Behind the scenes: Capturing elephants

Elephant being loaded into the translocation truck. Photo: Ida Hansen

Elephant being loaded into the translocation truck. Photo: Ida Hansen

Capture day starts early. First thing on the agenda is a briefing on the plan for the day, making sure everyone knows their role. This usually takes place with everyone standing in a circle, listening intently while stomping their feet a bit in the cold morning air. The reserve manager will give information on where the elephants were last seen. Kester from Conservation Solutions outlines the capture process from start to finish. The pilot and the vet provide safety warnings that may seem logical, but can be forgotten in the heat of the moment, like to stay away from the helicopter’s rotors and to not touch any darts or injection sites on the elephants. And Dereck will explain the goal, process and perspectives of the relocation.

Shortly after sunrise, when the air has warmed up enough, the helicopter takes off with the vet. As soon as they have found a suitable family group of elephants or the correct elephant bull, he radios the ground crew with the location. The entourage of vehicles drives to the general area and waits. There is complete radio-silence, with only Kester and the helicopter communicating. The helicopter circles the elephants, keeping them together. And sometimes herds them to a more open area with better access for the trucks. When the radio scratches again, it is with messages from the vet as each elephant is darted. This can be surprisingly quick - a dart every 15-20 seconds.

This photo was taken seconds before the trees were cut and the elephant pushed onto her side. Photo: Ida Hansen

This photo was taken seconds before the trees were cut and the elephant pushed onto her side. Photo: Ida Hansen

The vehicles rush to the elephants, manoeuvring around natural obstacles such as drainage lines, rocks and boulders, trees and bushes. Getting to the elephants quickly is of utmost importance. If an elephant goes down on its sternum, it will suffocate to death in a few minutes. To prevent this from happening, the team on the ground needs to get there fast and push the elephant onto its side. A task that requires both numbers and strength - pushing an elephant weighing anywhere between 2 and 6 tonnes on its side is no easy job. Another terrifying event can happen if the elephant is lodged between trees and bushes. We carry chainsaws for this exact reason. To cut the trees and push the elephant onto its side. If we cannot get the elephant free of the constraining trees, we administrate the antidote immediately and wake up the elephant. If the elephant is part of a family group, the rest are woken up as well, and we will have to look for another group of elephants. We will not split a family group. We only move cohesive family groups.

As soon as the elephants hit the ground, the clock is ticking. We only have a limited amount of time before we need to wake them up again. Every elephant is checked. Is their breathing unhindered. Are they lying correctly. The ear is flipped over the face, both to protect the exposed eye from the sun, dust and debris and to ensure regulation of body temperature via the veins on the back of the ear. In that short amount of time, we need to do a lot. We need to take measurements of the elephants, such as weight, shoulder height, body length, tusks, feet etc. It is a unique opportunity to get all of this data that would otherwise be impossible to get from wild elephants.

More often than not, we also need to collar one or two of the elephants. While the elephant is snoozing three to four people are navigating the heavy collar around its neck. Struggling to manoeuvre one strap between the elephant’s neck and the ground it is lying on and out the other side underneath its chin. An exercise accompanied by grunts from the humans - and snoring from the elephant.

Penny taking measurements of an elephant’s feet.

Penny taking measurements of an elephant’s feet.

It is a race against time and the transportation crew… Each truck is fitted with a crane that lifts the elephants up by their feet, swing them upside-down into the recovery crate, and gently eases them down on the floor. It looks horrible, when an elephant is dangling upside down in the air. But it has been proven to be the quickest and safest method. To lift an elephant right-side up with straps wrapped around its chest would suffocate the elephants. Unlike us humans, an elephant’s lungs are attached to the ribcage and pressure on the ribcage will prevent the lungs from expanding, and thus breathing.

Once safely inside the crate lying on their side, they are woken up with the anitdote and coerced into the connecting transportation crate. With one elephant safely loaded, it is onwards to the next sleeping giant. If you are not done with the measurements by the time the transportation crew gets there, then it is just bad luck. The priority is the elephants’ safety.

With the precious and heavy cargo loaded, the trucks are off. Not in a cloud of dust and wheels spinning. The trucks are not able to drive too fast with this type of freight. Slow and steady does it. And proper preparation with the best route having been picked beforehand, taking into consideration road conditions, possible heavy traffic, topography and available truck stops.

As the translocation trucks leave, there is a shared sigh of relief between the people left behind. An elephant capture is always busy, requiring constant focus and vigilance for hours. An air of tension is replaced by a collective adrenalin drop and the very real sensations of hunger and thirst.

Witnessed from a distance, an elephant capture may not be unlike that of the seemingly chaotic movements ants perform when disturbed. But, just as with ants, it is a coordinated dance. With the right team it is a well-oiled machine. Everyone knows what part to play and how to play it in unison with the next.

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Read our next blog post, which will take you behind the scenes of transporting the elephants to their new home.


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