9 min read

People Threaten To Kill Wild Elephant If He Returns To Their Land

He's lived there for 15 years — and just wants to go back home.

For a 45-year-old male elephant named Riff Raff, home is a private reserve in the Limpopo province of South Africa. But there’s a problem — the owners of the reserve don’t want Riff Raff there, and there’s a chance he may be legally killed if he tries to stay.

Riff Raff has been living on this private reserve for about 15 years, and he’s become very territorial about this area, especially when he’s going through musth, which is a period of heightened sexual aggression in male elephants.

Rescuers with wild elephant
Riff Raff after he was sedated by the HSI team so he could be relocated | HSI

“When they are in musth, they tend to stick to a certain area, which we refer to as their bull area,” Audrey Delsink, executive director of Humane Society International/Africa (HSI/Africa), told The Dodo. “So it’s an area where they kind of like to hang out … and they actively go out and search for females.”

So when the reserve owners put up fences to prevent Riff Raff and other resident wild elephants from getting into certain parts of the reserve, Riff Raff wasn’t happy about it — at all.

Wild elephant sitting on ground

“He has been breaching fences to try and get into the area where he’s used for so long, and … we’ve just come out of one of the worst droughts in the area in decades, and there’s a massive massive dam in this area that he and the other elephants have been excluded from,” Delsink said. “He’s just doing what’s biologically hard-wired in him to do, and that’s to go back to his original home range, and also to visit constant water sources throughout the year.”

With Riff Raff breaking through fences, he’s now been deemed a “problem animal,” and this puts him into a lot of danger. Each year, about 20 to 25 permits are issued to “destroy” animals who create damage to property or cause other issues, Delsink explained. It’s also possible that a trophy hunting permit will be issued so a hunter can shoot Riff Raff for sport.

Sedated elephant being relocated

In March 2018, HSI/Africa stepped in to help — they sedated Riff Raff and safely moved him to a new reserve that was 40 miles away. But unfortunately, it didn’t work — Riff Raff marched straight back to his old stomping ground within two days.

“It highlights how strong the homing instinct is,” Delsink said.

The owners of the private reserve in the Limpopo province weren’t pleased to see Riff Raff return.

Elephant being relocated
A sedated Riff Raff being relocated by the HSI team | HSI

“They are not allowing him to stay, which is very sad,” Delsink said. “We are in the process of finding an alternative home at another reserve, but clearly at a much further distance away to try and break that instinct to come back.”

The HSI team is planning to relocate Riff Raff again by the end of the summer season, which finishes in December — and they’re hoping that this next relocation will actually work.

Elephant being relocated by rescue team

“Basically, this is the last lifeline that we have for this particular bull,” Delsink said. “If he isn’t relocated, he will most likely be destroyed where he is, so we are hoping that if we move him to a new area, which is actually much bigger than the area where he is right now, and with more elephants and more unrelated females … he would kind of be kingpin. So in essence, it has all the ingredients for a perfect elephant area, but we don’t know, and we don’t have any guarantees that he will stay there.”

While it seems absolutely necessary to relocate Riff Raff, Delsink hopes that people learn to live in harmony with elephants and other wild animals, and to find more humane ways to manage elephants.

Elephant being relocated by rescue team
Riff Raff being relocated by the HSI team | HSI

“Often owners and provincial authorities are way too quick to destroy the animal as the first line of defense,” Delsink said. “Their immediate reaction is to shoot the animal, and so, with a partner group that we’re working with, called Elephants Alive, we are trying to work with reserve managers and owners that have elephants to be proactive, and to mitigate any attempts at this sort of negative behavior before they even begin, so you don’t just have this immediate reaction and destroy the animal.”

Tracking collars are one thing that can help — when a collared elephant gets close to a fence, a team can be deployed to deter that elephant from breaching the fence. Another way to discourage elephants from a particular area is having bees in the area.

Elephant standing in the African savannah

“Elephants are terrified of bees,” Delsink said. “You’d be surprised — you think an elephant has such thick skin that they won’t feel it, but they absolutely do, because there are some areas that are relatively thin. So elephants tend to avoid areas where there are bees.”

In the last two centuries, there’s been a 97 percent decrease in elephant populations across the African continent, Delsink explained, mainly due to illegal poaching activities fueled by the ivory industry.

“At this point in time, every elephant counts, so we should be working to preserve as many elephants as we can,” Delsink said.

To help protect Riff Raff and other elephants in South Africa, you can make a donation to HSI/Africa or Elephants Alive.