Behind the scenes: Moving elephants

The ERP support vehicle driving ahead of the translocation truck. Photo: Daviid Swanepoel

The ERP support vehicle driving ahead of the translocation truck. Photo: Daviid Swanepoel

We are all used to passing big trucks on the highways, or being stuck behind one, not being able to overtake it. At times, this can lead to frustrations and a rise in blood pressure. Next time you are stuck behind one of these massive vehicles, remember that some of these carries precious cargo. Maybe even elephants. At least in Africa.

The elephants are awake when they are transported to their new home. Family members are put in the same crate. It is reassuring for them to be with family. Hopefully, it relieves some of the stress that they experience. They are given a mild sedative, with additional top-ups along the route. This drug helps minimise the anxiety and stress that the elephants will inevitably experience.

Throughout the whole trip the elephants are monitored. The safety of the elephants is always the highest priority! The drivers from ERP’s partner, Conservation Solutions, are very experienced and focused on getting the elephants to their destination safely. They are an essential part of the team.

Elephant inside transportation crate during a check-up on route to the new reserve. Photo: Daviid Swanepoel

Elephant inside transportation crate during a check-up on route to the new reserve. Photo: Daviid Swanepoel

Driving with a truckload of elephants is not an easy task. It can be dangerous for the elephants if the driver does not have experience with this particular type of cargo. A truck driving too fast through a bend in the road may overturn, risking the lives of the elephants and nearby commuters. Speeding and abrupt breaking is another potential danger. If an elephant slips and falls inside the crate, it may be fatal. An elephant needs room to get up again and if it lands on its sternum, it will suffocate.

The aim of the transportation is to get the elephants to their new home as quickly and safely as possible. The drivers rarely stop along the road - only when necessary, such as to refuel, to check on the elephants, and to top-up the sedative. On the longer trips, like the ones we have done between South Africa and Mozambique, there are two drivers taking turns sleeping and driving.

The ERP Team follows the trucks in a support vehicle, assisting in any way possible. From handling matters at border crossings, going ahead to clear weighbridges or toll gates, and to delivering food, coffee, cool drinks and snacks to the drivers. A support vehicle is important on a 48-hour trip of non-stop driving, where even the smallest gesture, such as a cup of hot coffee at 4 am, can make a huge difference.

When the trucks finally arrive at the release reserve, they head straight for the offloading area. The driver needs to line up the doors of the transportation crate with the offloading ramp perfectly. Getting the elephants to leave the crate can, at times, be a little difficult. Even though they definitely do not want to be in the crate, they are also hesitant of leaving it. This is completely understandable considering that they have no idea where they are and what is happening.

The offloading ramp is often lined with poles. The poles work as a funnel, guiding and leading the elephants out into their new home. They are also there for security, both for elephants and people. At this point in time, humans are not in high favour with the elephants - considering what they have just subjected the elephants to, it is understandable. So, the poles also prevent the elephants from seeing the trucks and any humans, as that might lead to a charge from an angry elephant.

Watching the elephant emerge from the crates is always the highlight and a joyous moment. And it is always different. Some elephants move quickly out of the crate, down the ramp and into the bush without looking back. Others are more heistant, carefully stepping out into the sunlight, waiting for the rest to follow before disappearing silently into the bush. Still others come out ready for a fight. And this is when the poles lining the ramp come in handy. Without anything to direct their frustration at, the elephant will quickly leave.

Releasing the elephants is the culmination of months of paperwork, applications, discussions, phone calls, meetings and planning. It is an event that has been anticipated by everyone involved.

Our work is not done when the elephants have been offloaded. We continue to monitor the elephants - both from afar via satellite, and up close on foot or in a vehicle. The monitoring helps us determine how the elephants are settling in, based on the movements in their new home and by seeing how they behave both with each other, but also towards other animals and people/vehicles.

Read our next blog post in this series. It will take you behind the scenes of elephant monitoring.

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