Of Mice and Men

Robyn Kienzle | October 6, 2017

Of Mice and Men

Pieter loved his job as a park ranger and tour guide in Kruger National Park. At the age of 37 he was single, childless and devoted to the animals of Africa. At the age of 17, he had left school, and, against his parents wishes, chosen not continue on to university, but start an apprenticeship as a ranger at Kruger. This was South Africa, and with ANC in control, job prospects for white males were shrinking on a daily basis but Kruger at this stage was seemingly exempt from some of the problems and challenges of the rest of this country.

Pieter’s parents lived in Johannesburg but he loathed the place. The traffic, the filth, the crime and people, not to mention the politics, all stressed him and it was only as he drove through the gates of Kruger that he felt any peace; at home, in his special place.

Over his 20 years on the job, Pieter had become highly qualified, able to work with all animals, even the most dangerous and permitted to exit his vehicle in Kruger, a privilege only allowed to a very select few.

At this time, there were many vital decisions to be made about the future of this iconic nature reserve and its animal residents. Poachers from Mozambique continued to cross the border and kill rhinos. Black rhino numbers were continually under threat and now with the 4 years of continuous drought, other animals, especially grazers like buffalo, hippos and white rhinos were also in a precarious state.

One group of animals that was thriving however, was the elephants – having been heavily protected and being adaptable to all weather conditions , while others snuffled and scratched the ground for any little bit of grass to survive, das Oliphant just ripped up the ever present mopane trees by the root, or tore the foliage off even the most thorny bushes. Their numbers were now above sustainable levels and something needed to be done to reduce the population in the park. If hippos or buffalo needed to be culled, it could be done selectively and with minimum drama and impact, but with elephants it was a logistic, murderous and emotional challenge. To cull elephant, you must kill the whole herd. To leave any alive causes them extreme stress, and they nearly always become manhaters and rogues.

Reports had come in from the rangers who wandered the park looking for poachers, of a herd of elephants who were all in fairly poor condition with evidence of quite a few deaths amongst the older bulls and cows. Pieter and his men set out to locate this group – never an easy task as despite their size and numbers, elephants have the uncanny ability to move quickly, silently and almost invisibly through the bush. In this case, however, they were helped in their search by the distinctive cries of a mother elephant in mourning – and when they found the group there was a very young elephant obviously recently deceased. They certainly were not a healthy bunch and Pieter agreed they were ideal candidates for culling but he also wanted to know what was causing these deaths.

They monitored the group while it stayed with the carcass of the young elephant – then when they moved on he sent the boys in to take samples. He then sent a couple of them back to base with instructions he needed to know urgently what was causing these deaths. They began a thorough count of the herd and planned the horrendous task of shooting them quickly and humanely bulls and cows needed to be shot first followed quickly by the young ones. This planning took a couple of days and during that time Pieter saw two more animals apparently drop dead from weakness. On the morning of the third day, he had decided the elephants were in a good position to commence the culling so he lined up all his shooters – men he had selected for their calmness and accuracy.

Just as the men stood, rifles up to shoulders, lining up the selected animals, the boys caught up with them with the news that the deceased animals had been diagnosed with EMC – a virus that is carried

 by field mice and picked up by elephants when they eat the rodent-infested grass. This was apparently a particularly virulent, highly contagious strain and, coupled with the dry conditions and weakened state of the herd, would most likely spread through and kill them all fairly quickly.

With gun poised, Pieter was faced with awful decision – to shoot or let nature take its course?

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