Don’t fence me in – Claire Miller

The Ecological Society of America – September 2019

Andrew Forsyth (PIdwa Wilderness Reserve; Gravelotte, South Africa) is frustrated – and baffled. Two young bull elephants have spent another night breaking fences and gates, often in exactly the same places they trashed before. Forsyth wonders about the unusual behaviour “I don’t think we understand elephants enough” he admits. Elephants are highly intelligent, with complex social structures, huge ranges and high risk of conflict with humans. South Africa uses fencing to reduce conflict and encroachment. On many smaller reserves outside the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area (GLTCA), immuno-contraception has become necessary to control their numbers. The question is whether these interventions affect psychology and behaviour. Fences stop young adults dispersing, and immuno-contraception leads to fewer cows conceiving; both are potential sources of frustration for elephants. “How do males feel about continuously trying to reproduce with a female and they’re not conceiving? How does that make the female feel?”, Forsyth asks. “If you take animals, even domestic animals, and put them into different situations, their behaviour changes.”

The seemingly deliberate behaviour is also new to Michelle Henley, co-founder and director of Elephants Alive (Hoedspruit, South Africa). She wonders if the bulls, restricted to an all-too-familiar reserve, are bored. “They are going to where fences were just fixed as though they can smell people and go back to undo what people have done” Henley says. “It’s quite stimulating for an elephant; it’s like a puzzle. So we have to see what we can do to outsmart them.”

Trials began on Pidwa in August using chilli oil on the tops of the fence poles the elephants pull down to avoid electrified wires. A paste smelling of bee attack pheromones is being trialed on another reserve. Robin Cook, a researcher at Elephants Alive, has used beehives to protect trees from elephants, but this isn’t practical where fences are kilometres long. “If we get it right with a paste, then we can lower the use of hives and use bee biology to control elephants” he explains. Elephants Alive is also tracking elephants to better understand travel patterns and normal behaviour in unrestricted areas such as GLTCA, with the long-term goal of creating corridors to help elephants disperse safely through human-populated areas.


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