December 27, 2005
“Rogue” African elephants may soon hunt poachers
By Ed Stoddard
DINOKENG, South Africa (Reuters) - Tembo was a killer who
faced the death sentence for his "crimes."
But the six-tonne bull elephant won a reprieve after a vet
approached animal trainer Rory Hensman and asked him if he
could mend Tembo's wild ways.
Now tourists are taking rides on Tembo's back in the bush
at Dinokeng Game Reserve 100 km (60 miles) northeast of
Johannesburg -- proving that grown elephants can learn new
Tembo and some of his jumbo friends may also be put to work
soon protecting their own kind as "all-terrain" vehicles in
"It just shows that you can train African bull elephants
... the previous estimates were that you had to start when they
were 12 to 15 months," said Dinokeng owner Larry Blundell.
Tembo was well past that -- about 18 years in fact -- when
he went on the rampage which almost ended with a bullet in his
An orphan of a cull in South Africa's Kruger National Park,
he was relocated to a private game reserve.
He eventually found himself a female companion but another
bull came along and successfully "wooed" her. Tembo still bears
the scars of the fight he had with that bull in the form of a
More disturbingly, he also vented his rage by killing two
rhinos and damaging the lodge at his reserve.
That past is hard to square with the gentle giant who
curiously sniffs visitors with his trunk while children hug his
telephone-pole like legs.
"Tembo has a wonderful nature -- he had lots of contact
with people but when he was growing up, no training," his
trainer Hensman told Reuters by phone from his base in the
country's northern Limpopo province.
"We use a bilateral ask and reward system. When he does
something you say well done and reward him," he said.
Elephants, especially the more malleable Asian variety,
have been used by humans for war and work for more than 2,000
But humanity's history with the pachyderms has also been
marked by ruthless persecution and hunting -- and so a
trainer's first job is to win over their instinctive mistrust
"Elephants are extremely intelligent and they can be
trained to do all sorts of things. What is difficult is to get
over their inherent fear of man," said Hensman.
Mabitsi, Dinokeng's other trained elephant, was also a
"rogue" who was part of a group of four that broke through the
fence at the Kruger Park, wreaking havoc on local citrus farms.
He was also due to be put down until Hensman's
Some animal welfare activists may take offence at the idea
of a wild and majestic animal being trained to take humans on
rides -- but the alternative for Tembo and Mabitsi would have
Hensman maintains that elephants, known for their emotional
natures and complex social systems, clearly enjoy mixing with
And Hensman's animals may soon be employed to help in the
preservation of their own species and others.
Hensman originally began training elephants in his native
Zimbabwe to use in anti-poaching operations and hopes to use
some of his pachyderms in South Africa for that purpose. He has
been in talks about this with the Kruger Park.
Elephants have an acute sense of smell, can travel anywhere
in the bush, and don't break down -- making them ideal for
patrols as well as tracking poachers.
"What is needed in out of the way places, especially in the
rainy season, is an elephant. They are an excellent means of
transport and don't need to be refuelled," said Hensman.