THE IN-DEPTH DETAILS OF AN ELEPHANT TRANSLOCATION PROJECT
It’s not every day one gets to be involved in a translocation project… Okay, maybe for trans-locating people or property, but elephants?
The air was cold when our group left at four in the morning which would later be our saving grace but I’ll explain why later. We needed to be at the designated base camp by five a.m., a preselected location at the Maremani Nature Reserve. The location was strategically picked because it was close to where the elephants were last observed and the terrain had plenty of open space for everyone and everything.
Upon arrival was the sound of the helicopter in the distance and a sight of massive machinery; all sorts of trucks both large transport and flat beds trailers, one also included a crane, a backhoe loader, a vet vehicle and all the other vehicles that transported the various team members. There were more people than I expected from government officials observing, the hired coordinator of the trans-location company (Conservation Solution) and his large troop, photographers and camera people, the people associated with both reserves (ours and the donators), to wives and kids of all of the above. In all more than 40 people.
Excitement was in the air as the helicopter scanned around the area, but as time passed it deflated and sentiments became more worrisome as the hours past with not much news. We had a deadline… If by 3pm we could not get to the ellies we would have to start again the next day as releasing them at night is not an option. They need to be aware of their surroundings so daylight is necessary. Priority was their safety and care. Moving into day two would have cost more and depending on the situation could be more complicated but if it meant they would be better off, then we would arrange it.
However, it was late morning when we heard they had found the elephants but they were some 30 kilometers away from the basecamp. They had moved that distance overnight despite the fact the reserve had strategically place alfalfa (lucerne) for them to graze on. Elephants have been known to travel up to 50 kilometers in one night.
Should the helicopter herd them closer to the basecamp? No because they could get exhausted and more stressed being herded back a long way.
Do we cancel it and try it again the next day? Not yet… because we had time and the thankfully the cool weather was on our side. If it is too hot it adds to their stress and exhaustion and can be dangerous for them. They don’t have an internal mechanism to self-regulate their body temperature, and being in a drought zone heat is an issue. They must get wet and use their gigantic ears to fan themselves.
Do we move the basecamp closer to them? If so that would require finding the right location where we could get the equipment through the bushveld and a space where there is room for all the equipment? Did we have time for that?
Thankfully, Kester Vickery of the translocation group had hundreds of animal translocation experiences under his belt and it was under his lead that a decision was made. He decided to relocate the basecamp closer to them. Why? Because it was less risky for the elephants. The weather was cool (but warming up), we had the machinery necessary to clear the way for us to get closer, it’s faster for us to drive than herd them, and we had enough daylight hours to complete the job.
So within the next hour and a half we had moved closer to where they were situated and set up camp. It was shortly after that the radio started to buzz…. They were being herded and were close by! The excitement was back up to a high again as 10 minutes later we heard the helicopter over the ridge and got our first view of the family of elephants just a kilometer or so away.
READY, STEADY, GO! THE MAD DASH TO THE ELEPHANTS
First to be darted by the vet via the helicopter is the matriarch, a 25 year old that stands at 2.25 meters tall at shoulder height. Why is she first? Because the family bonds are so strong that when she falls asleep the whole family stays around her, their leader. This makes it easier to dart the remaining and helps logistically by having them close together.
The minute that happens we all jump into the designated vehicles and when given the command from the vet via radio we rush over to where they had fallen asleep. Lying on his side, the male teen bull is 200 meters away from the group and he is the first one I see as our group rushes upon the crowd that got there earlier than us. The translocation team uses chainsaws to clear the trees so that there is enough room for the large flatbed trucks to position themselves next to his body. The veterinarian already has checked the bull and has placed his large ear over his eye as to shield it from the dust and sunlight. A twig is placed at the tip of trunk to keep it wide open and you can see the mammoth chest move deeply as he breathes in and out.
There is a lot of movement and noise going on between the seven elephants. The visitors are like an audience in a concert rushing to take their photo and selfies with the animals, the drone camera buzzing above, and the translocation team moving about purposefully completing their task as hand. Their roles are so well coordinated that I remain in the background to let people do their work and head over to where the matriarch was positioned.
It is the first time I have physically been close to an elephant and what a sight she was. Crouching down, I reach out to touch her trunk. It’s heavy and the skin is thick with rough bristled hair. I feel her head and the vibrations of her breathing heavy with a rumble of a snore now and then. I feel the smoothness of her trunk and wonder why it’s broken on one side.
Crouching next to me is Andrew Rae, a walking encyclopedia and conservation advocate, a writer with a safari organizing company. Andrew is donating his time to cover the event, explaining that like people some elephants are left handed. The wear and tear on her left tusk is because she uses it more. My daughter and husband are left handed… tears start forming… I am overwhelmed with emotions being so close to this noble beast and understanding the commonality between us. We are mothers, both dedicated to educating our children so that they can survive and thrive, and both have intense family bonds that can never be broken.
It hits me to the core that the extension of that large front tooth, her tusk, is the main reason for her dangerous predicament of being hunted. Those teeth are used as a source of human entertainment like piano keys and dice, carved decoration pieces and as a status symbol of wealth.
