Elephants in the Spotlight

© Nigel Dennis

Dear Editor,

As an experienced guide with a passion for wildlife and the bush, I have spent many years observing the behaviour and habits of elephants. Elephants, in spite of their destructive behaviour when it comes to habitat, are still some of the most intelligent creatures on the planet and have some of the strongest family bonds within their breeding herds, not to mention how awesome they are to encounter on foot.

It distresses me that they may have to be culled because the impact they have on the environment is high and extensive, threatening other species and therefore diversity. Because of my passion for the pachyderms, I have been contemplating for a number of years now how the elephant population could be controlled without using deadly methods, and I believe I have come up with a solution to influence elephant feeding habits and movements.Trees have their own defence mechanism against browsing animals.

When animals start to feed on a tree, the tree is alerted to the danger and starts producing high levels of tannin. This tannin travels up from the roots and spreads to the bark and leaves, and after a short while the taste to the animals is so bitter that they move on to browse elsewhere. Tannin from one tree also serves as an airborne message to other trees in the vicinity to alert them to the danger of browsing animals. This is why an animal such as the kudu will skip several trees from the one it was browsing to get to one further away which has not been alerted.

Previous research has shown that high levels of tannin in certain trees and plants repel a number of browsing animals, who prefer more palatable fodder. It is my theory that raising the tannin levels of trees favoured by elephants will influence their feeding habits and force them to move on from those areas. Diluted commercial tannins should have little or no impact on the vegetation and could therefore be used to keep elephants away from shady trees surrounding lodge areas, thereby conserving the ecology and limiting the impact of elephants on specific areas.

Furthermore, tannin-covered posts erected on the outskirts of over-browsed areas could also deter large herbivores as the tannins would send a signal to nearby trees to raise their tannin levels. I would appreciate it if you could publish my letter in the paper and invite researchers in the fields of zoology, ecology and botany to comment on the feasibility of such a theory and, if possible, to establish a research project to test it. Interested persons are welcome to contact me via yourselves or direct to my email address. I would be happy to explain my theory and application methods in more detail.

By Hennie van Deventer, Nyala Safari Lodge, Hoedspruit

Elephant Behaviour and Feeding Habits

Elephant researcher Audrey Delsink has come in for some funny looks recently during the course of her elephant research in the Kruger Nation...more
Kruger National Park - South African Safari