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Africa’s white elephants

Times Staff Writer

Samson, otherwise known as Elephant No. 1, is twisting his trunk around some succulent young tufts of grass, tugging them up and throwing them into his mouth, perfectly aware we have sneaked up on him but willing to nonchalantly ignore us, for now.

We crouch on a rock about 40 yards away -- about as close to a wild bull elephant as it is safe to get on foot. Even though Samson shows no signs of irritation, it’s nice to be with David Powrie, who is something of an elephant whisperer.

The tall, blond, sunburned ranger is always elated to find himself in a cloud of small flies, the telltale sign that an elephant herd is near. He knows each one of the 120 elephants here in the Welgevonden Game Reserve, identifying them by the nicks in their ears, their tusks and the unique patterning of their tails -- almost like a fingerprint. He sniffs the air for the bulls in must (they exude an oily secretion when they are looking for females) and follows their dinner-plate-sized footprints. He knows a turn of the wind can change an elephant’s mood instantly.

He also knows that elephants hate loud noises. Samson, like most, does not like thunder, or helicopters, given the bad habit those shrieking metal beasts have of swooping down unexpectedly and leaving one forever changed, as happened last year.

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Samson was darted, fell unconscious, was lifted by crane onto a flatbed truck and driven to a clearing in his home at the reserve. There, a group of American vets from Disney World’s Animal Kingdom performed a vasectomy, a highly complex operation given the bush location and the difficult anatomy of the elephant. (Their testicles are located deep in the body, on either side of the spine, requiring a specially made laparoscope for the operation.)

Powrie’s task is to study the effects of the vasectomies on the behavior of four sterilized bulls and the reactions of 42 female elephants to a contraceptive recently administered by darts from a helicopter. He spends his days with a tracking antenna getting as close to the Welgevonden pachyderms as possible, observing their behavior.

It is part of a national research effort to answer pressing questions about South Africa’s elephant population: In short, given the animals’ humongous appetites and destructive habits, is the 20,000-strong population threatening the habitat of other species? If so, how do you control population growth?

There are only four known solutions to too many elephants: birth control, relocation, so-called transfrontier parks that span borders and the one that people do not really like to talk about, shooting the animals from helicopters. The South African government’s draft policy on elephant population control, released this year, includes all four options.

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Some South African conservationists believe a cull (mass elephant kill) is inevitable in hugely popular Kruger National Park, which is nearly twice the size of Los Angeles County and had 12,500 elephants at last count in 2006.

Wanda Mkutshulwa, a spokeswoman for the government’s parks agency, SANParks, refused to comment on the likelihood of a cull. “We made our recommendations in 2005,” was her only comment, referring to SANParks’ controversial call on the government to allow culling.

But shooting elephants would surely cause a storm of international protest, given human sentiments about the animals and the widespread perception that they are an endangered species (correct in other parts of the continent but not in southern Africa). There is talk among animal rights organizations of organizing a tourist boycott of South Africa should culling take place, threatening one of the country’s most important industries.

Culls do not involve selectively shooting the oldest or weakest. They mean shooting whole herds, including youngsters, because the animals’ social structures are so complex and interdependent.

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Luckily for Samson, ensconced in a private reserve with a vasectomy behind him, the men with guns in shrieking helicopters will never come for him. There is something to be said for being a research guinea pig, after all.

Before leading us into the thick rocky bush at the reserve here in South Africa’s mountainous Waterberg region, Powrie has given us the drill: “If anything comes at us, we stand still.”

Out here, only prey runs.

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Samson has just had a lovely mud bath in a favorite pool and, given the ample quantities of fresh green grass, seems lazily content. He keeps on munching in the tranquil quiet, as the sun, falling lower in the evening sky, casts a golden glow.

For research purposes, the elephants are given numbers, but Powrie’s name for him has a better ring to it than “No. 1.”

Before we sneak up on Samson, Powrie takes out a rifle but puts the emergency bullet in his pocket. He also carries a pepper spray device in his belt. It’s not hard to guess which of the two would be his weapon of choice in an emergency.

Powrie, jocular, modest and soft-spoken, does not play the hero. But in his time working in game reserves, he has faced down charging rhinos, lions and elephants. It’s deepened the respect he has had for animals since his childhood in the bush.

Chewing happily, his attention absorbed by the new green grass, Samson gradually moves a little closer toward us. Suddenly, he stands stock still, stares at us and flaps his ears out to the side. He looks enormous: more than 11 feet tall and about 6 tons.

“That’s a warning,” Powrie whispers. “Stand up.”

Then Powrie starts talking to Samson in a calm, quiet voice, the words flowing mellifluously into the evening air. Samson gazes at us a moment longer, then pulls his ears in, takes a step back and bends down to the grass again. After a warning like that, Powrie says, it’s time to retreat.

