Reuniting the Tembe elephants

28 June 2008

For decades they suffered the the ravages of war. But now elephants in the border region between Mozambique and KwaZulu Natal can look forward to returning to a relatively normal existence.

Their hope lies in the creation of a system of transfrontier conservation areas between SA, Mozambique and Swaziland, which will include the creation of a corridor that will allow the long-separated elephants to meet up again and resume at least part of their old migratory routes.

Known as the Tembe elephants, many were killed or maimed as they got caught up in the escalating conflict that started with Mozambique's anticolonial struggle in the 1960s and its subsequent civil war.

Before that they were able to roam, in relative safety, a vast and sparsely populated area.

As the war escalated, some found a measure of protection in the Maputo Park. Others sought refuge in a rare and ecologically precious sand forest on the SA side of the border, which was proclaimed in 1983 as the Tembe Elephant Park and fenced off on the three southern sides for the mutual protection of the elephants, the forest and the surrounding communities.

Initially, Tembe's northern border was left open. But in 1989, the border was sealed off to discourage poaching.

Since then, the two groups have lived separately from each other. Those daring to cross the divide or those caught in-between have paid a heavy price.

Wayne Matthews, KwaZulu Natal's ecologist for the Maputaland region, speaks painfully of the killing and wounding of the animals before the northern border was sealed off.

In earlier times, he says, the animals had the relative freedom of a large and richly diverse terrain. "Then came the war and everything changed. There might have been some killing for meat. But, as we know, the ivory trade played no mean part in financing arms procurement.

"There were unintended injuries, too, like elephants stepping on land mines. Some got their trunks cut off by snares. Many carried bullet wounds from simply being shot at, sometimes willfully and in other instances probably to scare them off."

He says the elephants would have moved in and out of Tembe Park's sand forest as part of their old migrations. But human attrition would have caused them later to seek refuge in the dense vegetation.

"Those that fled here tended, at first, to be aggressive and unpredictable. To keep them and the surrounding communities safe, we had to fence them in. It was so bad, we had to make it a capital offence for any of our elephants to break out.

"We needed to maintain the integrity of the fence. The same did not apply to elephants breaking in. But now our elephants have generally calmed down and are less shy of humans."

The proposed transfrontier arrangement, which the countries hope to complete within three years, involves five separate conservation areas spanning their respective borders. But the one aimed at improving the lot of the Tembe elephant is by far the biggest and most ambitious.

It will see the creation of a fenced-off corridor of about 50km long and 20km wide to link the 78 000 ha Maputo Park with the 30 OOO ha Tembe Park.

This should allow safe passage to the approximately 250 elephants of Maputo and the 200 or so of Tembe to resume old acquaintances.

Matthews says the creation of the transfrontier park will not only be good for the elephants, but also for Tembe's habitat, by allowing them a broader roaming range rather than just circling the same area.

Meanwhile, the transfrontier development could be further boosted by park developments on the SA side of the border, giving rise to optimism among ecotourism operators that it will bring new economic life to their exquisitely beautiful but largely poor region.

Leon Marshall

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