I can’t stay long observing her as there is work to be done and I am there to help the film and camera crew. With a thick cloth strapped to their ankles, one by one the two smallest are slowly and gently lifted by crane into the small container truck. The rest follow behind in various open trailers which have a heavy rubber mat or platform. That platform is lat er used as a conveyor belt to pull them into the designated container that will transport them to Mapesu. They are gently placed with their heads facing towards the back on the back trailer. This position is deliberate as when they wake up instinct is to move backwards during an uncertain moment.
Before the matriarch is moved onto the trailer, they place a tracking collar around her neck that will allow us to monitor her movement at the Mapesu Private Gave Reserve. Each person has a role and like clockwork the elephants are quickly placed on the trailers to be transported back to the basecamp. It take only 40 minutes or so for the entire group.
At the base camp the next step begins which is moving them via the conveyor belt into the larger mobile container truck. They start by watering down the inside of the containers. This will help them cool off faster if their bodies are wet and by now at 3 pm the temperature rises to around 30 Celsius. The cool morning has now become a hot day. Time is of the essence and the animal transport team works together to get it done quickly minimizing the risk of overheating.
They place two trucks back to back with the doors open creating a tunnel. They pull the elephants two at a time from the trailer into the truck via the conveyor belt and start prepping to wake them up. Right before they close all but the door connecting the two trucks. The veterinarian gives them medication to wake up before he steps out with all the others as it only takes only a few minutes for the medication to work.
I peek through the vent holes in the truck and see them wake up trying to get their balance. It is true, they do move backwards. The well-organized team ensures that within 40 minutes the truck with the special cargo is ready to move.
We give Mopane Bush Lodge a ring to let them know they are on their way home…
They have set up a covered station with snacks and drinks for guest and invitees. Everyone is stationed behind a second fence partially covered and far enough away so they don’t disturb the elephants and yet have a good view of the ramp in which the elephants will walk down.
120 YEARS PLUS: A QUICK RELEASE
The elephants arrive in Mapesu in one large container. They back up the truck careful to the ramp that was built specifically for the release. I quickly head up to the top of the truck to assist the camera people documenting the moment these incredible pachyderms are re-introduced back into a landscape. It is 45 minutes before dusk and the beautiful glow of the evening sun cast a golden hue onto the thick mopane bushveld and with it brings a calming sense of right to a place where for over a 120 years elephants had not roamed.
Before the transport crew opened the doors the guttural call of the matriarch is heard and her sound vibrates up through the truck and our bodies. It is as if she is gently calming her family. As we look down into the truck we see trunks moving around smelling the air, ears flapping and slight pacing.
The anticipation is at a high but when the doors opens to their new home they do not move forward… Cameras are set, people are silently ready to film and snap pictures but nothing happens for a minute or two. It is not until one of the younger females builds enough courage, with a little prod, and quickly walk out to scan the area before heading off cautiously to the farthest point of the boma (a three hectare total temporary holding area until they are comfortable with their surroundings). A minute after, with a more prodding the matriarch and her calf stepped down. She glances around and moves in the same direction as the first. The remaining family unit rapidly follow in succession with the teen bull being the last to leave the trailer. It was a magical sight from above to see them walk away into the golden bushveld.
As we all stood on top of the truck, it took us a minute or two to realize that the accumulated efforts of so many, the hard work, time and dedication it took to get them to this place was at an end. We climbed down and walk under the shade of the tarp where we all celebrated that they made it safe and sound to their new home.
Visit the Share Universe Foundation Facebook page for the latest information on the family.
WITH ENORMOUS THANKS!
It had been a couple of years of exhausting work putting in Big5 fencing, upgrading dams and watering holes, filing of obstinate paperwork and certificates, achieving huge financing efforts (which is still needed for their care) and the complete and complex coordination of the massive undertaking in order to accomplish one of the greatest events of the area… The reintroduction of elephants to the Mapesu land.
There have been many people involved that really deserve recognition and thanks to all their hard work and perseverance this project is a success.
From the SUF/Mopane/SUV group: Christof Croetz du Plooy, Toine Knipping, Quinten Knipping, Michelle and Renhard Oosthuysen, Brigitte Eloff, Quinton Walton, James Hill, Rudi Viljoen, Jan Trump, Tara Lal, Anton Yao Kryger and Charles Perry and many others.
Extra special thanks to the people and representatives that brought this project forward. Rickert Botha, Dr. Salomon Joubert and others at Maremani Nature Reserve for their generous donation of the elephants, provisions and devotion. Kester Vickery, Co-founder of Conservation Solutions and his team for their expertise and guidance. Leon de Jager of LEDET, Joe Grosel of Tembele Ecological Services and the countless others involved that lent a hand or two.
Also a special thank you for their time and services to record, photograph and write about this extraordinary event: Harry Hill of 1440 Drone, Dominic White of Suscito Films, Andrew Rae of Rae Safaris, and Jay Roode of Skyhawk Photography.
We also thank you, the people reading this newsletter, for your support and encouragement. It has taken a large group effort to achieve this milestone so hats off to all and a huge “Thank you!”
Further conservation efforts are just starting… Let us know if you want to be a part of it! We’d love a helping hand. firstname.lastname@example.org.