“He’ll give you body language; he’ll never just attack you,” he says. “You’ve come along, interfering with his happy bubble. He’ll give you signals, saying, ‘I’m not really happy,’ and that’s when you get out of there.”

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As Powrie wanders through the bush, he reads the tracks on the dirt road for last night’s gossip, a kill here, a scuffle there, a flirtation somewhere else. He revels in the magnificent bird life, and knows each call. He thanks every animal that crosses his path for consenting to be seen. He sympathizes with a limping zebra calf whose hide was raked by a lion’s claw: “Sorry, littlie.” He guffaws at the sight of yet another water pipe, excavated and destroyed by the elephants (their favorite trick), though he knows the reserve’s water pipe team will not be pleased.

Some days Powrie sees almost nothing, just a tail of one of his gray ghosts disappearing into the scrub. Other days he will see a group of elephants frolicking in a pool, only to be interrupted by a duo of dueling bulls. Besides his research, he keeps an online diary ( www.welgevonden.org/index.asp), an intimate view of elephant lives.

As South Africa wrestles with the issue of its elephant population, even that favorite buzzword, “eco-tourism,” is in question. It turns out the two are often contradictory: Guaranteeing tourists a lot of game sightings can mean the risk of overstocking.

Tourists want to see elephants up close, and lots of them, not a wisp of tail or a flap of distant ear as Powrie often does.

“Naturally, if you have someone from overseas and they have never seen an elephant, you want to show them,” Powrie says. “But you also don’t want to cut your own throat by having levels too high for environmental sustainability.”

After the vasectomies, no one was sure what to expect of the sterilized bulls. Would they still mate? Would they still fight off younger, less dominant bulls? In short, would they still act like bulls? If they slipped down the punishing elephant hierarchy, the whole point of sterilizing them could be neutralized as other bulls took their places.

So far, Powrie’s research has found that the sterilized bulls have not acted differently. And while the females on birth control are in season more often, he’s seen no ill effects. Female elephant contraceptives are not hormonal but instead stimulate an immune response in the fine membrane coating the eggs, preventing fertilization.

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Welgevonden director Andrew Parker, initially skeptical, now sees the operations and female contraception as a realistic solution for smaller elephant populations with limited terrain.

But for populations as large as Kruger’s, the interventions are seen as impractical. Moving elephants is also tricky, because there are many South African reserves with more than enough elephants and few with a shortage. The concept of moving them to West African countries with few or no elephants is complicated by logistics and cost.

Many see the trend toward transfrontier parks and conservation areas as offering something elephants need: space. There are 10 transfrontier parks or conservation areas under development or agreed to in southern Africa.

Rudi van Aarde, who has studied elephants extensively as head of the Conservation Ecology Research Unit at the University of Pretoria, scoffs at solutions such as vasectomies, contraception and culling. The answer, he says, is not greater human intervention but less: Pull down the fences and let the elephants roam from country to country, as they once did.

Van Aarde, a member of a scientific advisory group to the government, argues that human development, fences and the creation of water holes have concentrated elephant populations in limited areas, putting pressure on habitat and other species.

“We have cases in South Africa of elephants being kept in tiny areas,” he says.

“These parks are what I’d call pathologically small. In reality, a proper goal for these small parks would be to extend them, connect them up.”

As he drives through the bush, Powrie’s delightful patter of jokes and gentle homespun philosophy is like the never-ending burble of a mountain brook, offering its secrets of wild places. But one suspects he is most comfortable in the bush alone.

Sometimes, when the elephants venture very close to him, he will sit for hours, breathing in their smell, just watching, comfortable in their presence.

His favorite joke is calling the spectacular country around him “my office,” and truly he seems more at home there than in a room with four walls and a computer. For breakfast, he stops somewhere along the road with a nice view.

He’ll gladly answer as many questions as you want to ask about elephants (and anything else that crawls, trots or flies in the reserve) as long as it’s on his terms, and that means standing next to a stream in the early afternoon warmth, with ants wandering by and eagles dipping overhead.

Powrie is not sentimental about elephants, or at least he tries not to be. Sure, he has his favorites and enjoys giving them names. But he also sighs in wonder at the sight of a scuttling throng of dung beetles burrowing into a heap of rhino excrement.

He respects all animals. Still, watching Powrie talking to Samson as the sun sinks, it’s a little difficult to picture him engaged in a similar conversation with an insect.

Gently, the light flattens into gray and we leave Samson to fade into the evening shadows.

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robyn.dixon@latimes.com

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On latimes.com

For additional photographs and a video of David Powrie tracking pachyderms at the Welgevonden Game Reserve, go to latimes.com/elephants.


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