Among the Elephants Blog

Green Hunting in Timbavati
July 28, 2002
by Iain Douglas-Hamilton

On the 9th May 2002 a huge elephant with tusks weighing over 100lbs a side was shot by a Texan hunter, in South Africa.

Such large bulls are revered by female elephants, and are very rare in Africa today, as they have been selectively killed for their tusks. This one had strayed from the protection of the Kruger national park into the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve on its western boundary. However this was a hunt with a difference. It was non lethal. Timbavati, with the support of Save the Elephants, has pioneered the concept of Green Hunting elephants. The idea is that hunters should be permitted to hunt an elephant when elephants are darted for research, and the funds generated are fed back into the conservation budget.

The warden of Timbavati, Brian Harris had spent a week looking for a big bull. There were about 300 elephants in the area. The bull was nervous and elusive, but after a long and exhausting hunt, Bob Mann, the hunter eventually placed an anaesthetic dart in the elephant's rump and after some minutes the big bull fell down asleep. The hunter then took a photo of his magnificent trophy on the ground, and after a few more minutes of attaching a radio collar revived the elephant with the injection of an antidote. A vet supervised the whole operation to make sure that the welfare of the animals was given the highest priority. The elephant was named "Mac".The tusks measured:Left tusk - lip to tip - 171cm (67"), circumference at lip - 53cm (21"), circumference at middle - 49cmRight tusk - lip to tip - 105cm (41"), circumference circ to lip - 53,6cm (21"), and circumference to middle - 49cm.

From these measurements Brian Harris, from an old hunter's formula, estimated the tusks to weigh 108 and 115lbs a side.The radio collar was a new design made by Martin Haupt, a South African wildlife consultant with whom Save the Elephants has worked over the course of the last seven years. It fixes a position automatically by GPS three times daily and then transmits the data through a satellite telephone so that it can be downloaded to the Internet. Researchers and the hunter are now able to look up Mac's position every day.

Better still Mac is still able to move and mate and spread his genes for large tusk size through the population. The benefits of green hunting elephants for ecological, ethical, economic and sporting reasons have been well put at Today, on the 28th July, I went in search of Mac with Marlene McCay, one of the conservation minded landowners of the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve. We first read Mac's position at midday off the Internet from a PC and found him at a spot where he had been lingering for several days, about 6 km inside the Kruger National Park.

We hoped there was nothing wrong with him to move so little. In the heat of the day we set off with Brian Harris and Kruger section ranger, Richard Sowry. The GPS indicated that Mac was to the East of the Kruger boundary. Richard Sowry found us a track that led down through rusty leaved mopani woodlands to a hollow. Here two windmills with creaking blades revolved in the wind as they sucked water into a small muddy pool. Herds of impala and baboons fled at our approach."I bet he's in the shade of that tree", said Brian, indicating a huge green canopy some 300 metres away that topped all the other scanty foliage.

The warden took us on a very professional stalk, past rhino scrapes, describing a wide circle that kept us downwind, and we found Mac peacefully resting in thick shade under a Nyala Bessie tree (Xanthocercis zambesiaca). For the next thirty minutes we watched him from about 70 metres distance. At one moment he appeared vaguely aware of our presence and lifted his head to peer at us, but he remained undisturbed and never got our wind. We looked carefully at his ear markings. A young student accompanying us, Michelle Greyling, who is studying Timbavati's elephants, made some detailed sketches and took photographs of his ears. My own photo was taken three months after the Green Hunt, on a small wide-angle digital camera.

It is not too sharp, but his magnificent tusks are quite clear. Apart from one small abrasion on his backside, probably from the poke of another bull's tusk, he appears in excellent health. He had been in "musth", but has now dropped out. The radio collar was evident as a small black box mounted on a machine-belting collar with a counterweight to keep it centred on his neck between the ears. "I am so relieved he is no longer at risk from sport hunters", whispered Richard Sowry as we peered at him keeping our profiles low. "Before he would have been a great target, but with the radio collar on he will be safe".

Big elephants have been increasingly moving from the Kruger into the Western Private Nature Reserves since the boundary fence was removed in 1993, but it is only Timbavati that has consistently applied a no lethal elephant hunting policy over the last few years. In fact Timbavati is so well respected by the Nature Conservation Department that they are the only private landowners permitted to carry out elephant Green Hunts. This is because of the fear of abuses that have surrounded the hunting industry with "canned lions" being reared for so called "hunting" and recent cases of excessive re-darting of rhinos that was done on rhino "darting safaris".

Timbavati has carried out five successful Elephant Green Hunts since 1998, each bull being monitored with a GPS collar donated by Save the Elephants. However, in many respects this was a first, since it had the first overseas client and it was by far the largest bull. Where elephant Green Hunts are concerned Mr Bob Mann is the current world record holder for trophy size. The tusks will be perfectly modeled by an expert taxidermist from the dimensions and the photographs. Green Hunting is also appealing to hunters as there is a rule in the Private Nature Reserves that prohibits lethal hunters from taking any trophy elephant with tusk weights over 45lb.

Timbavati is part of the Kruger ecosystem where huge tuskers abound.Very little is known about the movements of the Kruger bull elephants, although Ian Whyte, the well-known Kruger elephant scientist, has tracked many cows. The extent to which elephants cross from Kruger into the Private Nature Reserves on the western boundary is remains to be defined. Our own experience of elephants in Samburu in Kenya suggests that elephants may have ranges 150km across, a distance large enough for an elephant to go all the way from Timbavati across the Kruger into Mozambique. Fences have been removed on the eastern boundary and elephant dispersal is the big question.

There is an urgent need for research, to answer the big question of whether or not elephant dispersal can act as a means of population control or whether the Kruger ultimately will be forced to resume elephant culling. Save the Elephants is supporting a new research proposal, by Michelle Greyling who wants to monitor the elephant movements and population dynamics of the Timbavati elephants in the western part of the Kruger ecosystem. This ecosystem remains one of the most important elephant refuges on the African continent and now that the fences are coming down on all sides the new dynamic of elephant movements needs to be recorded.