Life skills for elephants behaving badly

11 December 2016 - 02:00 By Claire Keeton

A wildlife initiative uses new ways to rescue and rehabilitate animals traumatised by human activity, writes Claire Keeton.

A scrawny man sits on his haunches in the bush facing eight elephants who tower over him, greeting him with rumblings and flapping ears.

One of them flicks his foot towards him. That means the man should go away. Not budging, Jock McMillan does the same with his foot at the restless young male, flanked by two others, who yields a foot or two to him.

Then this elephant turns his attention to the bakkie where we sit next to bags of feed, pellets provided during the dry season to supplement the elephants' diet and reduce their impact on the reserve.

Quietly, McMillan tells him to leave us alone and he again backs away.

Members of this herd on a private reserve in Limpopo listen to McMillan - usually. But they are not tame.


Time, nearly 20 years, has built an understanding between two different species.

"I am not an elephant whisperer," says 58-year-old McMillan. "I watch, listen and then use the same gestures they use towards each other towards them, and they have come to know me.

"They came here as a group of six orphans who were traumatised by their families being culled from a helicopter and then being bundled into trucks and put into bomas full of unrelated calves in Kruger National Park in '92."

But they were not scared of buildings and that's where McMillan, the maintenance manager at the time, began to interact with them and understand their problems.

"At that stage they avoided game-drive vehicles and if cornered would become aggressive. Around the same time one of the bulls began having aggressive encounters with rhinos, including trying to roll or tusk them."

Pilanesberg had discovered that young bulls were killing rhinos during this time and Mabula Game Reserve put together a workshop attended by elephant experts to try to find solutions to the problem.

Pilanesberg brought in six large Kruger bulls to dominate the young bulls, but Mabula was not big enough to use the same method. The outcome was McMillan being appointed to study the herd and devise a solution to the problem. For two years, 1998 and 1999, he followed the elephants.

During this time he realised that a supplement would reduce their impact on vegetation and get them used to game-drive vehicles. A scientific study conducted later showed that the use of the supplement reduced their stress levels and improved sightings by visitors.

ERP director of operations Dereck Milburn says they approach conservation in two ways: tactical, like 911 Elephant, to protect elephants in danger, and middle- to long-term projects.

block_quotes_start We're spending lots of time and money on survivors and we would like them to go back into the wild and reproduce again one day block_quotes_end

The journey - from elephants who had been acting like delinquents due to the loss of their mothers and the absence of older bulls - to today, when they offer excellent game viewing, was not easy.

It took months for them to accept the feed and once, while McMillan was distributing lucerne, the first calf born on the reserve approached him from behind.

This prompted the youngest female, who was standing in front of him, to swat him to the ground with her trunk and stand over him, a leg on either side.

Fortunately, the sound of him hitting the ground scared the calf away and the cow, realising it was no longer "in danger", backed off.

"The scary moments are outweighed by the magic, like being surrounded by elephants lying on the ground sleeping while scientists debated whether elephants sleep lying down.

"And the amusement of watching the youngest cow steal the doormat from the old farmhouse that served as my quarters and waltz around the lawn with the doormat on her head," says McMillan.

He appears to have become the elephants' unlikely role model. "The biggest problem is not the way elephants behave but the way we treat them," he says.


These days he has the assistance of Ida Hansen, employed by the Elephants, Rhinos and People project, to document the behaviour of the elephants daily. CEO Jonathan Tager, who launched the ERP project, is focused on the symptoms of human-wildlife conflict and the causes of the poaching and shooting of rhinos and elephants.

For example, elephants were being shot at Tembe on the KwaZulu-Natal-Mozambique border until ERP put up a "beehive fence" to deter them from damaging crops. The beehives are a source of income for the villages.

Saving the Survivors is a nonprofit organisation that works with ERP and STS vet Dr Johan Marais. Essentially a rhino paramedic, he has joined ERP's ranks, responding to calls to 911 Rhino.

Marais is a veterinary surgeon who worked at Onderstepoort for 16 years and has done ground-breaking facial reconstruction work on rhinos that have survived being dehorned by poachers.

He met us at a reserve in North West where a rhino called Seha is recovering from a potentially fatal wound after his horn and much of his face was hacked away in September.

At the eleventh hour the ERP team heard that Seha was to be shot - a permit had been issued to put him down because he was not "economically viable" - and they charged in with another vet's report that he could be saved.

When Seha heard us coming he charged the fence, stopping in a cloud of dust. He had a gaping hole with pink tissue below his eyes.

Marais says: "We're spending lots of time and money on survivors and we would like them to go back into the wild and reproduce again one day."

ERP wants to establish "survivor herds" of rhinos that live in the bush, not captivity, but are well protected to ensure the species' survival.