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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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