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Re-establishing and managing elephants on wildlife ranches

28 April 2015

www.leopard.tvFree-ranging elephants should only be re-established in large areas. On wildlife ranches or conservancies their reproduction and numbers should be limited to prevent them from eventually changing the habitat to such an extent that it starts to threaten their survival as well as that of other wildlife.

The best time to re-establish elephants is at the onset or end of the wet season. Entire herds containing a dominant cow should be re-established because such a matriarch maintains discipline in the herd. The minimum shoulder height of a breeding bull for re-establishment is 2.6 m. In breeding herds in the wild there usually is an equal number of bulls and cows, but in bachelor herds there are 15 bulls for every 85 elephants that are in a breeding herd. On large wildlife ranches or conservancies, however, the number of adult bulls should be reduced because with an excess of such bulls it will cause some of them to attempt to break out after becoming adult, or the elephants will start to fight within and between the genders when the cows enter oestrus.

The minimum herd size will be determined by social, ecological, genetic and economic factors on the wildlife ranch or conservancy. Because at least 50 animals is the minimum that is required to prevent inbreeding in any population of animals, only large areas are suitable for re-establishing elephants under intensive management. With such intensive management a herd of at least three bulls and 12 cows is usually sufficient, provided that reproduction is being prevented. The actual stocking density per unit area will vary with rainfall, which in turn affects the availability of food.

When elephants are re-established in the winter they should at first be kept in a boma of 1 ha where they are fed with branches containing fresh leaves until at least 15 to 29 mm of rain has fallen. Such a boma can also be used in the wet season to habituate the elephants for two days to the new area. However, they must always be released under long-term tranquillization.

Elephants that break out of an area can cause extensive problems and all the fences must be electrified and elephant-proof. The elephants should also be taught to respect the electrified fence before being released. Only once that has been done can they be released into a larger area. Young elephants soon learn to avoid an electrified fence. It is important that the electrified fence should work properly at all times because elephants will soon find a malfunction in a fence and exploit it.

Every elephant has its own temperament and those that are nervous and aggressive in a boma should not be released. An adult cow with broken tusks cannot serve as a matriarch because this indicates that she probably is aggressive. While the elephants are in the boma they should not be tamed by giving them delicacies by hand. Aggressive bulls should calm down some six months after being castrated.


Following release, the elephants can be kept away from windmills, telephone or power pylons with the aid of packed, sharp rocks or trenches that are 0.5 m wide x 1 m deep and some 1.5 to 2 m away from the structure. However, the trenches should be checked every day to rescue smaller animals that may fall into it before they die of thirst or hunger. Bulls in heat can be calmed with a long-term tranquillizer by a wildlife veterinarian, and tourists should be kept away from them. Elephants should only be captured by a trained veterinarian by taking the precautions below into consideration.

Elephants should not be captured when the ambient temperature is more than 25°C because they will overheat if they cannot flap their ears. Keep 100 litres of water in reserve per elephant to cool the elephants down after capture, especially by keeping them wet behind the ears. Because an elephant’s lungs are attached to the chest cavity and diaphragm and it does not have a pleural cavity, it breathes by expanding and contracting its chest muscles to expand and contract the chest cavity. It is therefore vital to push an immobilized elephant that comes to rest on its chest on to its side as quickly as possible to prevent it from suffocating within minutes after capture. Place a hat or soft cloth over the eye to protect it against dust and the sun and stretch the trunk out while ensuring that its tip does not lie in dust or water. Tranquillization for transportation can be done by a veterinarian.

In the wild, an elephant will eat some 150 to 300 kg of plant material per day. Elephants are roughage feeders that eat a large variety of plant material. In the bushveld elephants destroy trees when they push them over, uproot them or break off branches to reach the leaves. They will also ring-bark trees with a sweet bark such as the umbrella thorn Acacia tortilis or the knob-thorn tree Acacia nigrescens to eat the bark, which will kill the tree. Free-ranging elephants move around seasonally to better feeding areas, and grasses are especially utilized after sufficient rainfall. Excessive numbers of elephants become a problem when they start to target rare types of tree. When trees are killed by elephants it will also affect those grazers which eat the palatable and nutritional grasses that often only germinate in the shade of trees.

For elephants in a boma the food should not contain more than 36 per cent of roughage, and it should contain at least 9.8 MJ of energy per kg. Potassium should be added at 1 g per kg and phosphate at 0.5 g per kg, while vitamin C should also be given. A balanced diet in a boma consists of lucerne and teff as roughage and protein; horse pellets for energy; carrots, cabbage, guavas and citrus fruits for vitamin C; rock salt for sodium; and branches with fresh leaves. Avocado pears contain a toxin that may damage the heart of an elephant and should not be fed. The rock salt should be provided outside and inside the boma near waterholes as a lick.


In most cases, every elephant will use up to 300 litres of water per day, of which it wastes some 13 per cent. In the Namib Desert, the elephants have adapted to walk long distances to waterholes and only drink water every third or fourth day. Because trees are limited to the river courses, the desert-dwelling elephants seldom push over trees.

Family groups can be transported in modified shipping containers with straw as bedding to absorb urine. However, different family groups should not be mixed and the bulls must be transported alone. Provide water on trips that last longer than 12 hours and stop frequently to check on the elephants because an elephant that has received an overdose of tranquillizer can lie down and die during transportation.

The weight of the tusk of an elephant is the basis for trophy quality, while isotopes in the ivory can be used to determine its place of origin. In the Kruger National Park the bull Duke’s left tusk was 3.21 m long and his two tusks together weighed 140.5 kg, but the heaviest known tusk, which was collected in East Africa, weighed 102.5 kg and is in the British Museum of Natural History.



Du Toit, J G 2015. The African savanna elephant. In J du P Bothma & J G du Toit (Eds), Game ranch management, sixth edition. Pretoria: Van Schaik. In Press.

Garaï, M E 2005. The elephant. In Bothma, J. du P. & N van Rooyen (Eds), Intensive wildlife production in southern Africa. Pretoria: Van Schaik, pp 2 - 24.

Preller, B 2015. The silent giants of southern Africa, fourth edition. Bela Bela: Bob Preller.

Skinner, J D & C T Chimimba (Eds) 2005. Mammals of the southern African subregion, third edition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp 51 - 59.


article by Prof J du P Bothma


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