Like clockwork, just after dusk, they approach the fence. Eleven bull elephants, bunched together in a great ridge of grey, wait by the electrified wires. They hold their heads high, alert, until the largest bull makes its way to the wires. He curls his trunk above his head and slowly and repeatedly pulls the wires back with his tusks, carefully avoiding an electric shock, until the wires sag to the ground. In a flurry of dust, noise, pushing and pulling, the rest of the group crosses the fence and they scatter, under the cover of night, to raid crops.
This was the first time I saw elephants break a fence. I watched from the cover of a Euclea bush, some 100 metres from the fence and was stunned by the skill, strength and cooperation I saw amongst this group.
Rows of electrified wires held up by wooden posts, which stretch for kilometres are a common sight across African elephant ranges. The Kenya Wildlife Service estimates that there is already 1,500km of electrified fencing in Kenya, and that this length is growing every year.
If poaching continues at its current levels, the only way elephants will survive in the wild will be within well-funded, fortified conservation areas – the current reality for the survival of rhinos.
Unlike rhinos it is harder to confine elephants within designated spaces. With their vast requirement for space, food and water, complex societies, intelligence and taste for crops, they roam widely and cross boundaries created for them. Elephants can adapt to break even the most sophisticated of fences – resulting in a costly race with wildlife managers as they upgrade fence design.
I have been carrying out research in Laikipia, Kenya, into how and why elephants break electrified fences and what the consequences of this behaviour are for elephants and for people. I have focused on 130km of electrified fence built to divide Laikipia County into a place where elephants are tolerated (within ranches and conservancies) and a place were they are not (on small-scale farmland).
I found that elephants seek out weak points (of low voltage) close to farmland. Along fences well-maintained, elephants will continue to break it in places they have broken in the past. It is invariably bull elephants that are involved, not females. Certain individuals are responsible for the physical act of breaking. ‘Breakers’ tend to be older, larger bulls and are often followed by younger adolescent bulls that seem to associate with older males to ‘learn’ how to break fences. Breakers get through the fence in unique, individual ways to avoid an electric shock.
One bull I have studied – known as Ismael by Space for Giants – carefully wrapped his trunk around posts, between the wires, to uproot them and flatten the fence. I once saw him push a smaller bull through the fence before him to break it. In the three years of watching his movements (on the ground and via the GPS collar Space for Giants fitted him with in 2010), Ismael broke a 10km section of fence 451 times. With regular practice on an adjacent weaker stretch of fence, wildlife managers in a neighbouring Ol Pejeta Conservancy believed that Ismael and fellow bulls had learned how to break their high-voltage, frequently patrolled fence. The cost of their persistent damage drove the Kenya Wildlife Service to translocate Ismael and nine other bull elephants to Meru National Park in August 2013. Park officials later told me tales of a large male elephant who wore a GPS collar that was teaching a group of bulls how to break fences.
There are risks associated with breaking fences for elephants that go beyond circumventing an electric shock. On the wrong side of the fence they have to negotiate human presence as they make their way silently around farms to eat crops that farmers have spent months of hard work to cultivate. Elephants alter their behaviour to negotiate this risk. In Laikipia, elephants broke out of the fence onto cultivated land after dusk and broke back in before the sun rose. Data from elephants fitted with GPS collars showed that they increased their speed on the wrong side.
Space for Giants has drawn on lessons learned from this research and across electrified fences more widely in Kenya, to inform how to best mitigate human-elephant conflict.
Governments and wildlife managers are increasingly pitching and constructing electrified fences as the only solution for people to share a landscape with elephants. When elephants continue to break fences and destroy crops, farmers’ expectations are dashed and their tolerance of elephants crashes. Commercial farmers could sustain these losses but for subsistence farmers, the loss of a crop represents the loss of their livelihood. Angry, desperate farmers can kill fence-breaking bull elephants in retaliation. In my study area in west Laikipia, a group of five elephants died, on the wrong side of the fence, after eating pumpkins laced with strychnine by farmers. As fence-breaking bulls tend to be the largest elephants, they often carry large tusks. By roaming over the wrong side, bulls are vulnerable to poachers.
In an ideal world, landscapes would be open and connected and not shaped by barriers. Land use would be carefully planned around wildlife areas. However, unless the current poaching crisis is halted, and boundaries between cultivation and elephant range soften, electrified fences will have to continue to define and delimit the future of elephants.
Lauren Evans is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, Department of Geography and Research Fellow of Space for Giants