Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency officers and Kruger Park rangers teamed up to chase three escaped elephants back into the Kruger National Park in South Africa last week.  Villagers from the Mbombela (Nelspruit) area scrambled to block the elephants' retreat so they could eat them

Things became a bit ugly as locals arrived carrying buckets to cart away meat from the three animals. Times Live reported that the villagers were shouting at Park officials to "kill the elephants." The aircraft being used to try and herd the animals back into the safety of the park was finally forced to depart and the animals were shot dead.

The frenzy to get at the meat barely gave the Parks officials time to get the heads and tusks from the animals, before the villagers poured over the elephants and chopped them up into chunks.  Buckets overflowing, some of them said they would make some cash from the animals by selling the meat door to door.

William Mbasa, of the Kruger Park, said that as the elephants were outside of the Park they fell under the jurisdiction of the Mpumalanga Provincial authorities.

Provincial authority spokesman Kholofelo Nkambule said that they had tried to force the animals back into the park, but the villagers had blocked the route. Parks rangers had to caution the villagers to move back because lives were in danger.

Elephants that stray out of protected areas are often considered nuisance species by local communities and are viewed as a potential meal, rather than as sentient beings. Public reaction and outcry is aimed at the Kruger Parks management, but as it was pointed out on a Facebook post, there is a time of drought in the region, and elephants will try and get out the park to eat the mangos and other fruit that grow around settlements.

Another aspect to consider is that once elephants learn how to get through the fences, it can have dangerous consequences for the general public, as they can repeatedly break and out the park and into a human-animal conflict situation.

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South Africa has very little land where the big game can wander around unhindered. Unlike Zimbabwe, Botswana, and Namibia, where wild animals are part and parcel of daily living for locals settled in and around protected areas, South Africans have little integration with the big game animals. Escaped animals are not seen on a daily occurrence in the province and for most of these people they see the escapees as food.

South African National Parks have an outreach program to try and engage local communities in the sustainable use of natural resources and to foster an appreciation of the value of wildlife. This incident highlights the fact that there may be a lot more work to do. The killing of the animals for meat can set a bad precedent, and is not uncommon (particularly in places like Kenya), for locals to drive the animals out so they can be shot on unprotected land.