Preparing for elephants on private land

For Dr Heinz and Debbie Kohrs of White Elephant Safari Lodge, preparing to reintroduce elephants onto privately owned land was a challenge, requiring both strict adherence to the law and a commitment to the well-being of these sensitive animals. Yet the process is as rewarding as it is difficult, as Lloyd Phillips finds out.
Issue Date: 11 January 2008

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For Dr Heinz and Debbie Kohrs of White Elephant Safari Lodge, preparing to reintroduce elephants onto privately owned land was a challenge, requiring both strict adherence to the law and a commitment to the well-being of these sensitive animals. Yet the process is as rewarding as it is difficult, as Lloyd Phillips finds out.

In Northern Zululand, KZN, veterinarian Dr Heinz Kohrs and his wife Debbie run White Elephant Safari Lodge and Bush Camp on their Leeuwspoor game ranch, once a family cattle farm. Heinz’s lifelong dream was to see elephants back in the region of Pongolapoort (also called Jozini) Dam. In the 1800s, this area teemed with wildlife – hunter George Shadwell shot 150 elephants and 91 hippos in a single season. But uncontrolled hunting, the establishment of farms and campaigns against tsetse fly decimated game populations. A fter the Second World War Heinz’s father, Oom Kallie Kohrs, began building up wildlife numbers on Leeuwspoor, receiving a Conservationist of the Year Award in 1964 and dealing with internationally renowned SA conservationist Dr Ian Player.

It was natural for Heinz to take over. In 1993, seven private landowners on the banks of Pongolapoort Dam decided to drop the fences between their farms to establish one cooperatively managed conservation area, the 9 000ha Pongola Game Reserve (PGR). The expanded area allowed white rhino, giraffe, wildebeest, zebra and buffalo to be introduced. In June 1997, exactly 100 years after the last reported sighting of elephants in the area, the PGR received two elephant families from the Kruger National Park. “We wanted to reintroduce all the wildlife that used to be found here,” says Heinz. “Reintroducing elephants took lots of time and effort, and mounds of research and paperwork, but we realised it would benefit both the shareholders, and, more especially, the elephants.” ll the PGR’s shareholders have invested in the elephants, but Heinz, Debbie and their team at White Elephant manage them on their behalf. They were deeply involved in preparations for the elephants’ arrival. “To get final permission to buy and introduce our core population of elephants, there were a variety of stringent procedures to follow and approvals to be gained,” says Debbie. T he first legal requirement was written consent from all members of the PGR Landowners Association and the park’s immediate neighbours, acknowledging and accepting potential risks.

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Once the elephants were in the park, there would always be the chance they’d escape via unfenced natural features such as river beds, or physically force their way through weaker points in the fencing, such as gates. s a precaution against potential damage in and around the park, the PGR’s landowners had to subscribe to public liability insurance. Premiums are paid annually, and the insurance must continue as long as there are elephants in the PGR. “At the same time an ecologist, Peter Goodman, was contracted to carry out ecological carrying capacity and other studies, to determine the PGR’s suitability for the reintroduction of elephants,” explains Heinz. “He evaluated a wide variety of aspects before giving his final approval.” his included determining if elephants had historically been found in the PGR area; whether or not the PGR’s topography was suitable for the construction of an “elephant-proof” fence; and if the land adjacent to the PGR could allow the reserve to expand if necessary. In his report, Peter said it was unlikely stakeholders in adjacent areas, under tribal authority or intensive farming, would be willing to convert land to conservation, but that it was possible the owners of adjacent extensive cattle farms would be willing to have their land incorporated into the PGR.

Peter also evaluated the extent of poaching in the reserve, especially since elephants are a protected species; whether recreational activities in the PGR would be compatible with the presence of elephants, for the benefit of both humans and the animals; and whether environmental features and factors such as vegetation types and water distribution and availability were suitable for elephants. The PGR shareholders also had to draft an elephant management and monitoring plan for the park. Heinz and Debbie say a generic plan was available from the Elephant Management and Owners Association, but this had to be adapted to the PGR. No two conservation areas are alike.

