The enthusiasm created by World Elephant Day on 12 August did, at the very least, call for a time of reflection and consideration of the future of elephants in Africa. On the day, the members of many initiatives chanted their ‘save the elephants’ song from numerous platforms, spreading the word about how endangered these great grey beasts really are. Unity, hope and determination were evident wherever I looked, listened or read and, it was inspiring.
Surely the rest of the world was as stimulated and alert about the fate of elephants? How could they not be?
Alas, an article I read shortly afterwards revealed that Yahoo! Japan refuses to suspend the unethical advertising of ivory products; an action that was as effective as a metaphorical kidney jab. It was so disconcerting to be woken from the happy haze following World Elephant Day by the information that massive corporations are resolute in advertising a market in the death of these elegant animals.
I’ve just read Great Tuskers of Africa by Johan Marais and David Hadaway, which carried me splendidly through this elephant celebration period, and I was taken in by the descriptions of the huge-tusked giants roaming the Kruger National Park. I was also introduced to Green Hunting; a project that was introduced by Save the Elephants in 1998 to collar elephants as part of a bona fide research project that would also generate funds for the reserves for management purposes. I was once again warm at heart with the prospect of what the project would present.
When signing up for Green Hunting, clients paid an amount of about US$20 000 (about R140 000 at the time – this took place in the early 2000s) and set off on an excursion armed with anaesthetic dart guns, instead of rifles, in a bid to sedate an elephant for collaring. They were accompanied by the reserve warden, a veterinarian and qualified researchers. Initially, Timbavati Private Nature Reserve, adjoining the Kruger National Park, collaborated with Save the Elephants to collar Africa’s big tuskers (elephants whose tusks are longer than three metres) in order to understand their spatial movements and study their longevity and genetics. It is imperative that the great tuskers are conserved in order for them to age appropriately and to have a large number of mating opportunities to pass on their exceptional genes.
Green Hunting, also known as dart safaris, was designed to satisfy the desire to carry out the chase, experience the thrill and walk away victorious – a kind of ‘eco-hunting’. The ‘hunter’ would track the tusker, following its deeply indented footprints through the bush. Pulling the trigger and landing the shot meant that the bull would slowly be overcome by sleep. The hunter could admire his living, breathing ‘trophy’, knowing that his actions had contributed to research data about the animal.
For the human, the thrill lay in feeling the rough leather hide and noting the scent and the sound of the pachyderm as it lay peacefully on the ground. Photographs were taken and memories imprinted. The trophy lay in the pictures, not in the form of a severed head. The colossal tusks were measured and other data was hastily gathered. The first elephant to be darted was fitted with a GPS collar and named Mac in honour of Tony McClellan, the man who donated the neck wear. Once an antidote had been administered, the great bull rocked himself into an upright position and ambled off, oblivious to his recent experience.
Today, Mac is one of Kruger’s best-known giant tuskers. Regular updates on Mac’s progress were made accessible to the man who had darted him, along with information that was gained through the collar’s technology. Little did the team know at the time, Mac’s range covered 7 000 square kilometres, rambling from Kruger to Timbavati and other private reserves during his musth cycles, when he was on the move looking for a mate. He has been covering this expanse for some five decades – a journey that is unmatched in distance by any other known elephant.
All the factors that drive a sportsman to hunt were met in a green hunt and, in addition to that, iconic specimens of wildlife populations would have been sustained. Unfortunately, this practice is no longer permitted in South Africa due to the misuse of the concept. Instead of gathering information for research and conservation as part of a bona fide research project, green hunts were being conducted elsewhere unethically, with a focus on raising funds. Fears arose of its misuse for the rhino poaching trade. As a result, green hunting is no longer practised.