We visit the Hazyview Elephant Sanctuary to discover why conservation techniques don’t always work and why an elephant never forgets.

It’s just after sun up and we’re standing outside the biggest stables I’ve ever seen in my life. Instead of an early-morning nicker, I hear a low, resonating rumble from within the dimly lit, custom-built edifice. It speaks of comfort and calm. Further reassured by the familiar smells of straw and manure, I pick my way carefully inside until I’m standing right next to the 4.5-tonne bull, Kasper. Separated only by some heavy timber poles, I can’t help but feel totally intimidated by his sheer size as I reach up and touch the roughly textured skin of his swaying trunk.

When we arrived at The Elephant Sanctuary in Hazyview that morning, the sun was just warming the horizon. A winding, wooden walkway led us through a verdant, tropical garden alive with birdsong to a deck overlooking a tricking water feature. I felt like I’d arrived in heaven. I can only hope that orphaned elephants Kasper and Kitso, who were rescued by the sanctuary after their unhappy start in life, felt the same. Both bulls were born in the nearby Kruger National Park. At the time, the park’s management limited the number of elephant in the park to around 7,000 with annual culling programmes.

Flying over herds in helicopters, sharpshooters were instructed to kill all except the youngest.  This left bands of orphans, which were rounded up and moved to farms and reserves in other parts of the country where there were little or no elephant left. In theory, the idea and intentions were good, but in practice, these culling programmes were deeply flawed. Seeing their mothers, sisters, aunts and extended family members gunned down in front of them, left these baby elephants traumatised. The culls also broke up family units. Without matriarchs to keep order and teach them how to act when confronted by threats and mature bulls to discipline unruly behaviour, these orphans had no way of knowing how to behave as normal, functioning elephants.

This unnatural behaviour was nowhere more evident than in Kasper’s case. In 1986, after his mother was culled, he was moved to Namibia with two other young bulls. One of them was electrocuted while the other started displaying aggressive behaviour and had to be shot. This left a lonely Kasper wandering around, breaking down fences and causing problems, until it was decided that he was also going to be euthanized. Luckily, he was rescued by Hartbeespoort Dam Elephant Sanctuary where he was joined by three other orphans. One of these was the four-year-old Kitso, who was paired with an 18-year-old Kasper, and the two took an immediate liking to each other.

When the time came, it was logical to move them both together to the 600-hectare reserve on the Sabie River road, 5kms from Hazyview. Here, they are trained using reward-based techniques and they have developed strong bonds with their handlers based on a foundation of trust. When the poles are pulled back and the elephants leave their stable, they follow their guides with no chains or ropes. Kitso holds onto Kasper’s tail and they march in single file to begin their day as ambassadors for their species.

Before we embark on our hands-on experience, we meet our Malawian guide who imparts some interesting facts about mankind’s favourite pachyderms. Elephants have poor eyesight and can only see 40m in front of them, but they can smell water from up to 5km away – their sense of smell is six times more powerful than a sniffer dog. They communicate over long distances with each other using infrasound, a pitch well below the human range of hearing. These massive monoliths can also pick up vibrations through their feet.

When the tsunami hit Thailand in 2004, every elephant survived, running off into the hills – some with terrified tourists still clutching to their backs.

At birth, an elephant calf weighs around 120kgs. They are only 35% developed so they need the protection of their mothers to survive in the wild. If a calf’s mother is killed, the matriarch of the herd will adopt the orphan. By comparison, a newly born impala is 95% developed at birth, but an elephant has the capacity to learn more during the course of its lifetime and develop different behaviours. This is obvious as we meet Kasper and Kitso who not only lift their feet, open their mouths, or raise their trunks on command, but also have completely different personalities and temperaments.

29-year-old Kasper is a gentle giant who loves the sweetness of bananas, apples and oranges. 16-year-old Kitso, an adolescent in elephant years, is more playful and loves giving kisses. He gently clasps the tip of his tactile trunk around my neck, imparting a strange, wet, tickling sensation. When Justin receives a kiss, both of us break down laughing. His normal macho bravado evaporates as he twists away, giggling like a schoolgirl. Containing an intricate network of 120,000 muscles, an elephant uses its trunk for everything: eating, drinking, bathing, guiding, touching and communicating. This multitasking appendage is so sensitive that it can feel a feather-light touch, but so strong that it can lift loads in excess of 250kg.

With an average life expectancy of 65 years, elephants are highly intelligent animals that have several similarities with humans: they have two nipples between their front legs, they mourn the dead, and they experience emotion. The latter is evident by the secretions from a little opening halfway between their eye and their ear. In times of stress, this temporal gland secretes an oily liquid and in times of happiness, the liquid is more watery. Every year, male elephants go into ‘musth’ when they are ready to mate. At this time, they secrete an oily, musky smelling liquid and are more dominant, aggressive and unpredictable.

Many of the orphans that were placed around the country showed signs of pathological behaviour. Some ran amok, flipping over vehicles and charging tourists. Young bulls in musth have been seen trying to mount and mate with rhino cows, while others were seen picking fights with rhinos, pursuing them and even goring these endangered animals to death. Specialists from the Rhino and Elephant Foundation, highly regarded as one of the world’s best research institutions, believe that this unnatural behaviour is a direct result of animals being hunted, culled, captured, transported and released onto smaller and smaller reserves instead of being left to migrate freely across the plains of Africa.

Twelve years after his mother was shot in a Kruger National Park cull, Kitso still remembers this tragic day. When a helicopter flies overhead, he runs and hides in the dam or seeks cover under trees.

Because elephant are physically counted by helicopter, it’s almost impossible to get an accurate head count in the park. In 1994, when the culling programmes ended, Kruger’s elephant population was estimated to be around 8,000. In 2012, this number had more than doubled to around 16,900. Why do these elephant numbers need to be controlled at all?

Instead of the cruel culling programmes of twenty years ago, Kruger’s Elephant Management Plan now uses a more humane method which involves imitating natural processes. The project has been a huge success and, today, the population growth rate is just 2% as opposed to 6,5% when the culling ended. In addition, by limiting access to waterholes in particular areas, the ecology is able to regenerate as the elephant move elsewhere in the park to get the water they need.

On other reserves, recent trials of a female elephant contraceptive have proved effective and could provide a future solution for the park. I can only hope that conservation techniques continue to improve day by day and that we learn from our past mistakes. Mankind can’t play God with these magnificent beasts without anticipating the potentially disastrous results. Hopefully, the emotionally intelligent species we have met today in the form of gentle giants Kasper and Kitso will have a more natural and infinitely more peaceful future ahead of them.