Stuck between an elephant and a hard place

GRAA Professional Member, JJ van Altena has not only had one near death experience, he’s had a few.

JJ VanAltena

Photo credit: Global Supplies

His stories will leave you on the edge of your seat.  A helicopter crash left him in a coma for close on two months, he has been charged at by some very unhappy elephants numerous times and he’s had a 4X4 thrown on top of him by an elephant - all in a day’s work.

JJ casually reflects on these “compromising situations” in the wild and other close calls as a simple law of averages. If you are doing something all day, every day, something compromising is bound to happen, says JJ. The key is that you have to keep cool, calm and your wits about you if you are going to get through it.

Anders - Ear Notching 026 An impressive bull elephant known as Classic.  This bull was darted on a Greenhunt in the Timbav


JJ notes that working in the field with wild animals like Elephants has always felt like a very safe environment for him, where he belongs. From his young years spending time on his grandfather’s game farm in Mbabat in the Timbavati area, he has never doubted his purpose or where he feels at home. The pertinent voice inside of him to be a ranger working in the field and making a difference to South Africa’s wildlife was always unquestionable.

After completing his Nature Conservation Diploma, he spent seven years in the Kruger National Park, exposed to all sorts of work, from removing snares from Wild Dogs, to anti-poaching patrols, Elephant monitoring and other ranger duties. His willingness to do the hard yards and his natural ability proved so sure that he even assisted with certain managerial roles, many of which were reserved only for section rangers.

After what was a very special time for him in Kruger, JJ went into the private game reserve industry as a specialist wildlife consultant and started to do Elephant Immunocontraception work for Makalali Game Reserve, in Hoedspruit, which he still continues to do today as the Field Implementation Specialist for the Humane Society International. Immunocontraceptive vaccines cause the immune system to produce antibodies that prevent fertilization, without the side effects of hormonal contraceptives. The long-term study at Makalali has shown Immunocontraception to be a safe and effective way of controlling fertility, without having negative behavioural side-effects on the herd. Long term use also does not seem to have any harmful physiological effects on the Elephants. Immunocontraception is the most widely used method of population control today, which is safe, proactive and humane.

Having a fixed wing licence meant JJ could also assist reserves with tracking and monitoring. In the years that followed Kruger, he did a lot of translocations of Elephant, Rhino and Buffalo. He recalls moving many elephants into the Eastern Cape reserves because of the establishment of new Big Game Lodges and Reserves. Today, he is still involved in the area, but with contraception work, proving how successful the initial translocation project was.

It was during one of these occasions where JJ had his nearly fatal helicopter crash, landing him in an induced coma for two months. Unfavourable weather conditions caused the helicopter to crash into a tree. Because JJ was darting animals on that occasion, he was harnessed in such a way to enable him to lean out. This caused him to be thrown around and hit repeatedly when the helicopter went down, causing severe head injuries. He also had both collar bones broken, as well as his shoulder blades and bones in his wrist completely shattered. Thankfully, the vets on site were able to give JJ the support needed to save his life, before he was casevaced to hospital, where he would stay for the next three months.

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After the hospital stint, JJ was excited to get back into the field and assist in an Elephant translocations project in Phinda Game Reserve. Game capture work, like ranger work, is something JJ had been doing for years. This translocation project had a team of six rangers, of which GRAA CEO, Andrew Campbell and fellow GRAA member Jaco Mattheus (and colleague at Global Supplies) were a part of. They had already darted a few elephants in the herd when two of them fell into the sternal position. The team knew they had to act quickly to position these elephants correctly, before their lives were in danger. Aware of another elephant that had been darted, but which had not gone down yet, they acted with fast precision and managed to successfully re-position one of the elephants.  On their way to re-position the second elephant things took a turn for the worse. The other darted cow, yet to go down, started charging the 4X4 pickup, hitting it on the driver’s side. Repeatedly thumping it, the pickup got sandwiched between a tree and the elephant, until she rolled it over onto its side. Everyone managed to jump out and run a safe distance away. JJ, however, was not so lucky and was flung out of the vehicle, before she rolled it over and on top of him. With every thump and shove she gave, the completely conscious JJ could feel bones in his body break. He recalls how, in those moments, he was fully aware that at any moment it could very possibly be his last.

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But thankfully, the drugs finally kicked in and the elephant passed out… And so did JJ.  After the confusion and mayhem had settled, the team realised JJ was not with them and ran back to the pickup. JJ’s head was sticking out from under the pickup. Again, the team acted fast and lifted the pickup off of him with the crane truck used to the elephants. Once stabilised, he was flown to hospital, again. Injuries that JJ endured included stable fractures on his lumber spine and some of his abdominal organs ruptured, resulting in him losing his spleen and a portion of his pancreas.

Despite all these near death experiences, JJ still continues to operate in the field, making a positive difference to Africa’s wildlife.

Today, he is the owner and director of the internationally successful Global Supplies, providing only the best and most reliable products and services in the wildlife industry. Because JJ has worked in the field for so many years, he has the experience and knowledge to supply the right advice, products and services for practical and successful project outcomes. Driven by the desire to make a difference, Global Supplies provides products to the likes of the Kruger National Park, Save the Elephants, Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, African Parks, Peace Parks Foundation, to name a few, as well the private wildlife industry.

For more information about JJ and Global supplies, click here.

Advice to young rangers from a ranger who has survived death, a few times, and who now has an internationally leading successful business:

Listen to what your heart is telling you and never do what society dictates: If you follow your passion and what makes you tick, you cannot go wrong in life.

Your reputation, relationships and friends are invaluable and mean more than any business deal: You have to be committed to the cause that is conservation. Live fully alive as a ranger.

Do not be fooled. There is a very clear line between right and wrong. It cannot be crossed: In an environment where poaching is as prominent as it is, you have to uphold and maintain your moral standpoint. Don’t let the temptations grab you. Stay true to your heart and passion.  Don’t ever compromise your ethics

Don’t let the law of averages hold you back from living fully and making a positive difference on earth.

Be driven by your passion not the rewards.


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