Behind the Scenes: Planning an elephant relocation

The ERP Team on a site-visit, observing the reserve’s population of elephants. Photo: Ida Hansen

The ERP Team on a site-visit, observing the reserve’s population of elephants. Photo: Ida Hansen

When you see the photos from our elephant translocations, you only see the end result of a very long process. In our new blog series “Behind the Scenes”, we do just that. We take you with us on everything that leads up to the event itself. It may not be as exciting as the action-packed translocation itself, but it is a necessary and vital aspect of all elephant translocations. And it is a big part of what ERP does.

An offloading ramp built at a reserve receiving elephants.

An offloading ramp built at a reserve receiving elephants.

Answering the call, we usually speak to a reserve manager, owner or board member and for the most part, they find themselves with too many elephants on too little land with no possibility of expanding. In that scenario, only two solutions exist: culling and translocation.

Culling used to be the go-to method, but has been largely abandoned for a number of reasons. For one, research revealed how cognitive elephants are and how culling affects the survivors, not just when it happens, but in the long run. Culling is not only unethical, but also impractical when considering the negative effects, it has on the remaining elephants. Elephants that, at least in South Africa, are predominantly confined in fenced reserves and living in close proximity to people.

Elephants are nearing extinction in some areas of Africa. In others, there are “too many”. A twisted irony that demands a conscientiously dynamic approach to translocations and conservation, but also communication with interested parties and the public.

Translocation is the “new”, up-and-coming approach. It involves moving elephants from where there are too many, resulting in unsustainable situations and the elephants themselves becoming unwanted. And moving them to areas where there are none or space for more. In the last 20 years or so, there have been massive advances in this field, making it possible to move more elephants at once and a lot further.

A core conviction for us is that the life of every individual elephant counts. So, we will always do our best to relocated unwanted elephants. Our belief is shared by most reserve managers, owners and board members that contact us regarding translocations.

The best route is being decided on before the elephants are translocated and all drivers familiarize themselves with the route in advance.

The best route is being decided on before the elephants are translocated and all drivers familiarize themselves with the route in advance.

After the initial contact has been made, the planning and the logistics start. A long list of questions needs to be answered… How many elephants need to be moved? Is there a place that will take them? Are the source and receiving reserves working with approved elephant management plans? How long will it take to get the necessary permits? How much help do the reserves need from us? Distance between the two reserves? Potential routes? Road conditions? Weather conditions? And many more…

As part of getting the necessary answers, we send out our team on site-visits to assess the reserves.

At the source reserve we get a lay-of-the-land by checking on topography and soil types. And we observe the elephants to find out about the sizes of family groups, age and sex distribution, behaviour and collect as much information as possible. All of this is preparation for the capture day. We need to know in which areas we will most likely find the elephants, if there are any difficult areas, whether the transportation trucks can get to the area, where the helicopter can land, and where the team can camp.

An example of one of the coveted permits needed in elephant translocations.

An example of one of the coveted permits needed in elephant translocations.

When we visit the receiving reserve, we focus on accessibility and proactive measures. We need to assess the release site to make sure that the dimensions of the offloading ramp are correct, that there is water and forage nearby, that it is not too close to a busy road etc. Proactive is always better than reactive. So, we check the fences, whether there are plants in fenced-in areas or neighbouring properties that the elephants will find irresistible and examine the level of human impact on the reserve. We advise the management on what could become potential issues and how to solve them beforehand.

Once we are satisfied that a translocation can take place responsibly, we start working on getting the necessary permits. This in itself is a complicated process. It may sound relatively simple and straight-forward. But there are always varying issues that needs to be dealt with. The receiving reserve needs to apply for an “import” permit and this requires that they have an approved elephant management plan. Depending on the province and time of year, this can take anywhere between 2 weeks and 2 months. Once this permit has been granted, the source reserve can now apply for their “export” permit. And again, getting the permit approved can take a long time. An extra twist on this whole process occurs when we need to transport elephants through other countries - because then we also need to apply for transit permits from these countries.

Anyone who has ever applied for a permit or something similar will know that this is a long and nerve-racking process, where the outcome is never known until you have the permit in hand.

With all the permits in place, the date for the capture can be set… And the hands-on part of a translocation can begin…


Read our next blog post, which will take you behind the scenes of capturing elephants.


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