The life of a 40-to-45-year-old collared bull elephant in South Africa is hanging in the balance as conservation groups battle to save him from being shot as a ‘nuisance’ animal on a reserve that’s been his home for more than half his life. Riff Raff is a victim of a growing problem in South Africa, human-elephant conflict (HEC), which can frequently arise in situations when elephants and people share increasingly scarce habitat and resources. Such conflict has resulted in more than 50 elephants being killed in 2016 alone.
South Africa’s population of approximately 24,000 elephants is protected within enclosed private game reserves and national parks. When bull elephants leave their natal herds in search of a new home range, they sometimes destroy fences they encounter, with repeat fence-breachers often targeted to be killed as “problem or damage-causing animals” (DCA). Earlier this month, Riff Raff was labeled a DCA and was sentenced to be killed.
Thanks to an anonymous donor, Humane Society International-Africa and partners Elephants Alive, Wildlife Vets, and Global Supplies were able to step in to relocate him from the Limpopo reserve to another habitat in the greater Balule Game Reserve. This relocation mimicked the natural process of migration and dispersal that would occur in the absence of fences.
Helicopters, tranquilizers, antidotes, cranes, elephant-sized crates, and trucks capable of carrying the 6400 kg pachyderm were required to move Riff Raff through the rugged terrain to the new reserve. Despite the successful transportation to a new place where conservationists hoped he would safely settle, Riff Raff decided to abandon this territory and unexpectedly set out on an approximately 35-mile journey back home. He reached his former home range in less than two days.
However miraculous his return may be, Riff Raff now faces possible death once again. But we’re not going to let that happen without doing everything we can to save him.
Riff Raff is a magnificent bull elephant who symbolizes a very sad and serious challenge in South Africa, and indeed in all countries that are home to elephants. Many elephants labeled as a “problem” are simply bull elephants doing what they are biologically hard-wired to do, and that is to leave their herd and find their own new range and unrelated females so they can move up in the bull hierarchy and sire offspring. With fences, crops, and human settlements common in and surrounding elephant protection areas, and with drought a major factor that drives elephants to make choices they normally wouldn’t, they often encounter and sometimes break fences, and then all too often land-owners and provincial authorities seek to solve that problem with a rifle.
If Riff Raff is killed it will be a tragedy, not only on an individual scale, but for so called “problem” elephants nationally. Riff Raff has been monitored for 18 years and has been fitted with a radio-collar to better inform the DCA challenge. The hope of HSI-Africa and its partners is to buy Riff Raff some time on his home reserve in Limpopo by getting permission to strengthen weak spots in the perimeter elephant-proof fence and mitigate fence-breaching behavior with non-lethal means while they search for a new reserve further away where he will have another chance to settle down. Success is not guaranteed, but we must try.
Riff Raff’s dilemma also symbolizes the unique challenges presented by South Africa’s fenced-in game reserves in the management of elephants—megaherbivores—whose numbers can double within 10-15 years if left unchecked. With fences preventing migration, biodiversity and ecosystems can be negatively affected. This also exacerbates the HEC situation as increasing elephant numbers, particularly of bull elephants, results in increased competition, which forces bulls to literally explore the greener grass on the other side of the fence.
Traditionally, lethal population control methods such as culling were deployed. However, since 2000, HSI has supported an innovative, humane, non-lethal form of elephant population control called immunocontraception. Through a partnership of provincial, private, and national reserves, more than 800 female elephants across 26 South African reserves are being treated with a non-hormonal, non-steroidal vaccine that prevents conception. With a single female capable of reproducing 8 – 10 calves in her lifetime, HSI’s immunocontraception program has spared thousands of elephants from being culled.
Humans are increasingly moving into lands that were traditionally only occupied by elephants. So it’s not the fault of these amazing creatures that there is a human-animal conflict situation. Therefore, It’s imperative to use non-lethal solutions as part of the national strategy. Simply killing wild animals that get in our way is not the answer. Governments and other stakeholders must support proactive non-lethal mitigation and population control strategies that speak to the drivers of elephant movement and conflict.
We have not given up hope on Riff Raff. HSI-Africa has joined forces with Elephants Alive and Global Supplies in a second attempt to save him from being killed. Please consider making a contribution to help HSI’s wildlife program to help fund this critical rescue as well as our work to end other wildlife abuses around the world.