On a glorious morning in Liwonde National Park in southern Malawi, a team at African Parks, a conservation group, is preparing what was once unthinkable.
The park is full of wildlife, hippos wallow in cool water and impala and waterbuck roam nearby. In the distance, far from this idyllic scene, some commotion has recently occurred – rumbling blades slicing the air, giant feet thudding across the ground, stray zebra darting away from the scene.
In the clear blue skies above the park each day, a helicopter has been circling families of about twelve elephants, driving them from the protection of the thick bush out onto the dry, open grasslands.
The oversupply of elephants in this region negatively affects the ecosystem
This is the site of one of the world's largest animal translocations ever attempted. In June 2016, the process of moving 500 elephants from southern to northern Malawi began. The reason for moving them is surprising – while Africa as a continent struggles to protect the elephant species from extinction, in Malawi's Liwonde National Park there are actually too many of these giant creatures roaming the plains.
The oversupply of elephants in this region negatively affects the ecosystem and causes human-wildlife conflict. As there are so many elephants, the animals are forced to leave the park and stray onto the surrounding farmland, eating farmers' crops and in turn, being attacked by the locals who are trying to make a living.
Yet further north in Malawi, there are not enough elephants, and the parks would benefit from their presence. The solution, according to Malawi's Department of National Parks and African Parks, is a massive elephant translocation.
Down a crackly phone connection between Malawi and Nairobi, Kester Vickery, founder of Conservation Solutions, the organisation hired in to manage the project, explains the experience of moving these gentle giants to me, from start to finish.
They want to dart the matriarch first, the rest of the group will then surround her and become easier to hit
"It's terribly exciting." Vickery begins with enthusiasm. "We set off in the morning, looking for a target group of elephants to relocate." Once identified, the helicopter pilot and Andre Uys, a vet who specialises in rehoming large mammals, hover above the herd, discussing tactics from their bird's eye view. "They want to dart the matriarch first, the rest of the group will then surround her and become easier to hit," he says.
Elephant families have incredibly strong relationships: the females will stay together for life, helping one another with their young offspring and protecting one another from danger. "We always target cohesive family groups. The last thing the team wants is a lone elephant making a break for it and getting separated from the group," says Vickery.
Flying low, vet Uys will take aim, targeting the fleshy backside of the matriarch through the cross hair of his dart gun, and fire. His aim is excellent, says Vickery, and within a few moments the majestic female will be down on the ground, lying on her side. One by one, Uys continues his work, aiming and darting the next eldest in the group, then the next, then the next, until only the youngest calf is left.
The first five minutes are critical – if an elephant falls badly it could die
"Uys is focusing on completing his task as quickly as possible in order to reduce the stress on the family group, but he also needs to be incredibly accurate to avoid harming the elephants," says Vickery.
Once the final dart has whooshed from the tranquilliser gun into the grey wrinkled bottom of the elephant calf and the whole family is down, Uys will radio down to the ground team, giving them the order to approach.
"At this point, I'll be waiting on the ground lined up with my team in a series of four-wheel drive cars," says Vickery. Until now, the team has maintained a safe distance. At this point, however, the race is on to reach the elephant group and ensure they are all lying on their sides and breathing normally, "The first five minutes are critical – if an elephant falls badly it could die, so time is of the essence," he says.
Once they receive the signal from the helicopter team, the ground squad will move across the grasslands in the direction of the elephants. "Recently, we were approaching a family and on nearing them, we noticed that one elephant, a mother with a young calf, had fallen on her front. With her entire eight-tonne weight crushing down on her, she could have suffocated in minutes. We leapt out of our cars and ran towards her, employing all our strength to roll her over."
Given their massive weights, a crane is needed
She was big girl, and at first the team struggled to get the momentum to turn her. "Fortunately, she succumbed to the rocking motion and rolled over onto her side," says Vickery. As her rib cage expanded and contracted gently, the team could finally relax.
Once all the elephants are lying on their sides, paramedic Jeremy Hancock arrives to monitor the tranquilised elephants, and to ensure that their vital signs are normal. Happy that they are stable, he will alert the team, at which point they begin the next stage – lifting the elephants onto the trucks.
Given their massive weights, a crane is needed to move them. One by one, robust slings will be attached to each elephant's foot to hoist them onto the back of an open sided truck, where they will be laid on their sides.
The sight of an elephant hanging upside down from a crane is something the team are getting used to. They have already moved 250 elephants in the past two months. Once all elephants are safely on board, the truck drives the gentle giants a few kilometres away, where they will be placed in recovery crates.
"The journey takes about 15 minutes, and on arrival each elephant is slid into the crate from the truck on a thick sheet," says Vickery. Once inside, the delicate process of administering an antidote and waking up the elephants takes place. "As each member of the family comes around, our team manoeuvres the transport trucks into position, lining them up so the herd can walk from one crate into the other."
