In 1994, when Asante Sana Game Reserve came to be, there were many hopes for the environment. Historically a farming area, the Karoo suffered changes to its landscape in a variety of ways such as habitat loss, soil erosion and overgrazing thus creating a fragile environment. By definition, a fragile ecosystem is an ecosystem that is extremely sensitive, lacks resilience to and is heavily impacted by changes in temperature, air and water quality caused by an ‘un-natural’ event. This ecosystem exemplifies the ramifications of incessant anthropogenic activity and development done at the compromise of natural environments. Time, patience and care allowed for a more stabilized environment and in 2004, Asante Sana brought in elephants to the reserve. Nine elephants were introduced, all of which were female except one male calf. Three 30 year olds, three 10-15 year olds, one 7-year-old and 2 below the age of three. While the Karoo has the remnants of historical farming practices and elephants are highly destructive species due to their consumption patterns, these elephants have thrived and helped to rebuild the reserve through their consumption of the Acacia karroo.
The Acacia karroo, also known as the Karoo Thorn, is very prevalent throughout the reserve and is one of the dietary staples of these enormous consumers. This thorny tree has a long taproot which allows it to uptake water and nutrients from deep underground. The plant is a pioneer species and therefore has a short lifespan of about 30 to 40 odd years. In combination with this lifespan and the degradation caused by the elephants, the landscape has been able to improve and regenerate. The Acacia karroo has nitrogen-fixing fungi attached to its roots, which means that the soil around every tree increases in fertility. When its reached the end of its lifespan and falls to the ground, its rotting timber forms a micro-climate attracting thousands of insects, which in turn feed birds and mammals. The fallen branches can trap seeds and stop soil erosion along drainage lines and dry riverbeds. In this regard, there is a mutual constitution between elephants and the environment of the Karoo.
On one of their first explorations through their surroundings, the elephants ventured to the tops of the mountains and many caught pneumonia. Luckily, none of the majestic creatures suffered any fatalities but it was important for the animals to obtain an understanding of their habitat so that they could educate future generations. In 2010, a bull named Rex was introduced to the reserve. Males typically display much more destructive traits however, Rex used this behavior to show off to the potential cows and within two years there were 7 babies born. The social structure of the largest living land mammal is determined by their family structure. A herd is typically headed by the largest and oldest female of the group known as the matriarch. The matriarch establishes the dominance over the others and they will rely on her to make the major decisions in the case of an emergency. If the matriarch does not have authority, it is likely that her personality or the genetic make-up of the herd plays a huge role in the structure.
In 2017, Asante Sana Reserve has 21 elephants and this large herd population is a lot for this space to sustain. To protect this nuclear family and preserve the environment, Asante Sana started practicing conservation measures 2½ years ago. The males have been given gen. RH to reduce their testosterone levels and in humans this drug has also been used in treatment for prostate cancer. Since doing so, Rex has been more relaxed and calm but the overall dynamic has remained the same. As with most things in life, it is important to have checks and balances especially in relation to the carrying capacity of a closed environment. In time, the males can reproduce again but for now the balance between nature and science helps sustain the healthy functioning of Asante Sana.
Photography by Mackayla McGarvey