Tricky terrain for elephants
Cape Town - There will be those who throw up their hands in horror at the idea of elephants roaming the precious wetlands of the Western Cape. These giants of the wilderness might have existed hundreds of years ago in the southern tip of Africa, but those days are long gone.
Pit that argument against the fact that elephants are a threatened species crying out for greater awareness and that the tourism potential of allowing people to interact with these prehistoric giants is huge.
Some believe that within this competing environment there is a sustainable middle ground that should be explored.
Among those supporting a different solution is Craig Saunders, who owns and runs a 455hectare wildlife sanctuary near the Bot River area of Kleinmond on the R44, a sensitive biosphere of reed swamps and marshes.
His sanctuary, known as the Lamloch Safari Park, forms part of the Cape lowland freshwater wetlands and it already has a number of buck species roaming the property.
“A close interaction with an elephant in a safe and controlled environment is an experience that lives in people’s hearts forever,” he says.
“Elephants have many engaging characteristics that make them tourist-friendly, including a love of water and swimming. In that way, they will oxygenate the water and improve the quality of the Bot River Estuary.”
Another plus would be their preference for destructive alien flora like the Port Jackson willow, which poses a threat to many areas of the wetland.
Going forward Saunders’ mission to elevate the African elephant to the top of the world’s tourist bucket list would, if successful, see the introduction of eight previously captive elephants who will be given the opportunity to be free-ranging within a designated elephant camp.
The idea is that tourists and visitors to the park can interact with the elephants, accompanying them on trails through the area. Visitors will also have the chance to be with the elephants when they are swimming, being groomed, or fed.
The elephants will be under the care of experienced handlers.
“There’s a sense of magic when you get close to an elephant” says Saunders. “But you need someone to tell you what you’re seeing and what you are experiencing. We need to re-teach people how to understand wildlife. That’s my mission.”
It’s also his mission, he says, to boost the local hospitality industry, provide appropriate accommodation in keeping with the wilderness habitat, and to promote employment and academic research into elephant behaviour, which would be done in conjunction with universities.
Saunders has a long history when it comes to the rescue and rehabilitation of elephants, and building sanctuaries for them.
His first venture at Hartbeespoort involved the rehabilitation of traumatised orphan elephants destined for export after a cull. He has two other wildlife sanctuaries, Hazyview and The Crags, near Plettenberg Bay.
However, it may not be all smooth going. The proposed development drawn up by Conservation Management Services is likely to raise a number of key issues regarding the psychological and physical wellbeing of elephants in captivity.
The authors of the proposal accept, for example, that negative media coverage about the abusive training of elephants has caused wide public reaction.
The game introduction plan is currently undergoing a public participation process. The plan seeks approval for the introduction of indigenous, vulnerable and dangerous game into the Lamloch Safari Park property in terms of the game translocation and utilisation policy of 2014 process.
The public participation proposal further outlines the species that can be considered for the sanctuary at Kleinmond. These include bontebok, plains zebra, red hartebeest, eland, buffalo, elephant in controlled settings, lion in captivity, and black rhinoceros.
While the proposal is essentially about a “walk in the wild” to observe elephants safely, the question of whether it will be a walk in the park for those proposing such an amenity still has to be decided.