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The mother of all moves: 263 elephants, four weeks, two...

Our Burning Planet

JUMBO OPERATION

Done and dusted – SA game capture experts shift 263 elephants in four weeks

With a juvenile suspended in the air from a crane, the capture site in Liwonde National Park is a hive of activity as game capture crews prepare to load several elephants on to the translocation trucks. (Photo: Marcus Westberg)

An abundance of elephants in one reserve and a shortage in another due to an ivory poaching blitz that began in the 1970s, has resulted in the translocation of hundreds of elephants and smaller game.

Catching and moving a single African elephant is no easy feat at the best of times, considering that adults weigh in at anywhere between three and five tonnes each.

But South African game capture experts have just finished shifting 263 of these hefty beasts — all in the space of just four weeks — between two national parks in Malawi.

elephants darting
A small herd of elephant bunch up close in Liwonde National Park as they are driven to a flat area for darting by helicopter crews. (Photo: Marcus Westberg)
elephants liwonde
A small herd of elephant bunch up close in Liwonde National Park as they are driven to a flat area for darting by helicopter crews. (Photo: Marcus Westberg)

The elephants, along with 431 smaller game, were caught in the Liwonde National Park on the southern shores of Lake Malawi and transported more than 350km by truck to the Kasungu National Park near the Zambian border.

The rationale for the move was simple: an abundance of elephants in one reserve and a shortage in the other due to an ivory poaching blitz that began in the 1970s.

Most of the translocation operation was undertaken by two KwaZulu-Natal game capture specialists — Hilton-based Conservation Solutions and Hluhluwe-based Tracy & du Plessis Game Capture.

Conservation Solutions founder Kester Vickery has moved more than 100,000 wild animals of various species across 15 countries in Africa over the past 25 years, while Grant Tracy’s Zululand-based company has similar extensive experience in game translocation across the continent.

Nevertheless, moving more than 250 elephants in the space of a month remains a daunting task.

Improved techniques

Veteran KZN wildlife veterinarian, Dr Dave Cooper, who travelled to Malawi last month to assist with the first part of the operation, said advances in game capture and transportation techniques had been refined over many decades to improve the safety of animals and the speed with which they can be moved.

elephant suspended
Suspended in mid-air by slings, an immobilised adult elephant is loaded into a translocation truck prior to the 350km journey between Liwonde and Kasungu national parks in Malawi. (Photo: Marcus Westberg)

“During the recent operation in Malawi, we darted and loaded 37 elephants in just one day. That’s almost unheard of,” said Cooper, noting that Vickery had developed new techniques and equipment to load drug-immobilised elephants into purpose-designed wildlife container trucks.

“It was a hell of an operation to move that many elephants so quickly, as well as hundreds of other animals such as buffalo, sable, zebra, waterbuck, warthog and hippo. There were two or three pilots flying at any one time during the darting and capture process,” Cooper told Our Burning Planet.

On the ground, the 27 June-31 July operation also involved staff and officials from several other organisations, including Malawi’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife (DNPW), African Parks and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

Several other South African wildlife experts were involved, including two former Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife park managers, Craig Read and Dave Robertson — both of whom now work for African Parks.

elephants loading operations
At least six adult elephants and calves await the loading operations in Liwonde National Park. (Photo: Marcus Westberg)

In a joint statement outlining the rationale for the translocation, the organisations noted that Liwonde National Park still contained a large elephant population, and it was necessary to alleviate pressure on park habitat and reduce human/wildlife conflict with park neighbours.

Ivory poaching

In contrast, the Kasungu National Park (the second largest in Malawi) is four times the size of Liwonde, but with far fewer elephants.

In the early 1970s, Kasungu was home to around 1,200 elephants, but this had been slashed down to just 42 animals by 2015 due to ivory poaching.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Gold Fields finds it easier to move aloes in SA than chinchillas in Chile

A map of Malawi’s national parks. Marked in yellow is the 350km route from Liwonde National Park to Kasungu National Park. (Source: IUCN)

Since then, the elephant population has recovered to around 120 animals. The additional 263 elephants released over the past month has further boosted the population.

“We are overjoyed that the exercise has been completed successfully, thanks to all of the partners who worked hard to finish the work on time,” said Brighton Kumchedwa, Malawi’s Director of National Parks and Wildlife, in a statement.

elephant hoisted
All aboard. One of the 263 elephants is hoisted on to a capture truck by a mobile crane. (Photo: Marcus Westberg)

“The addition of elephants and other wildlife species to Kasungu National Park will benefit Malawi tourism as well as local communities through job creation, thereby fuelling a conservation-driven economy.” 

Sam Kamoto, African Parks’ country manager for Malawi, also believes the latest arrivals in Kasungu will help to stimulate tourism to the region.

Elephant Cooperation

Albeit over a much longer timeframe, African Parks undertook one of the largest elephant translocations in history by moving 520 elephants around Malawi’s parks between 2016 and 2017. Most of these elephants were moved from Liwonde to Nkhotakota wildlife reserve in the far north. Cheetahs were also reintroduced to Liwonde in 2017, followed by lions in 2018 and wild dogs last year.

The latest elephant translocation was funded by Elephant Cooperation,  a US-based NGO focused on protecting African elephants and supporting children and communities living near wildlife areas. 

Based in Johannesburg, the African Parks NGO network manages 20 national parks and protected areas in 11 countries covering more than 17 million hectares in Angola, Benin, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Republic of Congo, Malawi, Mozambique, Rwanda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. DM/OBP

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All Comments 3

    • Why would government choose to be efficient … when it would entail abandonment of ‘cadre’ deployment … recently declared unconstitutional by Zondo ? It would mean not taking us for a ride any more … not from one reserve to another … like the wildlife !

  • What I want to know is doesn’t it damage the elephants’ ankles or joints to hoist their heavy weight upside down like that??!!

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