World Elephant Day: What it takes to move 200 elephants 1500 km
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The translocation of wild animals is becoming an increasingly important conservation strategy and is happening more and more frequently around the world.
The Australian Wildlife Conservancy has translocated 20 species (13 of them threatened) to its reserves around Australia. Similarly, the Conservation Land Trust in Argentina has translocated a suite of native mammals including the giant anteater, tapir and jaguar to restore the Iberá Wetlands in Corrientes Province. The Red Squirrels Trust Wales is restoring the Ogwen Valley by eradicating invasive grey squirrels, and translocating native red squirrels and pine marten.Translocations have become more frequent in Africa, too; elephants are the biggest animals to be moved. In places where species have historically been wiped out, but where managers have now removed the causes of those declines, translocation is an important tool. One of the biggest elephant translocations ever undertaken is underway as part of an attempt to rebuild Mozambique’s elephant population. The global mining company, De Beers Group, in partnership with with Peace Parks Foundation, has initiated a project to move 200 from their nature reserve in northern South Africa to Zinave National Park in Mozambique – a distance of 1500 km. The process has already started. The animals will be moved in safe batches over the course of a 2-year project, the plan being to have all elephants moved by the end of next year’s translocation season.
How it’s doneThe movement of elephants is a major mission. First, helicopters are used to direct herds of elephants to a capture area so they can be darted from the air. The elephants’ legs are bound by strong, soft tethers capable of supporting several tonnes of animal. A crane attached to the loading trucks then lifts each animal and lowers them gently into crates. The elephants remain immobilised and ‘sleeping’ as it were, are then woken before they start their long journey to their new home. For 200 elephants, this sounds like a monumental task. But South African conservation managers have vast experience with wildlife restoration projects on this scale. As long ago as 1979, 6000 animals (including elephants) were reintroduced into the newly established Pilanesberg National Park. In 1991, Madikwe Game Reserve took the title of the world’s biggest translocation when 8000 individuals from 28 different species, including elephants, were translocated. Expertise is critical with translocations because they can go horribly wrong. For example, a Kenyan Wildlife Service translocation of 11 black rhinos this year led to 10 dying because the water at the translocation site was too salty. Lessons have also been learnt over the years. The elephants translocated to Pilanesberg were youngsters orphaned following culling in Kruger National Park. These youngsters grew up in the absence of adults and the unruly males ended up attacking and killing rhinos. Once adults were returned to Pilanesberg (and the offending elephants were removed), this aberrant behaviour ceased. Now entire herds are translocated, including adult bulls.
Need for relocationRampant poaching has afflicted Africa’s elephant populations over the past 8 to 10 years. Some poaching happens in South Africa, but elephant populations in the country are generally well managed and protected. Some populations have even increased beyond carrying capacity. For example, the reserve in Limpopo that’s home to the elephants being moved to Mozambique can carry 60 elephants but has a population of 270.
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