Posts tagged capturing elephants
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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Samara: The translocation of Kahle and Mvula

With the permits in hand, the ERP team headed off from Pretoria on Friday the 17th of November 2018. Dereck, Ida and Daviid were driving to Phinda Private Game Reserve, near Hluhluwe in KwaZulu-Natal, where they would meet up with the last member of the team, Penny.

After a 6-hours drive, we finally arrived at the warm, lush Phinda. Last minute logistics were sorted out. The assigned meeting place for the following morning was confirmed. The capture, the drive with the elephants, and what to expect was discussed during a well-deserved dinner. Anticipation and nervousness slowly started to make an appearance.

Mvula leaving the transportation crate at Samara Private Game Reserve. Photo: Daviid Swanepoel

Mvula leaving the transportation crate at Samara Private Game Reserve. Photo: Daviid Swanepoel

The next morning, we were all up before the sun and ready for the day to come. We were joined by the owner of Samara Private Game Reserve, Sarah Tompkins, and her two guests. The tension and excitement that had started the night before increased as we drove through the reserve accompanied by the rising sun.

Arriving we met up with Simon Naylor and his reserve team, as well as Kester Vickery and his team. Everything was ready. The wake-up box had already been built the day before and the flatbed truck to transport the elephants stood ready to go. All we needed was the air to warm up enough for the helicopter to take off.

Only one of the two bulls required had been decided on beforehand - Kahle (Zulu for gentle), an elephant bull about 35 years old, who was often seen in the company of a few different younger bulls. The plan was to find one of these younger bulls first. It would not be difficult to find Kahle - he had been collared two months prior to the translocation.

As soon as the air had warmed up enough, the helicopter and the vet were off to search for elephant bulls. It did not take long for the radio to come alive with scratches and voices from the helicopter. A bull had been located. Everyone jumped into their assigned vehicles. The ERP team on the back of capture vehicles. Guests on the game viewer. And off we went.

Penny and Ida after having completed measurements on Mvula. Photo: Hayley Minter-Brown

Penny and Ida after having completed measurements on Mvula. Photo: Hayley Minter-Brown

It was not far to where the first elephant bull had been darted. Unfortunately, he had fallen on a bit of an incline with his head resting downwards. The team was quick to get straps around him and pull him to a better angle. At the same time, Ida and Penny were darting around the elephant getting as many measurements as possible, before the elephant was hoisted into the air and placed on the flatbed truck.

As the flatbed truck drove away with a huge elephant on it, one of Phinda’s rangers told us a bit about him. His name was Mvula (Zulu for rain) and he was about 20 years old. The ranger told us that Mvula was an easy-going elephant and relaxed around vehicles.

After a few moments to collect ourselves, we were off again. They had found Kahle. Arriving in the general area, we were told to standby. Kahle was not happy with being darted again and he was fighting the drugs and running away, more or less in our general direction. Standing on the bed of a capture truck, we saw Kahle in amongst the trees, running straight for us and turning when he saw us, fleeing into dense vegetation, where he finally went down.

Bouncing through the bush, ducking from thorny branches and holding on for dear life in bends and turns, we arrived where Kahle had gone down. As the vehicle stopped, we hit the ground running to get the measurements done in that little window of time between the elephant having been sedated to him being hoisted up on the flatbed truck.

Before anyone knew it, it was done. All the measurements had been taken, a couple of scratches had been treated, and Kahle was on the flatbed on his way to the wake-up crate. When we arrived, Mvula was already awake and ready in his transportation crate. Kahle was moved into the wake-up crate on a conveyor belt and woken up. It took him a bit of time to wake up and get up, before he reversed into his transportation crate.

Kahle being loaded into the wake-up box. Photo: Ida Hansen

Kahle being loaded into the wake-up box. Photo: Ida Hansen

And then the translocation truck carrying the precious cargo of two gigantic elephant bulls was off. Ahead was a 1,400-km journey that would take 24 hours. After a quick shower back at the lodge, the ERP team followed. We would function as support for the two drivers from Conservation Solutions, Koos and Skukuza. Anything they needed during the drive, we would help with, whether it was help at toll gates or weighbridges, food and beverages on route or breakdowns.

When you are driving for 24 hours non-stop, you need a good team. It is also a great opportunity to get to know each other. You see how the others react under pressure, from sleep deprivation, from being hungry, from being anxious about how the elephants were doing in the truck. Discussions and conversations on a wide variety of topics were interspersed with jokes and laughter and bouts of napping or just resting of eyes.

Sunday morning the sun rose behind the mountains of Eastern Cape. A beautiful backdrop to the transportation truck driving past us, just north of Graaff-Reinet, the nearest town to Samara. Driving ahead of the truck, we reached the gates to the reserve where staff was waiting to let us in.

We continued in front of the truck to make sure that everything was ready at the offloading ramp. Here, staff from Samara stood ready with support vehicles, a tractor and a few lucky guests who had not known that they would be present for such a unique experience when they booked their stay at Samara.

Kahle before disappearing into the bush in a cloud of dust at Samara Private Game Reserve. Photo: Ida Hansen

Kahle before disappearing into the bush in a cloud of dust at Samara Private Game Reserve. Photo: Ida Hansen

As the rumble from the translocation truck could be heard in the distance, the fortunate spectators climbed on the game viewers. Koos expertly reversed the massive translocation truck to the offloading ramp. Ida and Dereck climbed on top of the truck with Marnus Ochse, General Manager at Samara. Skukuza and Koos, seasoned experts in releasing elephants, stood ready at the sliding doors with two rookies - Mzi and Ntsindiso, the two interns that we have been training in elephant monitoring at Samara. When everyone was ready, they pulled the doors open.

The first to emerge was Kahle. He pushed the last bit of the sliding door open. As he stepped out, he grabbed a bit of dust and sprayed it, trumpeted and walked out and down the ramp and in between the trees. Mvula was not far behind him, reversing out of the crate calmly before heading off in the same direction as Kahle.

Transporting a force of nature, as elephants are, wreaks havoc on the nerves - even for the most experienced of us. So, releasing the elephants in their new home is always a joyous and victorious moment. It was a moment of collective elation, when the gentle giants disappeared into the bush. We were left standing there, feeling the tension of the last 36 hours leaving our bodies. This victorious feeling was then joined by exhaustion, hunger and a dire need of a shower.

The team that transported Kahle and Mvula. From left: Ida, Koos, Skukuza, Penny, Dereck and Daviid. Photo: Daviid Swanepoel

The team that transported Kahle and Mvula. From left: Ida, Koos, Skukuza, Penny, Dereck and Daviid. Photo: Daviid Swanepoel

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Check out our next blog post on how Kahle and Mvula have settled in at Samara!


See the videos of the translocation of Kahle and Mvula here

https://youtu.be/b3EdpMAusj4

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bqb1WDrF_zT/?utm_source=ig_share_sheet&igshid=mqpmfr2ydm9c

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bq1lv8hhn8M/?utm_source=ig_share_sheet&igshid=bzggvb7doofb



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