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Landscapes of Fear

Mon 13 Jul 2020

Limpopo-Lipadi PGWR recently got permission from the DWNP to translocate 20 elephant bulls to Makgadigadi National Park.These elephant bulls have settled in Limpopo-Lipadi over time and are destroying the big trees in the reserve, leading to irreparable habitat and landscape change. These changes have a direct and negative effect on the biodiversity of the reserve, which is contradictory to the nature conservation goals of Botswana. Many, if not most of the elephants that break into the reserve, break-in, but never break out again. Many will say that this is normal elephant behaviour and that elephants are landscape engineers by nature, and while this rings true for free-range areas, for us at Limpopo-Lipadi this is a serious issue, as we have a closed, fenced system, that cannot sustain the constant onslaught. Many of the trees that are uprooted took hundreds of years to grow and will not ever be replaced once removed. Elephants are made for Africa, not small pockets of Africa.

Roger and Pat de la Harpe write about elephants in their book, Tuli—Land of Giants:

“Tuli is home to the last free-ranging, flourishing African elephant population on private land south of the Zambezi River. They are called the Central Limpopo Valley elephant population or more commonly, the Tuli elephants. But this was not always the case. As far back as the early Iron Age people have been hunting elephants for their ivory. During the 1800’s many a hunter ventured to the banks of the Shashe and Limpopo rivers in search of ivory. Herds of several hundreds of elephants are described in these old hunting stories. Elephants were mercilessly hunted by people like Coenraad De Buys, which was the first white man known to have hunted in this area. From the scanty information available he appears to be a fearless hunter killing elephants at close quarters with an ancient muzzleloader.

Soon after the hunters, the traders arrived on the scene exchanging guns for ivory with the local headsmen and chiefs. David Holme, a trade explorer, penetrated the area as far as the Shashe River. The Boers were not far behind with Petrus Jacobs killing 200 elephants on one expedition only. Rousleyn Gordon Cumming, a man known through history as an animal slaughter came on the scene during the years 1846 – 1848. Cumming conducted two expeditions into the area hunting between the Shoshong and Motloutse Rivers and along the Limpopo River.
By 1855 elephants were so scarce that hunters such as Baldwin, Oswell, Finaughty and Selous had to venture much further north. By the time F. C. Selous led the Pioneer Column into Mashonaland in July 1890 the country was depleted of elephants. For the next 50 years no elephants were observed from the Motloutse River to the Shashe River.

In 1940 Dr. Z. Nel became the first landowner to sight the return of these giants to the area. Elephants were moving into the area from the north and west. In 1956 Bechuanaland had established a game department with the task of controlling elephants within the tribal and irrigation areas. An operation that eventually accounted for 1 800 elephants. During this time Rhodesia had started its culling operations and Transvaal farmers on the Limpopo River were accused of shooting indiscriminately. Once more hounded by the gun and a diminishing habitat the elephants retreated back into the Tuli enclave – there was nowhere else to go.

From then onwards the elephant numbers within the reserve increased steadily with elephants moving in from the north and the west. In the 1960’s a Tuli landowner counted 300 elephants within the reserve. During the 70’s reports of a vast increase in elephant numbers and subsequent habitat, change were received. Cries for the reduction in elephant numbers started to be heard. Tree species diversity was declining, and many large trees could be seen damaged by elephants. This trend continued through the 80’s and early 90’s. To make matters worse a severe drought threatened the area throughout the 80’s and 90’s. The area was changing dramatically – grass plains were making way for desert sand conditions and huge trees along the rivers were dying either due to elephant damage or a lack of water.

It is during this time period due to the extended drought that several properties changed hands and several farms reverted back to wildlife. This opened up new areas to the elephants and a split in the elephant population were observed.

No fences exist in the area to limit elephant movement and the elephants move freely between the three different countries. In the early 1990s elephants were observed for the first time in areas that they were absent from for many years. Elephants crossed the Shashe River and a resident herd established itself on two privately owned farms on the Limpopo River in Zimbabwe. Elephants also moved further up the Tuli Block and a herd established itself in the Platjan area. Reports of elephants crop-raiding as far as Selebi-Phikwe were received and after the completion of the Letsibogo dam a small herd of elephants established itself in the area around Mmadinari, much to the consternation of local farmers.

The long-term survival of these elephants outside the reserve is doubtful while their continued existence within the sanctuary will depend on the support and cooperation of all concerned. Without the knowledge that makes ecological management possible the Tuli area could become a derelict landscape inhabited by the pathetic remnants of these giants.”

We have learned a lot since, and now understand the concept of “landscapes of fear”. When I referred to this concept recently, someone said to me: “you are being dramatic, and over-emotional.” I had to point out that “landscapes of fear” is a genuine ecological concept that refers to the areas where animals do not feel safe, and therefore do not want to live there.

Limpopo-Lipadi is a haven amongst landscapes of fear. It is for this reason that transient elephants, who have left the overpopulated and degraded Mashatu area, made their way through several landscapes of fear, and found a haven, now refuse to leave. We are surrounded by agricultural areas and villages where elephants are not welcomed, and human-wildlife conflict is rife. “The fear of predators can itself be powerful enough to drive demographic and community-level changes in wildlife systems, as demonstrated in a growing number of recent experiments (Zanette et al., 2011; LaManna & Martin 2016; Suraci et al., 2016). The impacts of fear are typically mediated by changes in prey behaviour (Schmitz et al,.1997; Brown & Kotler 2004), which may vary spatially with changes in the prey’s perception of predation risk across the landscape (Gaynor et al., 2019). Anthropogenic (Human) activity is reshaping wildlife behaviour across human-dominated landscapes, disrupting movement (Tucker et al., 2018), forcing shifts to nocturnality (Gaynor et al., 2018) and changing the way predators interact with their prey (Smith et al.2015). Humans are themselves major predators (Darimont et al., 2009), killing some species at many times the rate at which they are killed by non-human predators (Darimont et al., 2015), and fear of the human ‘super predator’ (Darimont et al., 2015) may therefore be a significant driver of observed changes in wildlife behaviour (Oriol-Cotterill et al., 2015; Suraci et al., 2019). Given that humans have evidently superseded large carnivores as apex predators in many ecosystems (Ordiz et al., 2013a; Oriol-Cotterill et al.2015; Kuijper et al., 2016), our mere presence may be expected to generate landscapes of fear (Gaynor et al., 2019) with spatial extents and breadth of trophic impacts equal to or greater than those presently attributed to large carnivores. (Laundre et al., 2001; Palmer et al., 2017)”.

Should you want to read more about the subject, you can use this link: https://bit.ly/301fPeQ

When the concept is understood, it is very clear that Limpopo-Lipadi is surrounded by landscapes of fear, which makes the reserve a haven, and therefore transient bulls will continue to break into the reserve, as there are safety, females and an abundance of food and water at their disposal (unfortunately at the expense of other animals). If we relocate the elephants—as we would when we drop the fences and chase them out into the Limpopo River area, or translocate them to Mashatu—they will simply turn around and break right back in as the attractions that drew them into the reserve in the first place, and the landscapes of fear will remain as they were before.