Moving giants: One of the biggest translocation projects in South African history

What happens when you have too many elephants in one area, and not enough in another?

Photograph courtesy of De Beers Group
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African elephants are a matriarchal species. Dominant females lead, but the entire group is responsible for bringing up offspring. They form strong familial bonds, often living in the same groups for their entire lives.
Photograph courtesy of De Beers Group

Dawn breaks. Sunlight blankets the landscape of the 120-square-mile (32,000 hectare) Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve in South Africa. Radios crackle in a near-unbroken stream of communication, reporting fallen elephants all over the area. This is not a cause for concern, though, rather the culmination of eight months of planning between De Beers Group, the South African and Mozambique governments, and NGO Peace Parks Foundation.

A helicopter circles overhead, allowing veterinary experts to better position elephants before aiming the weight-specific anaesthetic darts that will send these immense gray giants into a deep, peaceful sleep. At one point in the process, an elephant is darted every 15 seconds, with a ground crew reaching it within 60.

Another radio call. An adult matriarch has fallen forward onto her chest and trunk—dangerous for an animal weighing up to 6.5 tons (6 tonnes). An elephant’s lungs are attached to its chest wall, meaning that any pressure exerted there, even from the elephant’s own tremendous weight, can cause the animal to suffocate. The team rushes in to lay her on her side, a task complicated by her half-sedated and very large calf still careening its two-ton bulk around.

Once the sleeping elephant is on its side, a hiss of paint from a can marks the number of the family group to which it belongs, ensuring that family members are all kept together. The elephant is then carefully hoisted upside down and gently lowered into a specially constructed recovery truck, where it’s back on its feet, awake and calm, within minutes. Within half a day, a complete family group of 26 elephants is safely loaded, and with low croons, they reassure one another as they embark on their thousand-mile, 50-hour journey to a new home in Zinave National Park, Mozambique.

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To protect their organs, sedated elephants are loaded into trucks upside down, where they’re woken up and back on their feet again—the most comfortable way for them to travel. The operation wouldn’t have been a success without the collaboration between partners De Beers Group, Peace Parks Foundation, local governments, and Conservation Solutions.

In July 2018, this colossal effort represented just the beginning of a much larger commitment to translocate around 200 elephants from South Africa to Mozambique. But why move these giants in the first place? The answer is simple: the Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve has too many elephants for its ecosystem to support, and a 15-year civil war left Mozambique with next to none.

In 1977, just two years after gaining its independence from Portugal, Mozambique became mired in a brutal internal war that claimed the lives of around a million people. Along with this staggering human loss, the conflict also inflicted a heavy toll on protected wildlife―especially elephants. For more than a decade, the elephant population was decimated—flesh carved from bone to feed starving soldiers, ivory tusks sheared off and flogged to sate a desperate need for weapons and ammunition. Surviving native elephants still bear their emotional scars and avoid human contact, sometimes even charging at vehicles.

At Venetia Limpopo, it’s a different story altogether. Founded in the early 1990s by De Beers Group as part of its ongoing conservation efforts, the protected habitat was home to more than 270 elephants as of early 2018. And, while a booming population is undoubtedly a positive, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. In the right numbers, elephants keep roughage and vegetation at bay, literally paving the way for other species to come and diversify the biology of the area. Too many elephants can overwhelm an ecosystem, trampling plant life into desert and exhausting the food supply. So, in an effort to find the best way to utilize a bounty of elephants, conservation experts within De Beers Group looked to those who could help them share the wealth.

“The good news, of course, is that South Africa has an overpopulation of elephants and can essentially provide elephants to repopulate areas where they are in decline,” explains Kester Vickery, co-founder of Conservation Solutions, specialists in large-scale animal movement projects and De Beers Group’s partner in moving giants. At the beginning of 2018, fewer than 15 elephants remained across Zinave’s enormous 1,575-square-mile (408,000 hectare) sprawl, making it a prime location to rehome a species that’s dwindling across the continent.

There’s little point in moving 200 elephants across Africa if they’re not going to be safe, especially from poaching. But there’s a solution for this as well, by involving local communities in conservation and anti-poaching efforts, and growing businesses through tourism that the protected wildlife attracts. “The model at Zinave [is] one where the community is very involved in the park. Many are being trained as local rangers, including many of the women … And the communities will also benefit from 20 percent of the revenue generated from the park,” says Katie Fergusson, Senior Vice President for Social Impact, De Beers Group, who helps ensure long-term success for projects like this.

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In accordance with the United Nations call for the private sector to help support the planet, De Beers Group, through the Anglo American Foundation, provides funding to Peace Parks Foundation for the ongoing training and employment of experts to protect translocated elephants.

It’s a compassionate approach that’s helped the people who live around Zinave to see that elephants are more valuable alive than dead, as De Beers Group supports the Mozambique Government, Peace Parks Foundation, and other partners to provide funding and employment that offer a better alternative to subsistence poaching. In the last year alone, Peace Parks Foundation’s operations manager at Zinave, Trevor Landrey, has noticed the change in attitude taking root. “To date, we’ve [retrieved] 10,000 snares … 157 weapons. And a lot of that has been voluntarily handed in by the community,” he says. When asked how safe elephants are in Zinave, Landry is confident: “they are very safe.” Recently, it appears that translocation isn’t the only source of new arrivals in Zinave―a number of baby elephants are reported to have been spotted in the area. It’s a very likely sign, based on arrival timings, that the translocated elephant families are happy, settled, and growing.

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An elephant enjoys a drink in its new home—happily relocated to the enormous, lush Zinave National Park with the rest of its family.

At the end of a long, dusty journey, truck doors clank and swing open. A wrinkled trunk tentatively probes the air, uncertain at first. Slowly but surely, the bravest of the latest group of elephants emerges and charges off into a green wonderland, leading the rest of the family off to explore a whole new world.

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