In the last 50 years, the world has lost 467 species of wildlife to extinction. For the species that remain, the average population size has decreased by 68%. In the same period, the population of humankind has more than doubled from 3.7bn to 7.7bn. As the human population grows exponentially, we compete for space with wild animals. We take land that used to be their homes, for our own purposes like agriculture, industrial development and even housing. This is what is known as habitat encroachment. Indeed, as described in my previous blog - The Conservation Conservation - Habitat loss is perhaps the biggest factor in the disappearance of many endangered species, perhaps even more so than poaching.
I interviewed Francoise Malby-Anthony, the Managing Director at Thula Thula, to discuss their latest project, the super exciting plans for land expansion. It all started in 1999, when Lawrence and Francoise decided to take on a herd of 7 wild elephants from Mpumalanga. They were warned that these elephants were troublemakers, with a super smart matriarch who was an escape artist from even the most secure "bomas" and fenced in game reserves. The story of those elephants is beautifully told in Lawrence Anthony's "The Elephant Whisperer" and as he describes, not only did the elephants eventually settle down at Thula Thula, but they were so happy in their "forever home" that the herd grew exponentially from 7 to 29 over the next several years. However, once the herd reached this size, they had to stop breeding. This is because of a South African wildlife regulation that only allows a certain number of elephants for the size of the land.
(1) Original 7 Elephants in 1999; (2) The Herd of 29 elephants in 2020
In the next 6 months, Thula Thula is going to be expanding form 3200 Hectares to 5500 Hectares. The year after that, they hope to expand to 7500 Hectares. There are 3 main reasons why land expansion is critically important in Thula Thula's conservation journey:
The first is so that the famous elephant herd can breed again. Once the herd reached its maximum allowed size of 29, the male elephants were put on contraception. However, not having new elephant calves for so long is not healthy for the herd. Also, long term contraception for elephants is not natural, and there is a risk that in young males it can become irreversible. Land expansion will allow more calves to be born and in anticipation of that, the male elephants have already being taken off the contraception. On a separate but interesting note, Francoise believes that Thula Thula, even with its current land size, can support more elephants. However, the wildlife authorities in the South African Government say otherwise. Very similar to the challenges that David & Daphne Sheldrick faced at Tsavo National Park in Kenya in the 1970s, the scientists views on the optimal size of an elephant herd relative to the land size, often differ from the views of the wardens and rangers who live and work with the animals everyday. The scientists believe that too many elephants will lead to habitat destruction because of excess foraging and uprooting of trees, converting jungle to savannah, and making the environment hostile to other creatures that depend on the jungle for survival. However, Francoise believes that the regulation of a certain number of elephants per square hectare is too theoretical and the actual number the land can support is dependent on many factors other than size - such as the topography of the land and whether it can support the needs of a larger herd, the availability of vegetation and the investment made by the park to maintain the environment even after the elephants forage. Indeed, Thula Thula has 4 topographic zones: Bush, Savannah, Forest, and River; and because of this diversity, it can support many more elephants and other wildlife like giraffe, antelopes, zebras, rhinos, hippos, leopards and many others.
The second reason that they are expanding is so that they can build greater diversity in the topography within the game reserve. The expansion includes more forest cover and also more riverbeds, which is an important source of water - a vital resource - for any healthy game reserve.
The third, and perhaps most urgent reason is to stop the impending human encroachment into wild land. With the rapid increase in human population, if Thula Thula doesn't buy the surrounding land and enclose it in the reserve for wildlife, it is only a matter of time before human settlements move in and convert this land to other purposes. At the rate at which wild land is getting taken over for development, Francoise believes that the wild areas surrounding Thula Thula, could disappear as quickly as in the next 5 years.
Wildlife @ Thula Thula enjoying the varied topography
Another important intervention to protect the land that Thula Thula does every year, is controlled burning. While for many people not close to the subject, the idea of deliberately setting fire to the bush is shocking, in reality carefully controlled burning is an important way to preserve the quality of the soil, and actually helps the foliage grow better. In the winter months, when the climate is drier, Thula Thula will carefully burn a section of land. Francoise says, "This will purify the land, and help it regrow more healthy." When the grass grows back on this burned land, it contains a lot of minerals for all the plants and animals there. She also says that the elephants love the burnt shrubs and you can hear them chewing on it like kids eating popcorn at the movies!
I read Lawrence Anthony and Francoise Malby-Anthony's books 2 years ago on a summer holiday in South Africa. Since then, I have been absolutely fascinated by the story of the famous Thula Thula elephant herd and the amazing work on rhino conservation that happens there. My art, and these blogs have been my way to raise awareness and financial support for Thula Thula's work on wildlife conservation. So far, all the money I raised went towards adopting animals such as elephants, rhinos and even Savannah, the cheetah. Only when I read more on the larger and more complex picture on wildlife conservation, did I realize that while poaching and animal adoption to protect them from poachers is a big focus area for successful conservation, habitat conservation is also a critical area of focus. Therefore, I am super thrilled to share that with the latest art sales from @ayansartforconservation, we have made a contribution to the land expansion project at Thula Thula. Once again, a big thank you and shout out to our many supporters, who help preserve the richness of life on this planet for generations to come.
Population Matters -> https://populationmatters.org/biodiversity
Love, Life & Elephants - by Dame Daphne Sheldrick
The Elephant Whisperer - by Lawrence Anthony