Something strange started happening in the Pilanesberg Game Reserve in South Africa in 1992. Dead rhinoceroses – a lot of dead rhinoceroses – were being found. By 1997 more than 40 had been killed. Wildlife authorities were completely stumped as to the cause.
Clearly, humans weren’t responsible; the rhinos had been brutally mauled to death and their ivory tusks were intact.
Neither could the deaths be attributed to predatory animals; adult rhinoceros have no real natural enemies other than humans although young rhinos can fall prey to predators such as big cats, crocodiles, wild dogs, and hyenas.
After much head scratching somebody had a thought, a thought that proved out but one that also raised some troubling questions: elephants were behind the killings. But why? Elephants and rhinos aren’t enemies and both are herbivores.
Not for the first time, the answer lay in horribly imperfect human understanding and actions.
Many years prior to the rhino killings South Africa found itself facing a serious elephant overpopulation problem. Not only was sufficient grazing land rapidly dwindling, people (or rather their farms and gardens, and even their newly constructed tasty grass huts) were being threatened, sometimes fatally.
At the time, the accepted solution was to cull the herd of breeding adults, both male and female. Grotesquely, the process included young calves often left tied to a dead parent, usually for an extended time, until a team returned to gather them up for transport to another elephant range.