On 12 August the world celebrated World Elephant Day, and at Wild we are all about learning more about Africa’s gentle and highly sociable giants during the month of August. Arnold Ras asked three authors – all elephant experts in their own right – to share their knowledge and passion. Wild is giving away two hampers with incredible elephant reads worth R640 each.

In the spirit of World Elephant Day, Wild sets out to answer some nagging questions. Have you ever wondered: What’s the difference between Kruger ellies and those in other national parks? Could elephant population growth trigger ‘ecological suicide’? What’s next for the infamous and seldomly spotted Knysna elephants?

We asked authors Mitch Reardon (Shaping Kruger), Gareth Patterson (The Secret Elephants) and Richard Peirce (Giant Steps) for some answers. Take part in our elephant book giveaway and you could win a copy of each title, courtesy of Struik Nature and Penguin Random House!

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Mitch Reardon – Shaping Kruger

How do elephants in Kruger differ from elephants in other national parks?

The biggest difference is space. Kruger elephants are free-ranging mega-herbivores in the true ecological sense. Their home range is big enough to provide them with wet season and dry season pastures, woodlands and grasslands. That freedom of movement affects every aspect of their lives, including diet, behaviour, mating and the search for water. That’s a rare commodity in this day and age and one that has been enhanced by the inclusion of the western private game reserves into the Greater Kruger ecosystem, which hopefully one day will include Limpopo National Park.

One of the most important management decisions in Kruger’s recent history was the closure of half the park’s artificial boreholes and dams. That compelled elephants to return to a traditional pattern of concentrating around perennial rivers during the dry season, and then, when the rains arrived, making use of ephemeral pans to disperse into parts of the park that had been rested from grazing and browsing.

It is not the number of mouths at any one stage that impacts the health of Africa’s vegetation, but rather the crucial growing, flowering and seeding period. When permanent man-made waterholes were too close together, elephants had no need to search for water. Without a shifting mosaic of high and low elephant-feeding pressure, ever-expanding patches of heavily browsed vegetation occurred. Closing waterholes also helped to naturally stabilise elephant birth rates. The stress of long, dry season treks between water and dwindling food resources limits the likelihood of females coming into oestrus and weary calves become vulnerable to lion and hyena predation, as happens in some parks in Botswana and Zimbabwe.

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Pictures by Mitch Reardon

What fascinates you most about elephants?

The extraordinary number of qualities that elephants have which we can relate to and recognise in ourselves. Just like us, they have a highly convoluted brain with a well-developed temporal lobe that endows them with an awareness of self and empathy for others. They have complex emotions such as solicitousness, mischievousness and happiness. Family relations emphasise care, concern, loyalty, altruism and huge affection for one another. They look after their ill and elderly, and mourn their dead. They are sentient beings.

Your thoughts on culling?

The decision to cull Kruger’s elephants, taken in 1967, was in keeping with the prevailing philosophy that adhered to a ‘balance of nature’ concept. It required that the elephant population be maintained below a ceiling of 7,000, or roughly four elephants per 10 square kilometres “if the total destruction of vulnerable areas near water is not the result”. Later, numbers were capped at between 6,000 and 8,000, which was the density at which they had been observed to disperse from favoured habitats to populate other areas.

Subsequent studies have revealed that African savannas are forever changing. When Kruger’s first warden, James Stevenson-Hamilton arrived in 1902, the landscape looked very different to the way it does today. His head ranger, Harry Wolhuter, recalled: “When I first became acquainted with Pretoriuskop, the surrounding veld was quite open in nature, not unlike the Highveld. I saw no impala for about 35 years.” But there were big herds of zebra and wildebeest, as well as tsessebe, sable, roan, oribi, eland, waterbuck, ostrich and cheetah. They began to disappear as their habitat became overgrown by woody plants.

Today, when scientists observe elephant ‘predation’ on trees and grass they don’t see destruction, but instead habitat modification, perhaps even an enrichment of the habitat. A rich habitat is not one which simply makes a pretty picture, but one in which energy flows through numerous pathways, and in which materials are changing form continuously.

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Mitch Reardon: “Could elephant population growth trigger ecological suicide ─ ecocide ─ by destroying the environmental resources their species and many others depend on? As far as we know, elephants have not caused the extinction of a single species anywhere in Africa, including parks in East Africa and Botswana that have never practised culling and where elephant densities have been far higher than in Kruger.”

Gareth Patterson – The Secret Elephants Secret-Elephants-gareth-patterson

Why are people so intrigued by the elusive Knysna elephants?

I guess it all about the mystery. Back in the late 1990s, they were termed a ‘functionally extinct population’, and it was thought that only one elderly female remained. Then in 2000, SANParks forest guard Wilfred Oraai captured on video the stunning footage of a young adult male Knysna elephant. No one previously knew about this elephant’s existence. This raised the question: Who are his mother and father? I started my research the following year. I conducted DNA work with conservation geneticist Lori Eggert, then with the Smithsonian Institute in the USA, and we discovered that there are at least six females in the population. Combined with field research that indicated there were at least three bulls – and evidence of births – this brings the population to approximately 12 to 14.

What lessons can we learn from the Knysna elephants’ survival?

Amazingly, they out-lived the first people of this place, the Khoisan. That is staggering. Quietly, and without any help from humankind, these amazing elephants have brought themselves back from the brink. That is really humbling. I think the biggest message is to never underestimate wildlife species’ ability to recover.

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Richard Peirce – Giant Steps

Your book explores the freedom of elephants…Giant Steps- Cover

Giant Steps is the true story of two elephants, both of which lost their wild lives and freedom, when their families were culled and, as baby elephants, began a life dominated
by humans. They will never fully regain wild freedom living in a herd, but they have now got the best they could have in terms of their life histories. To me the loss of their wild lives is the loss of their freedom, and for a highly intelligent animal, this is a devastating loss.

As a conservationist, why did you decide to focus on elephants?

As a wildlife campaigner I have always sought new ways of communicating messages and making people think. In terms of writing books, I decided that a new approach would be to tell true stories about real animals, and try make them fast and pacey so that they almost read like thrillers. My first, The Poacher’s Moon, was the true story of two rhinos that survived a poaching attack. The second was Giant Steps. I am not specifically and only fascinated by elephants, but by all wildlife. However, when writing and researching Giant Steps it became impossible not to put elephants right at the top of my list of favourites.

What is a responsible way to interact with elephants?

Do what you are told and be sensible. They are very large, very powerful animals, that are more than capable of showing their annoyance if humans push them too far. Wild places are their domain in which we must give them respect and freedom.

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How to enter

Tell us who’s the author of The Secret Elephants and you could win one of two hampers consisting of a copy of Giant Steps, The Secret Elephants and Shaping Kruger worth R640. Email your answer to [email protected] (subject line: Elephant hamper) before 17 September and remember to include your contact details and postal address. Winners will be notified via email. Wild will randomly select the winners. Good luck!

WINNERS: Gillian Barrenger, Chris Voets