'Rogue' African Elephants May Soon Hunt Poachers

Elephants have an acute sense of smell, can travel anywhere in the bush, and don't break down -- making them ideal for patrols as well as tracking poachers.

DINOKENG, South Africa — Tembo was a killer who faced the death sentence for his "crimes."

But the six-ton bull elephant won a reprieve after a vet approached animal trainer Rory Hensman and asked him if he could mend Tembo's wild ways.

Now tourists are taking rides on Tembo's back in the bush at Dinokeng Game Reserve 60 miles northeast of Johannesburg -- proving that grown elephants can learn new tricks.

Tembo and some of his jumbo friends may also be put to work soon protecting their own kind as "all-terrain" vehicles in anti-poaching patrols.

"It just shows that you can train African bull elephants ... the previous estimates were that you had to start when they were 12 to 15 months," said Dinokeng owner Larry Blundell.


Tembo was well past that -- about 18 years in fact -- when he went on the rampage which almost ended with a bullet in his huge skull.


An orphan of a cull in South Africa's Kruger National Park, he was relocated to a private game reserve.

He eventually found himself a female companion but another bull came along and successfully "wooed" her. Tembo still bears the scars of the fight he had with that bull in the form of a broken tusk.

More disturbingly, he also vented his rage by killing two rhinos and damaging the lodge at his reserve.

That past is hard to square with the gentle giant who curiously sniffs visitors with his trunk while children hug his telephone-pole like legs.

"Tembo has a wonderful nature -- he had lots of contact with people but when he was growing up, no training," his trainer Hensman told Reuters by phone from his base in the country's northern Limpopo province.

"We use a bilateral ask and reward system. When he does something you say well done and reward him," he said.

Elephants, especially the more malleable Asian variety, have been used by humans for war and work for more than 2,000 years.

But humanity's history with the pachyderms has also been marked by ruthless persecution and hunting -- and so a trainer's first job is to win over their instinctive mistrust of humans.

"Elephants are extremely intelligent and they can be trained to do all sorts of things. What is difficult is to get over their inherent fear of man," said Hensman.

Mabitsi, Dinokeng's other trained elephant, was also a "rogue" who was part of a group of four that broke through the fence at the Kruger Park, wreaking havoc on local citrus farms.

He was also due to be put down until Hensman's intervention.


Some animal welfare activists may take offense at the idea of a wild and majestic animal being trained to take humans on rides -- but the alternative for Tembo and Mabitsi would have been worse.

Hensman maintains that elephants, known for their emotional natures and complex social systems, clearly enjoy mixing with humans.

And Hensman's animals may soon be employed to help in the preservation of their own species and others.

Hensman originally began training elephants in his native Zimbabwe to use in anti-poaching operations and hopes to use some of his pachyderms in South Africa for that purpose. He has been in talks about this with the Kruger Park.

Elephants have an acute sense of smell, can travel anywhere in the bush, and don't break down -- making them ideal for patrols as well as tracking poachers.

"What is needed in out of the way places, especially in the rainy season, is an elephant. They are an excellent means of transport and don't need to be refueled," said Hensman.

Source: Reuters

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