Elephant at Makalali
Caroline Hurry
Caroline Hurry

CAROLINE HURRY speaks to elephant conservationist Audrey Delsink at Makalali near Hoedspruit about the two-fold problem facing elephants today – wanton slaughter on the one hand, and population control, on the other.

Apart from ivory merchants, whose heart was not moved by the two herds of wild elephant that walked 12 hours through the Zululand bush last year to bid farewell to Lawrence Anthony, the conservationist author who had saved their lives? How did they know he had died?

Like us, elephants are left or right-handed, capable of intense emotions and long memories. Like us, they bury their dead and grieve. Naturalists have seen a mother elephant cradle a dead calf in her trunk for miles, unwilling to let it go. Yet African governments have deemed these sentient beings unfit to share our continent.  Elephants are being butchered in tens of thousands in central and parts of southern Africa while governments turn a blind eye.

A staggering 62% vanished from central Africa between 2002 and 2011, according to a study with 60 other scientists published by the New York Times.

“In China and other countries in the Far East, there has been an astronomical rise in the demand for ivory trinkets that … have no essential utility whatsoever. An elephant’s tusks have become bling for consumers who have no idea or simply don’t care that it was obtained by inflicting terror, horrendous pain and death on thinking, feeling, self-aware beings,’’ wrote Samantha Strindberg and Fiona Maisels in the New York Times of March 17 this year.

Audrey Delsink at Makalal. Picture: Peter Berg-Munch
Audrey Delsink at Makalali. Picture: Peter Berg-Munch

Agrees Audrey Delsink, the elephant conservationist based at Makalali near Hoedspruit: “The ivory poaching is the worst it’s been in 10 years with more than 38 000 elephants slaughtered last year alone. Everyone’s so focused on the rhino these atrocities don’t even make the mainstream media.”

The Marie Stopes of the pachyderm population, Delsink – together with her colleagues JJ van Altena, and Professor Henk Bertschinger – oversees the world’s longest running, most successful elephant contraception programme to date.

Ironically the problem with the elephants is two-fold. In some countries they are being butchered to near extinction while in others, such as Botswana, their burgeoning numbers are burdening the environment’s carrying capacity. Elephants eat an estimated 270kg of food a day and can be destructive while feeding, pushing over trees or breaking off branches.

“The reversible Porcine Zona Pellucida (PZP) vaccine study sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States, offers the perfect alternative to elephant culling,” says Delsink. “Had we not started with it in Makalali 12 years ago, we would have had an extra 85 elephants, based on the individual calving history of the breeding cows.

“The National Norms and Standards for the Management of Elephants passed in 2008 acknowledges elephant contraception is the preferred means of control but instead there’s been a wholesale slaughter. Game reserves continue to cull and it frustrates me so few reserves are willing to go the contraception route instead.”

Those who recall the Kruger Park’s bloody culling period in the 1990s when hundreds of elephants were shot from helicopters, may remember the carnage that followed. The trauma of seeing their relatives slaughtered caused juvenile delinquent behavior. Young males who escaped the cull and got relocated to other reserves raped and killed a number of rhinos. Without the guidance of older more established members in the herd, they ran amok.

Some conservationists now advocate culling entire elephants families instead, but where is the humanity in that?

A few baby elephants like this one are born every year at Malalali. Picture: Peter Berg-Munch
A few baby elephants like this one are born every year at Makalali. Picture: Peter Berg-Munch

South African reserves that have adopted the more humane PZP vaccine approach include The Greater Makalali Reserve, Mabula Game Lodge, ThabaTholo, Phinda, Thornybush, Welgevonden, Shambala, Kaingo Game Reserve, Kapama, Karongwe, Tembe Elephant Park, Hlambanyathi, Amakhala, and Thanda.

“Our one-shot vaccine lasts three years at R1500 per elephant, very little compared with culling that costs at least R5 800 per elephant as determined in an exercise published in the Elephant Assessment.  We use a dart that marks the elephant with pink dye as it injects – especially useful when we are darting from the air. Better still, there are no side effects as there were with previous hormonal method tested in the Kruger National Park.

“We allow a few calves to be born as negative population growth is not a good thing either and if a cow is already pregnant, it won’t harm the foetus. We have reduced the growth rate to three percent.

“Left unchecked, the elephant population doubles every 10 years yet reserve managers and our Department of Environmental Affairs continue to sit on the fence while we beg them in vain to approve permits. From one to the other, they don’t know what’s happening. Contraception is already 13 years down the line. What are they waiting for? Catastrophe?”

Delsink admits to occasional frustration but says she wouldn’t change her career choice for anything. Her petite frame and pretty face belie nerves of steel. She’s been charged by elephant and battled malaria but lets nothing get in her way when it comes to protecting what remains of South Africa’s wildlife.

From her home in Makalali, Delsink has rescued several creatures including serval, caracal, duiker, spotted genets and 50 barn owls.  She also initiated an African Wild Cat Breeding and Release Program. Pet food researchers from Nestle came to investigate Delsink’s studies on the eating habits of wild cats, promising to donate a sum to the African Wild Cat Breeding and Release Program in return. That was over a year ago and still nary a cent for the wild cats has been received from that mega-powerful corporation. Shame on them, I say!

Owned by Tourvest, Makalali offers great value for money. On a recent trip we paid R2500 a couple, which included topnotch accommodation, three excellent meals and two game-drives a day with a ranger and tracker.

We have paid more than double for less at other lodges. The game? We saw lion, rhino, buffalo, hippo, hyena, jackal and yellow-billed hornbills. And elephant? Of course, we did  – at least 26 in a herd.