The doors of the crate creaked open and a head appeared. Eyes scanned the surroundings, followed by a slow blink before the head retreated back into the darkness. Then silence. The birds continued their melodic singing all around us, unaware of the suppressed anticipation. After some time, a bum instead of a head appeared. The matriarch reversed out onto the ramp, followed closely by her calf. They stood there for a while, looking around and sniffing the air. The calf found her teat, lifted his trunk above his head and started suckling.
Out from the darkness of the transportation crate another elephant emerged with her young calf. A tiny male about 1.5 years old. He found his mother’s teat and drank greedily. Even the commotion on the ramp as the last two elephants exited the crate, did not stop him drinking. The ramp was becoming a little crowded. One female walked down the ramp and started feeding on a sweet thorn acacia nearby. The rest stayed on the ramp, looking almost bewildered around at their new surroundings. Deep rumbles passed between them. The little calf played with a rock on the ramp. His little trunk sniffing, touching and trying to grab it. His mum started to walk down the ramp and he abandoned his investigations to follow her. Slowly the rest followed. They walked calmly in between the trees and bushes, disappearing from sight. Soon thereafter snaps and cracks of broken branches rang back through the bushes.
This was the reward of our latest translocation. The journey had started the day before just after sunrise. At the other end of the country. In Atherstone Nature Reserve close to the border of Botswana. On that morning, the ERP team met up with the capture team from Conservation Solutions consisting of Kester Vickery, Dr. Andre Uys and Kahn de Jager, and the reserve’s rangers under leadership of Tryphid Mashala, as well as a group of private landowners.
After a safety briefing, Andre and Kahn were off in a billowing cloud of dust. The ERP team jumped on the two recovery vehicles. Private landowners and guests clambered onto game viewers. From then on out, it was full on speed. Andre and Kahn directed Kester and the recovery vehicles to the elephants. Andre darted the elephants from the helicopter, starting from the matriarch and down to the smallest calf. Hovering above them, both as a guide for us on the ground and to keep an eye on how the elephants went down. If there were concerns, Kahn radioed Kester and we jumped into action. Pushing elephants onto their side to prevent suffocation. Rushing to ensure breathing through a trunk was unhindered. Knocking over trees that were in the way of the sedated elephants.
The next step in the process was to measure the elephants before they were loaded into the customised crates. A race against the crane that would hoist the elephants up by their feet and swing them into the crates. With clipboard and measuring tape in hand, Penny and Ida were running from one elephant to the next, going through bushes rather than around, getting as many measurements as possible. Helping hands to straighten elephant legs and hold ears were all around. Straps wrapped around the elephants’ feet and hooked on the giant crane lifted the elephants one by one. The crane was expertly manoeuvred, directions were given from spotters on the ground and in the crates as the elephants were gently lowered into them. As the elephants were loaded, the weights were added to the other measurements already taken. Safely on board, it was on to the next group of elephants.
In under five hours, three family groups consisting of 16 elephants had been captured, measured and loaded onto two translocation trucks. The next step was the 23-hour non-stop drive crossing two provincial borders and 1,100 km. Following the two translocation trucks were two support vehicles from ERP. At Middelburg in Eastern Cape, the fellowship split in two. One truck with 10 elephants and one ERP-vehicle headed southeast towards Buffalo Kloof Private Game Reserve near Grahamstown. The other truck with six elephants and the other ERP-vehicle took the N9 to Graaff Reinet and carried on to Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve.
The massive operation of capturing and transporting 16 of the biggest land-living mammals took 31 hours from start to finish. A move like that is not done on a whim. Months of preparation led up to it. Site visits to Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve and Buffalo Kloof Private Game Reserve. Reviewing management plans. Applying for permits. Following up on concerns and deadlines. Detailed planning to manage the capture, the transport, the release and all the associated logistics. Basically, getting all of the moving parts to fit together. Planning and preparation are the two pillars of a successful translocation operation.
This translocation was the latest phase in our ERP programme ‘The Great Karoo Elephant Migration’. The purpose of which is to introduce elephants to their former range, establish viable breeding populations and restore ecosystems in the Karoo. Something that is surely needed after humans nearly wiped out South Africa’s elephant population in the colonial age. And something that elephants used to be able to do on their own terms, before humans invaded their domains and divided a pristine landscape with roads, fences and cities. We are trying to compensate for this by giving the gentle giants a helping hand through elephant translocations to safe areas.
Watch the video of the elephants taking their first steps onto Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve. Click here!