He never threatened a person, or damaged crops, or entered a village. But in November, after a three-year struggle to save his life, Riff Raff, a beloved bull elephant who helped Humane Society International researchers pioneer ways for humans and his species to coexist, was put down. His crime: being an elephant.
For 24 years, Riff Raff lived peacefully at Greater Makalali Game Reserve in South Africa, where HSI 20 years ago began work that showed elephant populations in fenced areas can be humanely managed using immunocontraceptives. (During earlier decades, elephants in the country were culled by sharpshooters from helicopters.) Then, overnight in 2016, an adjoining landowner put up a fence that blocked the 45-year-old relaxed, gentle elephant from entering his preferred area, which he had been using for 13 years. The two-strand electrified fence was not strong enough to stop a determined bull elephant. HSI argued it was illegal. But the barrier was allowed to stand, and the landowner demanded Riff Raff and all the other elephants not cross it. Again and again, following his instincts, Riff Raff broke through, even when confronted by helicopters sent to deter him.
To stop the cycle, HSI researchers used a technique called “tusk bracing.” Riff Raff was using his tusks to lift and break the fence wires. A metal wire was attached to one of Riff Raff’s tusks, so that when the tusk touched the fence he would get a shock, retreat and learn to avoid the fence. But Riff Raff broke that tusk during a fight with another dominant bull. Driven by a biological need to get to his preferred area, he kept breaching the fence.
The landowner complained to the wildlife management authority, who decided Riff Raff was a “problem elephant” and needed to be killed. HSI tried to find him another home far away, but the permits were rejected due to technicalities. As a last resort, HSI transported Riff Raff to a nearby reserve. Almost immediately he broke through a fence there and returned. HSI went to court to prevent Riff Raff from being killed and after many months arranged for him to go to a reserve more than 600 miles from Makalali. The capture, sedation and 16-hour truck ride went well. Riff Raff was calm after he awoke. But when he was released into the new reserve, he headed toward the perimeter fence, eventually breaking through, despite the team’s best efforts and the use of a helicopter. There was no way left to save him.
“Poor Riff Raff—the poor creature. It’s a travesty and a tragedy,” says Audrey Delsink, the lead HSI researcher in South Africa, who for 20 years lived and raised a family at Makalali alongside Riff Raff and the rest of the reserve’s elephants. “He just kept trying to go back to that area at Makalali, because that was what he was biologically hard-wired to do. That was where he considered home.”
Riff Raff’s death left Delsink angry and heartbroken. But the terrible loss also left her determined to pursue HSI’s work of resolving human-elephant conflict because she knows it can save other elephants’ lives, and perhaps even the species.
Outside of fenced parks and reserves in southern Africa, African elephants are being killed by poachers and trophy hunters at an alarming rate. Their numbers fell by a fifth between 2006 and 2016. A little over 400,000 remain in the wild. Within South Africa, their numbers are rising inside fenced reserves, but much of the land where they formerly roamed has been lost to agriculture, housing and other human uses. Some people, such as the landowner who put up the fence, don’t want elephants around. So the animals, who evolved to migrate in search of water and food and mates, now live behind fences, their movements tightly circumscribed. Bulls are prevented from following their instincts—leaving the herds they were born in when they reach adolescence to look for unrelated females, and dispersing from competing bulls as they get older.
Darting female elephants with an immunocontraceptive the HSUS and HSI developed called PZP (porcine zona pellucida) increases the time between births so elephant populations grow more slowly. Elephants can still reproduce and have normal societies—the treatment has no social or behavioral consequences. But PZP reduces elephant population growth rates, leading to lower population densities in reserves. There is less pressure on bulls like Riff Raff to escape reserve confines and fewer chances of conflict with humans.
In 2020, seven new reserves with 131 breeding-age females joined HSI’s contraception program, raising the total number of reserves to 39 and the total number of adult female elephants to 1,145. With a single female elephant able to produce eight to 10 calves in her lifetime, the HSI program is saving thousands of elephants from being killed in culls. HSI also uses techniques such as tusk bracing—as it did with Riff Raff—to humanely avoid elephant conflicts with people. Bull elephants who might break out of reserves are tracked with satellite collars, and if they move too close to perimeters or homesteads, a vehicle or drone is sent out to monitor the situation and take appropriate action.
Beyond hands-on approaches, HSI is working to change elephant management in South Africa, with Delsink doing doctoral research on how government policies and on-the-ground strategies can better reflect the realities of elephant biology and behavior.
So much work and love went into translocating Riff Raff to a place where he could safely exist. Delsink and her team knew the risks, persisting even though success was anything but certain. They are devastated, she says, but they would do it again.
“We went into this with our eyes wide open. It’s very important to demonstrate you can save animals like Riff Raff. We had to try. I just pray that something good comes out of his death.”
The slow, careful labor of darting female elephants with PZP, monitoring reserve populations and keeping individual bulls out of trouble continues. Delsink and her team work in the hope that future Riff Raffs will not have to die, and in the knowledge that unless humans learn to coexist with elephants, someday there may be no more elephants.