Mountain-loving elephants of the Karoo


After an absence of almost two centuries, elephants were reintroduced into the Samara Private Game Reserve in the Karoo towards the end of 2017. Just over a year later, two males were brought into the herd, making it the first functional elephant group to roam the Camdeboo Plains in over 150 years.

An elephant bull. Photo: David Swanepoel

As part of the reintroduction, Samara management has collared certain individuals and is keeping an eye on the group to see how the elephants are adapting to and using this semi-arid landscape. The team’s discoveries to date are not quite what they expected. The small family group of females that was first introduced has shied away from the open areas, in preference of the mountainous slopes.

While this behaviour may seem unusual, it has been recorded in other places too, says Isabelle Tompkins. Isabelle’s mom Sarah is the founder of Samara, and the women work together on the reserve’s strategic wildlife reintroductions.

The matriarch and a calf. Photo: Ida Hansen

“According to the Elephants Rhinos People NGO, which co-sponsored the elephant reintroduction at Samara, there are elephants on the lower slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro, and in the Rubeho and Mahale mountains in Tanzania, as well as in mountainous areas in South Africa like the Waterberg.”

Isabelle believes that when the females arrived at Samara there were no familiar smells, sights or paths, so they had to do their own exploring in order to create paths. “The absence of elephants from the landscape for 150–200 years means the vegetation has grown nicely on those slopes, so there is plenty of palatable food up there,” she adds.

The female herd consists of two adults and four sub-adult calves, so protecting the youngsters probably played a role in their decisions too. However, the males are acting quite differently. “The bulls have not really ventured onto the slopes that the females use,” Isabelle explains. Males are much larger and more confident, and as a result they are not scared of walking in the open.

The females have mainly been feasting on cabbage trees (Cussonia spicata), jacket plums (Pappea capensis), spekboom (Portulacaria afra) and the thorny tree species. The plains where the males are found have three river systems, so this also means plenty of food and water.

An elephant bull in Samara. Photo: David Swanepoel

The behaviour of the elephants, especially the female herd, provides space for more elephants in
the landscape. “The experts we consulted never expected that the elephants would use the mountain slopes to the extent they have, so in reality we originally underestimated the numbers of elephants that could be sustained on the land,” Isabelle says.

The reserve is maintained through adaptive management principles, which means the landscape is not managed for a certain number of animals, but rather for the impact the animals have on their environment.
Sarah and Mark Tompkins started Samara around 22 years ago, and their vision is to restore the area to its original state. “Before early farmers and settlers eradicated the Karoo’s wildlife, it boasted a wonderfully rich biodiversity, and was home to species like cheetah, rhino, Cape lion, springbok and elephant,” Sarah says.

An elephant herd taking a bath in the dust. Photo: Ida Hansen

Written by René de Klerk 

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