By Lauren Evans
Like clockwork, just after dusk, they approach the fence. Eleven bull elephants, bunched together in a great ridge of grey, wait by the electrified wires. They hold their heads high, alert, until the largest bull makes its way to the wires. He curls his trunk above his head and slowly and repeatedly pulls the wires back with his tusks, carefully avoiding an electric shock, until the wires sag to the ground. In a flurry of dust, noise, pushing and pulling, the rest of the group crosses the fence and they scatter, under the cover of night, to raid crops.
This was the first time I saw elephants break a fence. I watched from the cover of a Euclea bush, some 100 metres from the fence and was stunned by the skill, strength and cooperation I saw amongst this group.
Rows of electrified wires held up by wooden posts, which stretch for kilometres are a common sight across African elephant ranges. The Kenya Wildlife Service estimates that there is already 1,500km of electrified fencing in Kenya, and that this length is growing every year.
If poaching continues at its current levels, the only way elephants will survive in the wild will be within well-funded, fortified conservation areas – the current reality for the survival of rhinos.
Unlike rhinos it is harder to confine elephants within designated spaces. With their vast requirement for space, food and water, complex societies, intelligence and taste for crops, they roam widely and cross boundaries created for them. Elephants can adapt to break even the most sophisticated of fences – resulting in a costly race with wildlife managers as they upgrade fence design.
I have been carrying out research in Laikipia, Kenya, into how and why elephants break electrified fences and what the consequences of this behaviour are for elephants and for people. I have focused on 130km of electrified fence built to divide Laikipia County into a place where elephants are tolerated (within ranches and conservancies) and a place were they are not (on small-scale farmland).
I found that elephants seek out weak points (of low voltage) close to farmland. Along fences well-maintained, elephants will continue to break it in places they have broken in the past. It is invariably bull elephants that are involved, not females. Certain individuals are responsible for the physical act of breaking. ‘Breakers’ tend to be older, larger bulls and are often followed by younger adolescent bulls that seem to associate with older males to ‘learn’ how to break fences. Breakers get through the fence in unique, individual ways to avoid an electric shock. More....