The ‘problem-causing’ elephant known as Riff Raff has been shot and killed in consultation with provincial authorities in South Africa.
At around 45 years old, Riff Raff was an elephant bull in his prime, driven by ancient instincts at conflict with the space available to him. Over the past few years, Riff Raff’s fence-trampling tendencies marked him as a symbol of the impact of exclusion fences, the lack of space available to elephants and the inevitable human/wildlife conflict that follows. In the end, despite desperate efforts to find him a new home, Riff Raff’s ‘problem’ status was to cost him his life, and he was ‘humanely destroyed’ this past week.
Riff Raff was declared a damage-causing animal by the Limpopo Department of Economic Development, Environment and Tourism (LEDET) provincial authority for trampling fences to gain access to land that has been his core bull zone for more than half his adult life. The fences were erected by a landowner on Riff Raff’s reserve in 2016, directly excluding him from this long-established area of land to which, as one of the oldest and most dominant bulls on the property, he was genetically hard-wired to return. As a result, Riff Raff began to explore alternative options – learning how to destroy fences along the way and earning a reputation as a ‘problem’ elephant.
HSI/Africa and its partner Global Supplies have worked for more than three years to save the dominant male elephant from destruction after a landowner applied to have him shot. They have described the decision as a ‘devastating blow‘.
To save Riff Raff, HSI/Africa and Global Supplies relocated him to another reserve in Limpopo in 2018, but it was too close to his historical range, and he walked the 64 km journey back home. When a new destruction permit was applied for, and the campaigners’ request to relocate Riff Raff to a new reserve 400 km away was rejected by the Limpopo government, they asked the High Court to intervene and review the decision. Judge President Makgoba then granted Riff Raff extended protection in 2019 at his current reserve, pending a full review in 2020.
Once again, concerted fund-raising efforts by HSI/Africa saw Riff Raff relocated to yet another reserve, this time further from home in the North West province of South Africa where he was meant to spend the rest of his life in peace. Initially, all appeared to have gone smoothly in the relocation, and he was observed feeding and moving through the reserve. Unfortunately, however, just a few hours later, Riff Raff ignored the repeated attempts of both ground and air teams to keep him inside and once again broke out and left the protection of the reserve. After consultation with appropriate authorities, the decision was made to end his life.
In a statement to Africa Geographic about Riff Raff’s death, Audrey Delsink, HIS/Africa’s wildlife director and elephant behaviourist explained that “unfortunately, despite significant attempts to mitigate the animal’s behaviour, his lack of response – possibly related to years of sustained but inconsistent management pressures at the host reserve – made for additional consideration. The factors that led to the decision were the breaching, but also the proximity to neighbouring communities, the latter being of major consequence.”
In a previous statement, Audrey, who has spent over 20 years studying Riff Raff said that “lethal management interventions, particularly in the case of human-elephant conflict, should be the absolute last resort, and never employed where any other humane alternative exists. We share this land with these magnificent giants; it should be utterly unthinkable to kill them simply because to do so is easier than managing the land in a way that considers their normal biological drivers.”
The story of Riff Raff is one which has captured the attention of thousands of people across the world – the charismatic elephant bull simply following his instincts to disperse yet at the mercy of anthropogenic restrictions. As the elephant population in South Africa grows, the likelihood is that there will be many more bull elephants that find themselves in the same situation as Riff Raff. According to an independent study facilitated through the Elephant Specialist Advisory Group to assess the situation by South Africa’s provincial authorities, up to 50 destruction permits were issued during 2016-2017 by LEDET alone to kill so-called problem elephants.
“Destroying these animals through damage-causing animal policies is a band-aid to a haemorrhage,” said Audrey. “It will not solve the problem. This elephant was a dominant and powerful individual, important in his own ecological role as well as to his herd and bull’s hierarchy, and to our understanding of elephant management in South Africa. His loss is significant on many levels and I am deeply saddened by the tragic outcome. Riff Raff is a symbol of a systemic problem, that many other bulls will face as they mature and come into contact with humans, and that requires us to consider new and innovative alternatives that promote coexistence and proactive non-lethal mitigation not hampered by the slow wheels of policy and process.”
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