Elephants Cruise into Camdeboo: Rewilding the Karoo
Written by: Laurie Sullivan (Provided by Africa Media)
Through my binoculars, I could make out two rock-like objects next to a broken white Shepherd’s Tree. Penny Pistorius, the elephant-monitor for the next year (dubbed “the Elephant Lady” by Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve’s staff), had spotted them with her sharp eye. The rocks were actually two elephants, a mother and baby. Mount Camdeboo is now home to the Big 5, with its new addition of three lions and, most recently, six elephants.
The three adult females, one young bull and two calves came from Atherstone Nature Reserve, where the elephants were overpopulated and at risk of being culled. Elephants, Rhinos & People (ERP) helped facilitate the relocation. Steve Turner-Smith, the general manager of Mount Camdeboo, said the wheels have been turning for years now on reintroducing elephants to the Karoo.
He explained how Iain Buchanan, the busy reserve owner, has been taking all the necessary steps to ensure the successful relocation. These have included open communication with neighbouring reserves to strengthen security measures, increasing perimeter patrols, as well as conducting an ecology study on the vegetation in the reserve. “It’s pretty special. The vision was Iain’s dads, and he passed when Iain was pretty young. He decided to continue the dream and the legacy.”
Transporting elephants is no easy feat, but ERP has it down to a science. Using helicopters, they wait for elephants to naturally group together for safety, ensuring that the relocated units are a family. Once together, they are darted simultaneously and loaded into trucks using a crane. Afterwards, they help them stand up using ropes, keeping them conscious but still sedated. All of the elephants except for the baby were placed in one truck, to keep them calm for the long drive. The reason the baby was separated was because of the concern for him being stepped on. In total, the journey from Atherstone to Camdeboo took around 20 hours.
Not only do the new elephants have to deal with being separated from the larger herd, but they also have an unfamiliar terrain to explore. The family comes from a flat sandy region, nothing like the mountainous Camdeboo. Penny explains how the matriarch, normally the oldest and wisest of the herd, develops a mental map of their surroundings, food and water sources, as well as other wildlife around. Because of the relocation, that map is now wiped and the matriarch will have to start from scratch. This might explain the odd behaviour the elephants have shown the first week at the reserve.
The herd immediately went up the northern mountain. This is unusual, since they’ve never been in mountainous terrain before. It may be due to the fact that they came from the north, which was the direction they knew as home. “Most animals have that magnetic compass in them,” explained Steve. “We’ve lost it. We’ve lost our instincts to navigate like that.” After 24 hours, one female and her youngest calf separated from the herd. This is definitely not normal in elephants, and could be the effect of a few different factors. One of the theories is that they received three different types of tranquilizers for their journey, one of which has mild effects that can last for up to seven days. This could have caused slight confusion.
Another theory has to do with an old farm fence on the reserve. The elephants managed to cross it going up the mountain, but because of the angle at which it was leaning, Steve doesn’t think the baby was able to get back over, forcing the mom to stay behind with him. “I was thinking about the conversation that that mother had to make with her middle calf… to say you’re not coming with me now, you have to go with them. That must have been a proper conversation, and a big, big choice to make,” said Steve. After the discovery, the team removed several large sections of the fence to make it easier for them to trek back down.
Fortunately, the six have reunited and have kept to the north mountain and valleys. They’ve also been seen on the fence line communicating with the elephants from the neighbouring reserves. Elephants can communicate up to 10 kilometers away and also use infra-sound to send and receive messages. It can take months or even years for them to settle into their new environment. Steve is hopeful that with Penny checking on them daily, the elephants will adjust to their new home.
“I’m pretty excited,” he said, “I want them to settle down so we can see them regularly. But the elephants absolutely come first. That’s what it’s all about.” While the elephants explore their new home, guests at the reserve can still see multiple native species such as cheetahs, lions, various antelope, zebras, and more. “There’s a lot of other experiences that can be built here that are equally impressive.” I’m lucky I got to see a faraway glimpse of them with Penny. Soon, seeing elephants will be added to every visitor’s Mount Camdeboo experience.