprits were identified as young male elephants that entered musth about 10 years younger than expected, and maintained musth for a full term at first occurrence. (Musth is a periodic condition in bull elephants, characterized by highly aggressive behaviour which is accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones.) When the problems of elephant misbehaviour first reared its head the so-called rogue elephants were culled. But as the attacks continued and the problem worsened the elephant behaviour boffins started to consider the issue of male elephant delinquency ! And they were quick to reason there were no older male elephants to keep the youngsters in check and to provide a behaviour hierarchy into which they could fit. Could it be that the introduction of older bull elephants would have a dampening effect on the sexual development of the younger males?.

And so in 1997 a bold decision was made to translocate 2 adult male elephants from the Kruger National Park to the Pilanesberg. No mean feat – even though South Africa as a world leader in the translocation of big game – because a full-sized, mature elephant bull can weigh up to 7 500 kg and have a shoulder-height of 3.5 metres!

And move elephants they did ! Each elephant were first herded to a convenient place using a helicopter. There he was darted and a winch was used to pull him up a conveyor belt into a wake-up trailer where an antidote was injected. And once the elephant was standing he would walk naturally walked backwards into the transport container where he was given a sedative injection and the journey to his new home would begin.

And the result ?

Once the mature adult bulls had made contact with the herds, being bigger and stronger than the young delinquent bulls, they quickly asserted their dominance over them. And over time musth cycles in the younger males returned to normal and the incidence of attacks on rhinos and tourist vehicles was diminished or eliminated altogether.

What’s this to do with Christmas holidays and badly behaved children ? For me the lesson from the elephants is that families who apply the rules of behaviour consistently throughout the year should have no problems when the school holidays arrive. After all youngsters have come to know what to expect and willingly abide by the rules even when the times are a-changing.

We all need discipline in our lives – no matter at what age. Discipline helps to set those boundaries that society so desperately needs to keep on functioning efficiently and peacefully. Sometimes the discipline comes from without, most times it should be from within. Elephants keep both going. On the one hand the older bulls keep the younger bulls in check while they are growing up and on the other the young bulls repeat the pattern of this behaviour when they themselves reach adulthood. A nice cycle of events which elephants seem to do well on!

Dr Lynn Hurry is a Pietermaritzburg based writer/ publisher in Sustainability Education.
Contact at lynn@ecology.co.za

Lynn Hurry elephant pic ed135 dec2013