The transport crates are chunky steel boxes, tall enough for the elephants to stand in. There are square gaps in the roof and sides to keep them cool. It is a somewhat chaotic process – these elephants are feisty creatures with strong personalities, and not all of them particularly want to enter the confines of a steel box. It can cause some grumbling and trumpeting.
Although every effort is made to keep families together, sometimes there are a few frantic moments.
"Last week we were moving a family and the youngest calf remained in the recovery crate, confused and searching frantically for his mother. She was already in the transport vehicle, but noticed him looking stressed and walked back out to get him," recalls Vickery.
"She placed her trunk around his tiny body, and guided him into the transport crate with her. It just shows you how strong these family bonds are. This is the reason we make sure we catch full family units."
Once the whole elephant family are safely loaded, the team embark on a six-hour drive to the 60,000 hectare Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. Situated in the centre of the country near Lake Malawi, Nkhotakota is a vast wilderness sliced up by a number of rivers that tumble down the edge of the escarpment as they make their way to Lake Malawi. The reserve is hilly, with tall grasses, woodland and some rainforest.
At this stage, Uys joins the ground team to administer another tranquilliser, this time to keep their stress levels down. "It's like taking an anti-anxiety drug," Vickery explains. The elephants are still awake and can walk, but the drug helps calm them.
The animals had been almost completely poached out
When the trucks arrive at Nkhotakota it is already dark. This is the point at which the herd will make their way out of the transport crates and into a holding boma, a small pen where Uys and the team can ensure they have recovered from their journey. "The next morning, the boma gates are opened and the family is released into the reserve, just 24 hours after the whole process began," Vickery says.
The team at African Parks are certain the elephants will thrive in their new environment because they have done this before. In 2003, they took over management of Majete Wildlife Reserve in southern Malawi and turned it from a barren wilderness into a thriving wildlife haven.
African Parks director of operations Andrew Parker explains that the area was very depleted when his team started managing the Majete area. "The community was ravaging the protected land for firewood, and the animals had been almost completely poached out."
Historically, elephants would have moved over huge ranges through Malawi
African Parks reintroduced nearly 2,500 animals, including elephants, and put measures in place so that the park could recover. "Now, there are nearly 15,000 animals [in Majete] and the park is thriving," he says.
Along with the translocation, a £1.1 million ($1.5 million) effort to fence Liwonde National Park is taking place. This is crucial to protect both humans and elephants, according to Liwonde National Park manager Craig Reid. "Historically, elephants would have moved over huge ranges through Malawi," he says.
"Sadly, however, the corridors elephants use to move around have been built on by people. Liwonde is a very small park in African terms. It is long and narrow, and surrounded by a high population of people. It's an ecological island in a sea of humanity."
The fence is needed to ensure the 550 elephants remaining in Liwonde are not harmed, and equally that elephants cannot harm the residents living on the park perimeters.
The huge rise in population numbers is something that Parker sees as a fundamental challenge to our planet's remaining wildlife. "The real 'elephant in the room' is the issue of human population growth and the [resulting] destruction of natural capital," says Parker.
Elephants are at risk of being wiped out
"It is just not sustainable and the conservation community – and indeed the global community – need to face up to the challenges presented by unbridled human population growth, not only for the future of biodiversity but for humanity's sake as well."
Unfortunately, it could take decades to come up with a solution to these global issues. By then it might be too late, elephants are at risk of being wiped out.
For now, translocation to safe reserves works, according to the African Parks team. It is being celebrated as a great solution and by doing things this way, the elephants get a new home where they do not need to stray for food.
At the same time, it reduces pressure on southern Malawi's ecosystem – farmers' crops stop being eaten, human-wildlife conflict reduces and northern Malawi gets a tourism influx as a result of the relocation. "Tourism currently accounts for about 8% of GDP in Malawi," says Patricio Ndadzela, African Parks Malawi country director, "We're aiming for 20 – 25%. By bringing back wildlife [and] managing parks, we'll create a critical mass that will bring tourists back to our country."
All of this also creates hundreds of jobs, Reid says. "The fence construction is being done by local communities only, [this project] alone will employ about 1,000 people.
"As tourism continues to improve we hope it will create upwards of 300 jobs at various lodges and parks across the country." These numbers are significant in Malawi, which ranked as the 18th least developed country in the world in a 2013 United Nations report.
The matriarch and her reunited family are now beginning their new life
Moving elephants this way is a fairly new concept. Previously, more sinister methods were used when elephant numbers were too high. "Culling was one of the few tools available in the past for the management of too many elephants. We set out to prove it's not the only solution," says Vickery.
"We could move thousands in a year if there was a place set up for it. This is about the bigger picture. We're proving to the world that, provided there's a safe haven to move the elephants to, culling is not necessary. This is the way forward."
Back in Liwonde National Park, when the helicopters soar away, life begins to return to normal. The remaining elephants can head to the river to bathe and drink. They will now have extra territory gained from the translocation of their neighbours. While further north in Nkhotakota, the matriarch and her reunited family are now beginning their new life, in the safe haven of the national park.
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