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Individuals Matter Among Africa’s Wild Animals

A single animal bagged by a trophy hunter can quite easily cause the destruction  of the entire family unit that may depend on it for nurturing, protection, or other assistance to survive in the wild. Numerous articles, debates and meetings have discussed the status of conservation of African wildlife and trophy hunting.  Vigorous supporters of animal trophy hunts are...

A single animal bagged by a trophy hunter can quite easily cause the destruction  of the entire family unit that may depend on it for nurturing, protection, or other assistance to survive in the wild.

Numerous articles, debates and meetings have discussed the status of conservation of African wildlife and trophy hunting.  Vigorous supporters of animal trophy hunts are fond of stating that one animal in a family group is not important. Older animals do not provide much value to the family group, they argue. They also claim that Africa’s wildlife is just that — wildlife, “stock” to be stalked, shot, brought home as a trophy to be hung on a wall, — and all well-paid for.

But there is a different way to think about this. Three experts explain why individuals matter in three of Africa’s Big Five: a pride of African lions, a herd of elephants, and a crash of rhino.

African Lions

Dereck Jourbert, award-winning filmmaker, conservationist, and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, founder of the Big Cats Initiative:

Becca Bryan: You have conducted and published research on the African lion for decades. Do you believe that an individual lion matters in the pride? If so, what compels you to think that?

Dereck Joubert: Lions are individuals, not just a collective, and each has a unique relationship within the pride. If we just consider the hunt, at first, lions within a pride have different strengths. For example, some consistently circle down a left flank (or right) when circling prey. This proves they are individuals and they have different skills. Becoming expert in something the rest of the pride is not aids the success and survival of the pride. So individuals matter to the pride’s success.

Having a full complement of individual males is important, because without them a solitary male (left vulnerable without his companion) cannot defend a territory against marauding males. He is then chased off and the companion male really did matter to him then, but as he loses his territory, both then mattered considerably to the pride as new males come in and kill all the cubs, (so the males mattered to them) and some females and on some occasions even collapse the pride (and they matter once again.)

Becca Bryan: Is there one time when you can definitively say that the individual lion mattered? When, where and what was that experience?

Dereck Joubert: Look at “Eternal Enemies.” (Video documentary by Dereck and Beverly Joubert) The final scene: A male lion called Mandevu is struggling to shake a hyena. More [hyenas] gather and eventually he is on the verge of being attacked. This lion was never very good at defending the pride against hyenas.

His brother Ntwaidumela, on the other hand, had very strong feelings about hyenas. He comes in, in the film, and focuses on a hyena, chases her down relentlessly and kills her. By so doing he saves his brother. Had this gone wrong, and Mandevu had been injured, the pride would have suffered so Ntwaidumela certainly mattered to the pride that day. And I would argue every day that he was alive.

African Elephants

Rob Brandford, Executive Director, The David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

Former Sheldrick orphan Wendy returns to the Trust with her calf Wiva
Sheldrick elephant orphan Wendy returns to a wilderness sanctuary  with her calf Wiva

Becca Bryan: Do you believe that individuals matter in an elephant herd?

Rob Brandford: Each individual elephant in a herd is just as important as the next. The dynamics in an elephant herd work so well because each individual has a role to play, whether that is the matriarch leading the herd to water or the young mother in the group, protecting her young with the help of her aunties. Every life is precious.

Becca Bryan: What does one death in an elephant herd mean to the rest of the herd?

Rob Brandford: Studies have shown that elephants experience many of the same emotions as human beings. Elephants are indeed capable of sadness, joy and distress and this is shown when a member of the herd dies. Family is all-important to elephants and the death of a family member has effects on the structure of the herd, particularly if this is the matriarch, as the younger members rely so heavily on her guidance.

Becca Bryan: In respect to the elephant orphans you are caring for now, how does each individual matter to the others?

Rob Brandford: We are currently caring for 38 orphaned baby elephants at the Nairobi Nursery and each rescue comes with its complications. However, thanks to over 38 years of elephant rescue and hand-rearing, we are able to offer each baby elephant the very best chance of survival through 24-hour care and medical attention. The babies are very important to each other as they offer support and reassurance to the new arrivals – they offer a sense of understanding.

White Rhinos

Bonné de Bod – Presenter/Producer of STROOP, a South African wildlife documentary film being made about the rhino crisis:


image credit ©Susan Scott for 'STROOP'
Image credit ©Susan Scott for ‘STROOP’

Becca Bryan: Do you believe that an individual white rhino matters in the crash (collective noun for herd of rhinos)? What leads you to think that away? What have you personally seen when reporting about them?

Bonné de Bod: Absolutely, an individual rhino does matter! White rhinos have quite a complex social structure and there can sometimes be up to 14 rhinos in a crash, mostly made up of females with calves. But I have to say, in all my time out in the field, I have rarely seen groups of 6 individuals or more. There is an unbelievable bond between the cow and her calf. She does not leave her calf’s side until it is truly independent, nor will she mate again until the calf is, so to speak…out of the house!

Adult males defend their territories by marking quite forcefully by stomping, scraping and kicking their freshly made dung piles. The home range for adult females can be up to seven times larger, and of course this depends on the quality of their habitat as well as population density. But, breeding females are blocked from leaving a dominant male’s territory, which are marked and patrolled frequently by these males.

Becca Bryan:  What does the death of one rhino matter to the crash? Do you see grief-like behavior in them? How do they react?

Bonné de Bod: I have seen firsthand how a little rhino orphan refuses to leave the side of his dead mother. How he cries uncontrollably, nudging his mother in the hope of some reaction. Of course from a scientific point of view, it could be argued that the orphan is simply expressing a basic physiological need of hunger. And yes, there is absolutely a physical distress, but I firmly believe that there is an emotional response too. How confused and chaotic and how CHANGED his little world has become because of human greed. So yes, I believe animals do have personalities and are unique and that they grieve their loss in their own way.

Becca Bryan: With all of the footage you’ve taken on rhino and all of the people you’ve talked to, what is the one prevailing opinion on individuals matter about the iconic white rhino rhino?

Bonné de Bod: On my journey filming for “STROOP” I have spoken to many people working closely with rhinos, but I would like to answer this from a recent experience I had last week. I was filming in Kruger National Park and was blessed with a 3-hour observation of two white rhinos. The current drought in South Africa has had a great impact on our National Parks and is of course affecting the animals. The temperature was around 42 degrees Celsius (107 degrees Fahrenheit) and the surrounding area was very dry with one wet patch next to the road.

These two rhinos decided to take full advantage of a mud bath in this pool. Just before sunset one of the rhinos got up and moved off into the bush, but what interested me is that there was clear communication between them before the one left — a high-pitched dolphin-like sound that rhinos make — echoed in the dry air. It was wonderful to see how they relate to each other. How a decision was being communicated. This to me indicates the close family structure of rhinos and the importance and consideration of each individual within a group.

Every individual animal matters in the African wildlife kingdom. Each one has a specific place and role in their family structure. Each one, no matter how young or old, is valuable, needed and important to that community. Just as it is in the human family.

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Meet the Author

Author Photo Becca Bryan
Becca Bryan is a published freelance writer in Florida. Her work includes interviews with celebrities, U.S. military members, veterans, journalists, and takes great pride in highlighting Florida wildlife and those who care for it.