Judge grants stay of execution to 45-year-old 'problem elephant' on death row

A 'problem' elephant on death row in South Africa has been granted a temporary stay of execution after a judge's last minute intervention.

Riff Raff, a 40-45 year-old bull elephant, was due to be shot after causing a nuisance to locals who wanted him killed to stop their fences being repeatedly trampled on.

He was saved - for now - after acting deputy judge president Mr Justice M.G. Phatudi listened to animal rights campaigners who had been calling for the elephant to be relocated rather than destroyed.

An application to have him relocated was rejected by the Limpopo government but that decision must now be reviewed and animal rights campaigners hope that means Riff Raff will avoid being shot.

  • Watch footage of part of a failed attempt to relocate Riff Raff - he walked the 40-mile journey back to his original territory after arriving at his new home

Human/elephant conflict is common in South Africa, especially with bull elephants because it is in their nature to leave their herd in search of new land and new mating partners.

"In Riff Raff’s case, a fence was erected in the middle of his home range during one of the region’s worst droughts, cutting him off from a water source and land that he had used unhindered for 13 years," elephant expert Audrey Delsink, who has worked with Riff Raff for 20 years, said.

Campaigners from the Humane Society International/Africa and Global Supplies (HSI/Africa), have been working to save the mature elephant for two years.

He was successfully transported to a new reserve but upon arrival turned around and walked the 40-mile journey back to his original territory.

The animal rights activists then found him a new home 250-miles away but their application to have him relocated was rejected by the department of economic development, environment and tourism.

The destruction order would have gone ahead until a last-minute judgement by Mr Justice M.G. Phatudi which called for a review of the decision to reject relocating.

Campaigners have tried and failed to relocate the elephant. Credit: Humane Society International

Ms Delsink, who is the wildlife director of HSI/Africa, said: "Riff Raff is a magnificent bull elephant who symbolises the growing problem here in South Africa of lethal solutions being sought to solve human-elephant conflict.

"Many elephants who are labelled a ‘problem’ are simply bull elephants following what they are biologically hard-wired to do – leave their herd to find their own new range with unrelated females so that they can move up in the bull hierarchy.

"With crops and human settlements common in and around elephant protection areas, they often encounter fences, and then all too often land-owners seek to solve fence-breaking behaviour with a rifle."

An independent study revealed up to 50 destruction permits were issued between 2016-2017 to kill so-called problem elephants.

It is hoped the stay of execution will mean campaigners get another chance to relocate the animal. Credit: Humane Society International

Conservationists in South Africa are concerned that destruction orders are being used by landowners as a quick fix to get rid of elephants.

Ms Delsink added "If the decision is upheld and Riff Raff is killed through a destruction permit, it will be a tragedy not only for this amazing animal but for all so-called ‘problem’ elephants across South Africa who face a similar fate.

"We share this land with these magnificent giants, it should be utterly unthinkable to kill them simply because it’s easier than managing the land in a way that considers their biological drivers.”