I often wish I was born in the time of the early explorers. I’d have been truly content searching for plants and animals that were new to science in remote, exotic places where Indigenous tribes and plentiful wild fauna still dominated the landscape.
The problem is, for naturalists like me, truly off-the-beaten-track places are becoming harder and harder to find these days. They’re almost as rare as success stories in wildlife conservation. The two things are linked, of course. A large part of our challenge in modern-day conservation is the sheer number of humans on the planet and our insatiable consumption habits. For our fellow animal and plant species, this has meant less and less space for them, and concomitantly, less of them.
Poaching is a major problem for Africa’s elephants, but also many other icons of the African wild, from rhinos and lions to giraffes. But there are some parts of Africa where animals are thriving, and one of those places is a national park called Akagera.
Akagera National Park is on the eastern side of one of Africa’s most densely human-populated country, Rwanda.
Rhinos and lions have been reintroduced to the park in recent years by the not-for-profit organisation African Parks in partnership with the Rwandan government and the park is now home to the ‘big five’ – lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and Cape Buffalos. If you’re looking for the vast, dense numbers of animals that you get on the plains of the Serengeti, you’ll probably be disappointed by Akagera. But if you’re looking for somewhere away from the maddening crowd (by this I mean there are very few tourists there) with more than enough wildlife to keep the average wildlife buff happy, staying at very comfortable but not over-the-top tented safari camps, then Akagera is a very good pick.
Chances are, when you think of Rwanda the first thing that comes to mind is the genocide of the mid 1990s, when a million people were killed. I remember bawling my eyes out when I first watched the movie “Hotel Rwanda”. Over two decades later, the scars of the genocide are still there, but you would be hard pressed to find a country where reconciliation and unity is more of a priority than it is in Rwanda these days.
The second thing you might know about Rwanda is that it’s one of the few places in the world you can see wild mountain gorillas. Last year I had the enormous privilege of taking two safari groups to trek with the endangered mountain gorillas in Volcanoes National Park, Rwanda. Each of the four separate treks I did to four different gorilla families were completely unique, but they all had one thing in common. They were all breathtakingly magical. Trekking to the mountain gorillas is one of the most profound and inspiring experiences you can have with wildlife.
And because so much of what you pay to experience an hour with them goes back to their conservation, you can feel really good about what you’re doing there. This is responsible tourism at its best. The population of mountain gorillas has tripled in the years since zoologist Dian Fossey was studying them and much of that success comes down to how much money is being spent on responsible tourism.
Rwanda has a huge amount going for it. I love the fact that they were way ahead of Australia in banning plastic bags, and that they have a compulsory community clean-up day on the last Sunday of every month, policies you see reflected in the spotlessly clean streets of the capital, Kigali. The president, Paul Kagame, has a cabinet made up of 50% women, another thing we could improve on here in Australia.
In 1975, there were no elephants left in Akagera when it was decided to translocate 26 orphans of an elephant cull elsewhere in Rwanda to the park. These young orphans, the oldest no more than 8 years of age, learned how to be elephants in the absence of any older elephants to teach them how.
Lots of animals have to fend for themselves after birth, such as crocodiles and turtles, but among mammals, we do tend to invest a lot as mothers in ensuring our offspring have the best start possible. Elephants are a lot like us in that sense. They have tight family bonds and most of what they know they have to learn from older relatives. Elephant society is matriarchal, led by dominant older females called matriarchs, and female elephants stay with their mothers, aunts and sisters for their entire lives. Males branch out as teenagers to join other males, where they learn from older males how to be respectable bulls.
In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest that in the absence of older males, young males really go off the rails. At a park in South Africa, where young male elephants were introduced to a park in the absence of elder males, they actually caused the deaths of a number of rhinos by stabbing them with their tusks. This is really unusual behaviour for a herbivore! In her book “Elephant Don”, elephant expert Dr Caitlin O’Connell describes how the hormonal state of older, dominant males may actually keep the hormones of the young males in check, creating a kind of social regulation of young males. In short, pretty much everything we know about elephants is that elders are very important in the development of the next generation.
So how did the 26 young orphaned elephants fare after they were let free in Akagera? And how did they learn how to be elephants without elders to guide them? In the years ahead, I’ll be trying to understand this as part of a targeted conservation project on the Akagera elephants, working closely with African Parks. Given how many orphaned elephants have come about as a result of this latest poaching surge in Africa, these findings will be pertinent to elephant conservation in the future.
The Carousel wants to thank Dr Tammie Matson for her article.