In July, Sue Watt and Will Whitford witnessed the conservation organisation African Parks start the most ambitious animal translocation project in Africa’s history. The move saw the first of 500 elephants brought from Malawi’s Liwonde National Park and Majete Reserve to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve. Here is how this complex, delicate process transpired. Words by Sue Watt and photographs by Will Whitford
1. Identify the family
Because family units are crucial to elephants, an entire group is moved together to avoid undue stress or emotional turmoil. Experts fly over the park by helicopter to find a suitable group of between 8-20 animals then guide them to a designated plain so that they can be immobilised in a clear, open area.
2. Dart them from the helicopter
Once in the open plain, the vet darts the elephants. This is particularly challenging as they have to select the right amount of tranquiliser for the different sized elephants while they run around, nervous because of the helicopter above. Since darting must be completed as quickly as possible to reduce their anxiety, the whole process takes special skill and a steady hand.
3. Quick checks
Now the team on the ground springs into action. The elephants start to flop onto the plain. If they fall onto their chests, they could suffocate because of the position of the lungs and have to be turned onto their sides immediately. Small twigs are placed into the opening of the trunks to keep their air passages open. Vets then check each elephant, while helpers monitor their breathing. Ideally, around six breaths a minute, if it falls below four, the elephant needs urgent medical attention. I looked after a young female, staring at my watch for twenty minutes counting her warm fuggy exhalations, relieved they stayed at a constant six or seven a minute. The team quickly collects data, including the size of the tusks and feet, and matriarchs are fitted with collars to track their movements in their new home.
4. Crane the elephants onto low-loaders
Sturdy, chained webbing is tied around the feet, front and back, and the elephant is raised upside down by a crane onto the low-loader. This looks horrible but is the best way to transfer the immobilised animal – the capture stress is minimal and well controlled by tranquilisers. I carried my elephant’s trunk as she was craned to help lift it onto the truck, surprised at how heavy it was. On the low-loader, they’re positioned onto huge rubber mats and strapped down.
5. Transfer them to the wake-up crate
The elephants are driven to the nearby recovery area. Here, those huge rubber mats on which they are lying are winched into a ‘wake-up” crate, where the vet administers a reversal drug. The sliding doors at both ends of the crate are closed and within a couple of minutes, the elephant is back on its feet, oblivious to recent events.
6. Move them into trucks for the journey
With the truck backed up to the wake-up crate, the doors are opened and the sedated elephants walk into it, sometimes with a little prodding from handlers using an opening on the roof. Depending on their size, around 12 elephants can travel in one truck. Now they’re ready for their 350km journey to Nkhotakota.
7. Release the elephants
After a five-six hour road trip, the elephants arrive at Nkhotakota. The truck backs up to the gate of the secure 160sq-km sanctuary and the animals walk out. After regrouping and recovering from the journey, they start exploring their exciting new world. Seeing the elephants we’d helped in Liwonde walk into their new home in Nkhotakota was a truly special moment.
Sue Watt travelled with grateful thanks to Expert Africa www.expertafrica.com, African Parks african-parks.org, Mvuu Lodge http://cawsmw.com and Tongole Wilderness Lodge www.tongole.com. For further information visit Malawi Tourism Information malawitourism.com.