We have marched to save elephants, we read and Tweet and Facebook about elephants.
We visited iMfolozi Game Reserve recently. It has always been one of our favorite places on earth, and we love it too. Its renown for its rhino; it’s where Ian Player and a small team of game rangers saved the southern white rhino from extinction in the 1960’s. So we were sad and a bit shocked to see the state of iMfolozi since our last visit ten years ago. One of the areas we always visited was Sontuli Loop, with its beautiful mature Acacia trees, where you were guaranteed to see a lot of game, especially rhino.
That wasn’t the case this time; large sections of Sontuli Loop looked like the aftermath of a tsunami than a protected game reserve. In places, there was barely one live mature acacia, least of all one in bloom. Almost all had been stripped of their bark, and did scrubby foliage or more broken, toppled trees, surround dead skeletons of trees. There was no game in sight; no giraffe – as they need these tall Acacia to browse – no impala, zebra, wildebeest, no warthog – or rhino.
Elephants. They were introduced to the reserve in the 1990’s so that tourists could see the ’Big 5’ in a KZN provincial reserve, and we saw them. An elephant was the first animal we saw when we drove into the reserve, a small herd were drinking in the river as we drove into camp, and later in the day we spoke to group of tourists who happily told us that they had seen a herd of almost sixty (really?) elephants close to the gate. I was ashamed to feel a bit upset and annoyed; I love elephants, so why should I feel this way?
Hluhluwe/ iMfolozi is a relatively small reserve. If not under threat, elephants breed easily and eat a lot; a mature elephant can eat up to 400 pounds of foliage per day. Once these large trees have gone, the ecology of a reserve naturally changes and evolves; it tells us that areas opened up by elephants should regenerate with fresh grasses in time. A game reserve isn’t static wilderness. It’s an earth-island with its own ecology that functions as a unique ecosystem, depending on its components. With an ongoing drought the areas of treeless landscape in iMfolozi have left the short dry grass exposed and overgrazed, and soil in poor condition from lack of moisture or scattered dung that would have been produced by the absent wildlife.
iMfolozi will evolve, with elephants; in time, it might become known as much for its elephants as its rhino. We come to the reserve to see everything else as well: impala, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, birds, lizards – it’s not only about big game. iMfolozi did redeem itself on another day, when we saw more of the ‘other 5’ but definitely in much smaller numbers than in the past.
Sadly, another reason could be game auctions, a regular practice in government reserves that generate a lot of income. We don’t believe smaller game or rhino should be captured annually, but that is the system for now. These small islands are heavily managed because there is little unspoilt wilderness available to relocate game when the reserve reaches carrying capacity. Although the browsers, including rhino, that are usually auctioned off aren’t doing the obvious damage, it will be a very contentious issue if, or when, the reserve decides that there are just too many elephants. I don’t want to think about it yet – neither does anyone else.