Elephants Devour Park’s Prickly Problem

Expensive alien vegetation removal programs are not always the answer, especially not when there are natural solutions available. In the Addo Elephant National Park (AENP), herds of elephant came to the rescue in a section where invasive prickly pears stood like a dense forest.

Words by Rene de Klerk

In fact, the section of land was historically purchased to incorporate into the park, unfortunately the land was covered in large stands of prickly pear and it was decided that it would be too costly for the Working for Water project to eradicate from the landscape. As soon as management dropped the fences, the elephants sniffed out the problem and immediately started with clean-up operations.

“Within a few weeks of opening this 3000 hectare portion, 400-500 elephants moved into the area. The juicy leaves of the prickly pear are a delicacy to them,” says AENP regional ranger John Adendorff. The elephants have devised a clever method to get rid of the spiky thorns. After pushing over the entire plant, they remove the thorns by rubbing their feet against the leaves. This also damages the leaf structure, which makes future regrowth impossible.

Even when baboons eat the fruit, and spread the seed via their excrement, the elephants detect the new growth and stop the plants spreading quickly, explains Adendorff.

The elephants have been doing such a brilliant job that no interventions will be needed at all. “We can therefore use the money more affectively,” says Roland Carolus, assistant cluster manager for the frontier region. In fact, Adendorff believes that there will be no traces of the prickly pear left at all by March 2017. If the same problem occurred in any other park, biological control agents such as cochineal, or the application of herbicide would have been the answer.

According to Adendorff, this elephant phenomenon is unique to the park. “We don’t know what it is, but they love the plants. In places like the Kruger National Park, the elephants are not as effective at all.” He says that it might have something to do with the soil type which contributes to the palatability of the vegetation; however, it is only speculation. “In the 1990s there were areas in the park covered with prickly pear, but today there is nothing left in those areas. The park’s elephants are nature’s own Working for Water project.


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