I have been working with Veterans for Wildlife for just over a year now. Most of my time has been spent between two game reserves. One in northern Namibia and the other in Zululand, South Africa, as well as a few deployments to National Parks in southern and west Africa.

My role is primarily focussed on developing the security at these reserves and training their personnel in wildlife crime prevention measures. However, more often than not, I come across more dangerous big game than poachers. Indeed, what do all these private and government reserves have in common? Elephants!

0130 one Saturday morning I get a knock on my door. It is Paul, the Reserve Manager. “Glen I need your help, the Elephants have broken the neighbouring farmer’s fence, and they are heading towards the main road”, he said.

“Roger that mate, let’s get moving”, I replied.

Extremely mountainous terrain throughout the reserve, as well as the location of the elephants that night, we first have to head north. The elephants, however, are heading south. As such, Paul and I need to drive around the entire reserve and surrounding farms. A journey that usually takes 90 to 120 minutes.

With Paul driving, and time being of the essence, we got to where we needed to be in less than 90 minutes! For those of you who know rural African roads, this is no mean feat. There is no light, and there are more potholes, rogue cows and other obstacles that stars in the sky!

Thankfully, the two elephant herds in the area have GPS tracking collars placed on them for this exact reason. One bull and one matriarch in each herd, respectively. The elephants are also the main reason Veterans for Wildlife are involved in this reserve in particular. The current landowners and surrounding farmers plan to come together and enlarge the current reserve from 10 000 hectares to 40 000 hectares. Veterans for Wildlife will aid in the establishment of the reserve's security structures.

Once the reserve has been formally established, the elephants will be able to go about their business. They will be able to walk their common routes within the reserve and not disturb any surrounding communities and cause damage to any infrastructure. The goal is to establish a fully-functioning game reserve, preserving the resident wildlife and empowering the local communities.

However, this kind of disruptive elephant behaviour seemingly occurs all too often.

Once we track the elephants down, the standard procedure would be for one man to stand on the rear of the pick-up truck and bang two pots or bottles together as the vehicle drives towards the elephant’s location. This worked like a charm, and the elephants scampered back into the reserve, but only for a short while!

If you don’t already know, elephants are highly intelligent, and eventually, they figured out what we were up to and that we weren’t really a threat. They even got used to the helicopter flying overhead to herd them back into the reserve on the odd occasion. Escalation was needed so firecrackers were the order of the day and that’s what we use nowadays.

Getting the elephants back within the reserve is just phase A of this sort of operation. Phase B would be to gather all staff on the reserve and conduct fence repairs the following day. This is a common occurrence in many reserves. Fences, gates, trees and crops are damaged by elephants constantly. I know what you are thinking. "The fences are electrified, aren’t they?" In some reserves, the answer is no. Even when the fences are electrified, a common practice is for one of the adult elephants to push a young one into the fence to short the electricity. Welcome to the herd, little one! After that, it’s easy for the elephants to pull the fence down with their trunks or simply push it over and walk on.

“Why keep repairing the fence every time they break it, can’t you just leave it?”, you may ask. Indeed, I asked a similar question. If the fence is on the elephants' usual route, they will keep breaking it in the same spot time and time again. So, the simple answer is you have to keep repairing the damage. If the wildlife authorities find out or they drop in for a surprise inspection and your fences are not up to the standard, they could shut down the entire reserve! This is because elephants can and do pose a danger to local communities living close to the reserve.

There is, however, a cost-effective and profitable solution to this in some cases. Placing beehives along the fence lines! This has worked wonders in some reserves in east Africa. The elephants tend not to break the fence as they are petrified of bees, and the community tend to the hives and sell the honey produced.

The reserve in Namibia is one of my favourite locations and projects. The reserve is massive, and yet they only have 5 resident elephants. These 5 still do cause a lot of damage, though. To fences and gates, but in particular to most of the important tree species in the area as well! This is not a case of the elephants misbehaving or being naughty. It’s just what they do, it’s in their nature. They push over trees in search of food and they also push them over to encourage further vegetation growth in the years to come. Some refer to elephants as the bushveld's gardeners.

On this particular reserve, there are no fences around our accommodation and work areas. All species, including lions, walk through our domain (or is it their domain and we are the intruders?). Anyway, one bull elephant who I named “George” aka Georgie Porgie, he loves walking close to the accommodation. George is forever having a go at trying to push over the lovely big trees surrounding the Reserve Manager's farmhouse. He has been successful on a few occasions.

Now George doesn’t get the makeshift reserve band treatment of banging bottles, nor does he get firecrackers thrown in his general direction. He gets peppered with pepper balls from a paintball gun. You may think that this is cruel, but think about when you sniff a little bit of pepper, you just sneeze. A similar thing happens to George. It merely irritates his trunk, and the impact of the balls doesn’t hurt him at all. Not through that thick skin of his! It just scares him off.

Now, I am no wildlife or elephant expert. I am sharing my experiences with elephants within the places I have worked. And it may sound like I am painting elephants as pests. It is true, some reserve owners don’t enjoy elephants on their property because of the abovementioned scenarios and costs. Conflicts, especially involving crop damage have resulted in many elephants being killed and also in some cases, human fatalities.

Personally, I am not in a position to give any solutions as to how managers and owners can or should control their elephants. I love elephants, even George. I talk to them and enjoy seeing them in the wild. They can sense your aura. So maybe we should stop being nasty to them as a race altogether, and we may just get along!

I have spoken to George on many occasions while he has been pushing palm trees. He nudges them with his head, so the dates fall to the ground for him to eat. I chat to him calmly as if he were a person (spending too much time alone in the bush Glen!). Those times that I talked to him calmly, and like he was a mate of mine down the pub, he never pushed any large trees down on those days.

But, ultimately, I think it comes down to us humans fencing them in for our viewing pleasure.

In an ideal world, the elephants should be able to roam free across massive expanses with no fences. Such as in areas like the Serengeti. Unfortunately, we just don’t have space and us humans are literally all over the place. However, with all that I have seen and experienced with elephants, there is a way forward. Give them enough space, treat them with the respect they deserve and accept them for the majestic animals that they are. By doing so, humans and elephants can co-exist in the same environment.