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Two African elephants and some timely debates

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GIANT STEPS by Richard Peirce, published by Struik Nature, Penguin Random House South Africa, 2016. R180


While the focus is more on the decimation of our rhino population, the elephant slaughter in Africa goes on at a truly alarming rate. Richard Peirce has penned a very readable book, largely about the lives of two elephant calves orphaned in organised culling operations, taken from their natural lives. A shorter section on elephants in captivity and the mammal’s chances of survival follows.

In the foreword Richard’s wife Jacqui wonders whether elephants have a future as truly wild animals. The human population explosion, plus a seemingly insatiable demand from China and south-east Asia for ivory points to this being unlikely, so these magnificent, intelligent animals may survive only in zoos and game parks.

In his introductory remarks Richard Peirce confirms that one elephant is being killed every 15 – 20 minutes by poachers, a nightmare that sees nearly 100 dying every day.

In 1992 little Bully ‘s mother, the matriarch of her group, was the first to go down when the family was culled all around him in the Kruger National Park . The culls were a management decision made to maintain the park’s elephant-carrying capacity. By 1994 more than 16 000 elephants had been killed.

Only Bully and two other calves survived and experienced bushman John Brooker and his partner Old Joe were on hand to take them to safety, darting them with sedatives, before lowering them into crates for their journey to Skukuza and on to a holding area and quarantine centre near Hartbeespoort dam. Finding the right milk solution was the main problem, but after this, the calves settled down and bonded with Old Joe who talked to them constantly.

Days were spent on this protected farm where they could wander to the dam and indulge in dust baths. As more Kruger Park orphans followed them, Bully, Five and Three became teachers and role models.

As Bully grew up, his charm and cheek made him a natural in front of the camera and over several years he appeared in close to 30 films and television commercials. The Brookers adhered to strict training standards and their animal welfare always took precedence. Their young son Jonathan became close friends with Bully and the boy was heartbroken when, aged seven, he had to bid farewell when Bully was sent to Elephants of Eden in the Eastern Cape.

The story of Bully’s friend Induna, born in 2003, is a less happy one. Orphaned as a baby, sold to a game reserve involved in hunting in northern Limpopo, he grew up with other elephants, living largely wild, but mistrusting humans. In 2007 he and three other youngsters were captured and sold to Elephants of Eden where he met Bully and the two bonded strongly. Induna was among those destined to be trained to take human riders, using methods unknown to the author, but at that time the NSPCA was bringing a case of alleged cruelty and abuse against the owners .

In the Tankwa Karoo the Vergnaud family spent years transforming Inverdoorn, a 10 000ha failed fruit farm into a thriving game reserve. By 2011 Damian Vergnaud wanted to add free-roaming elephants to the mix. He was offered Bully and Induna and set about organising accommodation and finding a good elephant carer, investing millions in the process. A Zimbabwean called Mishak, previously at Addo, joined the staff. After a familiarisation period in a prepared camp the day arrived when Bully and Duna (as he was now known), would walk out to a life of semi-wild freedom. With television and camera lenses trained on them the two jumbos strode out of their camp and soon vanished into the acacia trees: - Elephants had returned to the Tankwa Karoo after more than 200 years, and Inverdoorn had become a Big Five reserve.

In part two Peirce brings up the debate about whether elephants should ever be kept in captivity. To avoid injury to humans or death, total control is required, achieved by dominance and discipline. The survival of the African elephant and their population management are also discussed.

In a moving epilogue young Jonathan Brooker and his mother Jenny visited Inverdoorn during school holidays, the boy overwhelmed with excitement at the prospect of seeing Bully again. The record of their meeting is memorable, and the photos proof that elephants don’t forget friends .

Richard Peirce is best known as a shark conservationist and has also written an exposé of rhino poaching. He and his wife Jacqui are nomads who spend the half the year in South Africa. Part of the title’s proceeds will be channelled to Tusk, an organisation which protects wildlife and helps alleviate poverty in 18 African countries.

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