Meet the Elephants of Pongola Game Reserve

To date we have 35 elephants, but let me tell you who they are and how they arrived at Pongola Game Reserve.

In 1992, Heinz and Debbie Kohrs began to pursue their dream to see elephants return to Pongola Game Reserve.

This land was the first in Africa to be proclaimed a protected Nature Reserve by President Paul Kruger in 1894, the second in the world to Yellowstone National Park. (See the web page relating the 'White Elephant' story). This proclamation was initially politically, and not conservationaly, motivated, and the Reserve was de-proclaimed again in 1921, after the First World War, by the new British rule in Kwa-zulu Natal. Only in 1993, through the initiative of Heinz, his brother Manfred, and his father, 'oom Kallie' were fences dropped between seven landowners and the Pongola Game Reserve re-established and replenished with game like rhino, giraffe, zebra, wildebeest and buffalo. There were already some resident nyala, kudu, impala, reedbuck, hyhena, warthog and elusive leopards. It was then that Heinz, supported by Debbie, expended much passionate energy, through headaches and heartache to see the elephants return to the land that they used to traverse. Heinz spent years in negotiation with National Parks Board officials, those in top management of the railway that cuts through the reserve, and with other landowners and the Zulu community, to prepare for the arrival of the elephants.

In June, 1997, exactly 100 years since elephants had been last seen in this part of the world, two elephant families - one of eight and the other of seven, arrived within weeks of each other, by land and truck, from the Kruger National Park. The BBC documentary, 'The Mission' documents their journey. First to arrive was the 'A' family, lead by the oldest elephant in the family, the matriarch, Antares. She is still one of the biggest females in the reserve. She arrived with her calf, the Kohrs children called Lucky, to mark this miraculous, but hard-earned, occasion. The second family to arrive was the 'B' family, lead by the now-overall matriarch of both families which form the breeding herd, Beuga. Beuga in Zulu means 'to look', and she certainly does just that, gives us the 'hairy eyeball' whenever we arrive to observe the breeding herd, telling us in no uncertain terms it is her decision as to how close we are allowed to come! She is a very good matriarch, caring and protective of her herd. So good, that over the last 5 or 6 years, elephants within the breeding herd, have given birth to 19 calves, the 3 most recent calves born to Antares, Bayeti and Achenar, were all born in July this year - all males!

(When identifying elephants it is easier to give each elephant in a particular family a name beginning with a certain letter of the alphabet, hence the 'A' and 'B' families, which together make up the entire breeding herd, and the 'C' family which makes up the 'orphan' herd I still need to tell you about). Interestingly one of the females to arrive in the 'B' family was a 'white' or albino elephant, she has patchy white coloration, mostly around her face, and white hairs on her tail. Shame, she is called 'Blondie'.

Soon after the families arrived, 3 bulls were sent from Kruger National Park - Douw, the dominant male being 50-years old with massive tusks, Jochum, about 35-years old, and Ingani, meaning 'baby' in Zulu, because at the time he was the youngest, at 25 years of age. Two of these bulls have a sad story to tell. In January,1999, Jochum, who was in musth and on the lookout for females with great testosterone zeal, and Ingani, learning a thing-or-two from his elder, walked out of the safety and protection of the Pongola Game Reserve along the Pongola River line. Soon after escaping, they went their own separate ways, Jochum to Mkuzi Reserve, 50kms away, and Ingani to Mililani Reserve, a shorter-40kms distance away.

During Ingani's trek, he met 5 adolescent (about 12/13 years old) 'orphans' - 4 females and a male. We only realized he met them 15 months later when in March, 2000, they 'broke into'! Pongola Game Reserve (PGR) along the same route Ingani had left and visited them. Ingani was there to meet them when they arrived, and they have been at PGR ever since. One needs to remember the incredibly ultrasonic communication abilities elephants have - they are able to talk to one another, without humans hearing, for up to 60 square kilometers in the right weather conditions. Soon after their arrival he introduced them to the breeding herd, who were initially not so friendly - who wants to take on elephants without the normal good breeding and feeding habits learnt from their own mothers and sisters! This is why these elephants are called 'orphans', their mothers and sisters were naively culled in the late 1980's at the Kruger National Park when the elephant population there was becoming so vast that the vegetation in the reserve was not enough to sustain them and the many diverse other animals they shared the fence-enclosed land with. They were translocated as 2-5 year-old juveniles to various reserves in South Africa. Today, conservationists have been alerted to the fact that if elephants are to be translocated, they should move them to new areas, as whole families.

To get back to Jochum. He caused havoc on his 50-km journey bothering villages he passed through and eating the vegetables and crops grown for the communities survival. He was not very popular and was pursued by Kwa-Zulu Natal Parks Board's officials. He was putting human lives at risk, and although he returned with great haste to PGR, he was ordered to be shot. That was a very sad day, but an even sadder day was to follow. In January 2000, Douw was killed by the train. All that was left was his shattered bones and his 86-kg tusks.

To move onto a happier note, and the beginning of my introduction to these elephants: in July 2002, the first calf was born to an 'orphan' mother, Charm, and at the same time a calf was born to a breeding herd mother, Apollo. Charm's son was given the name Charlie (at first we did not know whether he was a boy or a girl, hence the either-or name!) and Apollo's daughter was called, Asterix. The two became great mates, and has brought the breeding herd and 'orphan' herd closer. My venture into this territory was to study mothering behavior in those elephants who had had good mothering, those within the breeding herd, and those who hadn't - obviously the 'orphan' mothers. Two months after Charlie was born, another first-time orphan mother, Constance, gave birth to a stillborn calf. That was the first time I really believed elephants grieved. In the 'Articles' section of this web site, you can read about mothering and the elephants, and what happened between Charlie and Constance.

There are just three other bull elephants I have to tell you about, and then you have met everyone. They are Induna, meaning 'chief' in Zulu, because he is also very old - 50 years or so; Impi, meaning 'warrior' in Zulu, he is 40 years old, and Nkosi, also 40 years old. These 3 bulls were translocated from Kruger to a neighboring reserve, which they voluntarily walked out of, and into PGR in August, 2001 - must be something elephants really like at PGR, maybe the fertile breeding herd elephants and the waterous bounty of Lake Jozini! Tragically, Nkosi, too was killed by the train in January, 2002.

Neither, Induna or Impi, were of them were more dominant than Ingani for a long time, and this poor bull ended up being in musth for many-too-many months of the year. You can tell when a bull elephant is in musth, he is smelly because he has green stuff all over his penis sheath, and much liquid dribbling from there, as well as from temporal glands on the sides of his forehead just above his eyes. You can also see if he is in musth from a long way off, even if you cannot smell him, because he is full of aggressive-testosterone-energy, all primed up for a good mating session, and he saunters purposefully across the veld or displays his dominance and strength by knocking over many trees - especially if there are no ready-to-mate females in estrous and he is very frustrated! Fortunately, this year, both Induna and Impi have let Ingani 'off the hook' (or should I say 'off the hooker' - bit naughty!) and have come into musth themselves. We are also relieved about this because it means greater genetic diversity in the new offspring.

Anymore information you would like on these special, magnificent elephants, please investigate the Space for Elephants website - www.space4elephants.org. If you would like to meet these elephants - up close and personal - enjoy participating in the 'Wisdom of Elephants' ecotherapy program.