Two small family groups

“When we finally received our core elephant population, they were in two small family groups – one of eight animals of various ages and sexes, and the other of nine,” recalls Heinz. “From a social and genetic point of view, starting this way was ideal because there’ll be larger genetic variability in the PGR’s future elephant population. Starting with two small groups also improved the elephants’ social integration and development, especially the younger ones.” On the other hand, the Kohrs feel that, for first-time elephant managers such as themselves, a single, larger family group would have been easier to manage. Population growth would also have been slower, providing more time to decide what to do when the elephant population grows too large for the PGR.

Controlling elephant populations is a controversial issue, and very emotive for many people, including the Kohrs. However, the genetic variability and social development within a single family group is limited. Preparing for new arrivals Before the elephants could arrive, the PGR’s game fencing had to be a minimum of 2,3m high, with three spaced electric strands each giving off 6 000V to 9 000V on the park’s side of the fence. Private game reserves should ideally also have a fourth electrified strand on the outside of the fence, to deter bull elephants from grabbing the tops of the fence’s anchor stays and pulling them down, short-circuiting the other three strands. The stands should also run along gates. Another legal requirement is a very sturdy, secure holding boma, which should cover at least 1ha for a family group of elephants, and be built in a densely vegetated area to provide cover and adequate food for new arrivals. There should be no large trees the elephants could push onto the fence, creating an escape route. “The purpose of the boma is to expose new elephants to an electric fence, even if they’ve been exposed to electric fencing in their old home,” says Debbie. “Its fence must mimic the reserve’s fence, but be built with steel stays in concrete and threaded with three thick steel cables. “On arrival in the boma after translocation, the elephants will explore and test the fence and learn to stay away from it because of the electric shock. Even if only one elephant in the family group is shocked, the rest will know to stay away.” The elephants must stay in the boma for at least 12 hours before they’re released into the park. They should only be released when human observers are sure they’ve learned about the electric shock.

The elephants shouldn’t be kept in the boma for longer than three days, or there won’t be enough vegetation left for food. “Elephants in the boma mustn’t be fed supplementary feed,” warns Heinz. “They mustn’t associate food with humans, or water. A hose should run from outside the boma into a small water hole inside, buried deep enough so that the elephants can’t dig it up. All aspects of the boma’s operation must be checked thoroughly before the elephants arrive. If something doesn’t work, you can’t climb in to fix it once the elephants are in.” When the boma doors are opened to release the elephants, they might take some time to decide to move out. It’s essential to never tempt them out with food, whether natural vegetation or treats like oranges. If the elephants get a taste for these treats, it could encourage them to try escape the reserve and get at farmers’ crops. “And if tourists have fruit in their car, the elephant will take it, probably harming both the car and the tourists,” warns Heinz. A stringent monitoring programme should be in place when the elephants are released. Radio-transmitter or satellite-linked collars should be placed on the matriarch of a family group and on every mature bull. Dedicated monitors can track the elephants to check on their well-being, and escaped elephants can be found. Monitoring also accustoms the elephants to humans, reducing the danger during future interactions. However, humans should always treat elephants with caution – they also have bad days, when it’s wise for humans to stay away from them.

Monitoring the elephants lets managers get to know each elephant’s personality, and determine when it’s unsafe to get too close. It costs the Kohrs R10 000 to R12 000 a month to manage and monitor the PGR’s herd of about 65 elephants. Managing elephants on private land isn’t cheap, so they offer “elephanting” experiences for visitors to the reserve. Visitors are given a lesson on elephant history and biology, then they accompany an elephant monitor to see how the elephants are doing. The intention is to give guests an enlightening experience of elephants they can keep forever. ”Having elephants is a lifetime commitment,” says Debbie. “You can’t reverse it once they’re on your land. They’re not toys you can put back on the shelf. Even when management challenges become daunting, you have to persevere. But it’s a serious and wonderful responsibility to manage them – it changes your whole perspective on life, nature and human nature.” Contact Heinz and Debbie Kohrs on (034) 413 2489, visit, or e-mail [email protected]. Contact Dr Rob Little, chairperson of the Elephant Management and Owners Association, on (021) 888 2831, e-mail [email protected], or visit |fw • •