All is not well at the Dinokeng Game Reserve in Gauteng. As the reserve weathers the furious storm of criticism after a lion belonging to local owner Kevin Richardson killed a young woman, accusations have been levelled at the reserve over its handling of elephants.

The Elephant Specialist Advisory Group (ESAG) have criticized Dinokeng management for administering a controversial vaccine, typically used to suppress musth, to one of its young elephant bulls. This after elephant management specialists serving on the Dinokeng Steering Committee (DSC) were never consulted on the use of the GnRH vaccine, or the elephant’s alleged state of musth, in the first place.

The recent death of an elephant cow, misidentified as a bull elephant during a collaring operation, has further baffled specialists working with the reserve. The cow was darted by a local vet who thought the elephant to be male. Because of the weight and size, elephant bulls generally receive a higher dosage of immobilising agent than cows of the same age.

In January this year, the NGO Elephants, Rhinos & People (ERP) also withdrew from the reserve and no longer provides it with a monthly grant of over R100 000 in elephant monitoring services.


Perverting scientific advice

According to Dr Marion Garaï, ESAG chairperson and member of the DSC, the committee was never consulted over the use of the GnRH vaccine, as there was no mention of the bull being in musth during the previous DSC meeting in November 2017. News of the GnRH treatment came via other specialists in the field, who were consulted despite having no previous involvement with Dinokeng. In response, ESAG directed a letter directly to Dinokeng management advising against the use of GnRH vaccine, as it would not have effect on the ‘problem behaviour’ the elephant had been accused of.

Despite this, an elephant named Hot Stuff, described as a problem elephant, was vaccinated.

GnRH suppresses the testosterone levels and therefore suppresses musth. Garaï said the main issues in terms of managing the young bulls at Dinokeng had always been about the improperly maintained fences – not musth-induced aggression. ‘It appears the musth excuse was used following my letter of explanation what GnRH is used for, namely to supress musth related aggression,’ said Garaï.

In a follow-up letter addressed to Dinokeng landowners, management claimed Hot Stuff had been ‘permanently in musth over the past three months.’ However experts say it’s highly unlikely for a young bull to be in a state of musth for such an extended period.

When questioned on this, official Dinokeng veterinarian Dr Jacques O’Dell said he could not comment on the matter, as it would ‘break client-patient confidentiality’.

This is not the first time controversial decisions have been made regarding elephant management at the reserve. In November last year, Dinokeng applied for two Damage-Causing Animal (DCA) permits to have Hot Stuff and Tiny Tim, another young elephant bull, killed. In motivating the permits, there had not been any mention of the Hot Stuff’s ‘permanent state of musth’.

ERP director Dereck Milburn said the decision to apply for the permits had been made without ERP’s knowledge and was in stark contrast to the organisation’s main objective which is to save elephants from culling. He stated at the time that ERP would have no choice but to reconsider its position at the reserve if the permits were used.

In January, despite the DCA permits being unused, ERP distanced itself from Dinokeng. According to Milburn, difficult relations between his employees and the landowners on Dinokeng were hindering proper elephant management by the NGO.

ERP wildlife monitors, along with all funding, were subsequently withdrawn.

Dinokeng then decided to collar three elephant bulls, including Hot Stuff. According to Garaï, the reason that Dinokeng opted to dart and collar a bull in musth was strange. ‘This again questions whether the elephant was, in fact, really in musth for three months.’

Shortly after the collaring operation, one of the two other collared elephants, identified at the time as J Junior, was found dead. Preliminary findings by the vet, O’Dell, indicated that the animal might have been shot two weeks earlier.


Major confusion

The thorough examination of the carcass revealed a bombshell: the dead elephant was, in fact, an elephant cow and not the bull J Junior, who was supposed to receive the collar. The wrong elephant had been darted, collared, and declared dead.

The two vets at the collaring operation, O’Dell and veterinary assistant Katja Koeppel, were unable recognise the elephant was female. According to Millburn, who had been present at the collaring operation, they could also not see a bullet entry wound “because of the way the elephant was lying down”. However no wounds were reported when the animal recovered and stood up after anaesthesia.

In an official letter directed at the Dinokeng landowners shortly after the elephant’s death, O’Dell stated that severe septicaemia was detected inside the elephant’s carcass when it was found dead. Post mortem results are still pending, but without the recovery of the bullet there is no conclusive evidence. The elephant carcass was buried on the day.

No explanation was offered as to why the two vets who darted and collared the elephant were unable to distinguish its sex. The confusion was added to when Dinokeng management sent a letter to landowners triumphantly stating that ‘J Junior is still alive and well’, despite ‘a number of assumptions made by all parties throughout the exercise.’


An insult to advisors

‘It is totally incomprehensible,’ said Garaï, ‘how so many people and two wildlife veterinaries could not differentiate a bull from a cow.’

Dinokeng Game Enterprises Chairman Etienne Toerien insisted that ‘the elephants at Dinokeng are well-managed and ‘not in danger’. Yet he confirmed that much of the fencing within the property was not up to standard, leaving elephants to break through properties inside Dinokeng as they please.

He also confirmed that, since January, the monitoring of the animals had been stopped and that ‘poachers can be in the park at any given time’. He said the cow could have been shot by either poachers or farmers on the property, but that it ‘is anybody’s guess what happened’.

According to Garaï, ‘It is offensive to the steering committee and all other scientific advisors that have been consulted in the past but not listened to, and further people asked for their opinion on the GnRH that had not been part of the past advisors or steering committee, to read all the excuses brought forward.’

In November 2016, Dinokeng hit the news when a young elephant bull was illegally shot by a farmer after breaking through the reserve’s fences. The farmer had killed the elephant without warning and only phoned the reserve to say they should collect the carcass.

A full investigation by the stock theft unit of the police and officials of Gauteng department of rural and agricultural development was launched, but the case was later dropped.