Expansion of a famous elephant park holds out hope for Africa’s big tuskers

There is a scene at the start of the film Last of the Big Tuskers where a man is having his upper arm tattooed.

As the artist puts the finishing touches to the work and dabs away blood, the camera pans out and an inky face with enormous tusks emerges.

Elephants have always had a way of getting under people’s skin.

That much was clear at the South African premiere of the documentary, which played to a nearly full theater in Durban this week. Much of the documentary, which focuses on the plight of Africa’s big and super-tuskers — elephants with tusks exceeding 45 kilograms (100 pounds) each — is filmed in South Africa’s Tembe Elephant Park, immediately south of the border with Mozambique, 400 kilometers (250 miles) north of Durban.

Hunted relentlessly across the continent since the late 1800s, it is estimated that fewer than 30 big tuskers remain in the whole of Africa out of a total elephant population now numbering fewer than 400,000.

Eight of them are found in Tembe’s herd of just over 200 – a small but hugely significant herd. Johan Marais, a wildlife veterinarian internationally famous for his work with rhino and elephant, believes they are part of a unique and rare gene pool important for the fate of big tuskers. But the 30,000ha (74,000 acre) park has run out of space for its elephants. Since 2007, park managers have been forced to put all its females on contraception.

While the killing of large numbers of elephants has a devastating impact on the animals’ social structures, early scientific research indicates that elephants without tusks can adapt quite successfully, National Geographic reports.

But the film’s narrator, James Currie, a lifelong wildlife enthusiast and published author, argues that it has resulted in generations of handicapped animals.

He is supported in these assertions by Marais, who notes that entire populations of African elephants are becoming completely tuskless as a consequence of losing big tuskers at their prime breeding age.

The good news, and part of the reason for the Oct. 8 screening, was the announcement of plans to expand the park and the official launch of the Tembe Tusker Foundation, which will drive the process.

Established in the 1980s, the park is owned and managed by the Tembe people, a Tsonga tribe of about 500,000. Its safari lodge is popular with foreign tourists and entirely staffed by locals.

The tribe’s leader and a foundation member, iNkosi (King) Mabhudu Tembe, told guests at the premiere that as much as 26,000 hectares (64,200 acres) could be added.

“We have already identified some pockets of land adjacent to the park. On the eastern boundary there is potential to extend the park by about 15,000 hectares [37,100 acres] … And we also have potential in the southern boundary to do the expansion that could also be a total of 11,000 hectares [27,100 acres],” he said.

“The future of these animals depends on us contributing more land to grow the park and keep them healthy and moving freely. This is something we could all agree on as the people of Tembe.”

Elephants, which can be incredibly destructive, historically roamed vast areas, unhindered by borders or fences. Those at Tembe may have had a stomping ground that extended north to Delagoa Bay in modern Mozambique and to Lake St. Lucia on South Africa’s northeast coast.

More space will mean the Tembe herd will be allowed to breed again.

Read the full article on Mongabay