Posts tagged elephant translocation
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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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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Behind the Scenes: Planning an elephant relocation
The ERP Team on a site-visit, observing the reserve’s population of elephants. Photo: Ida Hansen

The ERP Team on a site-visit, observing the reserve’s population of elephants. Photo: Ida Hansen

When you see the photos from our elephant translocations, you only see the end result of a very long process. In our new blog series “Behind the Scenes”, we do just that. We take you with us on everything that leads up to the event itself. It may not be as exciting as the action-packed translocation itself, but it is a necessary and vital aspect of all elephant translocations. And it is a big part of what ERP does.

An offloading ramp built at a reserve receiving elephants.

An offloading ramp built at a reserve receiving elephants.

Answering the call, we usually speak to a reserve manager, owner or board member and for the most part, they find themselves with too many elephants on too little land with no possibility of expanding. In that scenario, only two solutions exist: culling and translocation.

Culling used to be the go-to method, but has been largely abandoned for a number of reasons. For one, research revealed how cognitive elephants are and how culling affects the survivors, not just when it happens, but in the long run. Culling is not only unethical, but also impractical when considering the negative effects, it has on the remaining elephants. Elephants that, at least in South Africa, are predominantly confined in fenced reserves and living in close proximity to people.

Elephants are nearing extinction in some areas of Africa. In others, there are “too many”. A twisted irony that demands a conscientiously dynamic approach to translocations and conservation, but also communication with interested parties and the public.

Translocation is the “new”, up-and-coming approach. It involves moving elephants from where there are too many, resulting in unsustainable situations and the elephants themselves becoming unwanted. And moving them to areas where there are none or space for more. In the last 20 years or so, there have been massive advances in this field, making it possible to move more elephants at once and a lot further.

A core conviction for us is that the life of every individual elephant counts. So, we will always do our best to relocated unwanted elephants. Our belief is shared by most reserve managers, owners and board members that contact us regarding translocations.

The best route is being decided on before the elephants are translocated and all drivers familiarize themselves with the route in advance.

The best route is being decided on before the elephants are translocated and all drivers familiarize themselves with the route in advance.

After the initial contact has been made, the planning and the logistics start. A long list of questions needs to be answered… How many elephants need to be moved? Is there a place that will take them? Are the source and receiving reserves working with approved elephant management plans? How long will it take to get the necessary permits? How much help do the reserves need from us? Distance between the two reserves? Potential routes? Road conditions? Weather conditions? And many more…

As part of getting the necessary answers, we send out our team on site-visits to assess the reserves.

At the source reserve we get a lay-of-the-land by checking on topography and soil types. And we observe the elephants to find out about the sizes of family groups, age and sex distribution, behaviour and collect as much information as possible. All of this is preparation for the capture day. We need to know in which areas we will most likely find the elephants, if there are any difficult areas, whether the transportation trucks can get to the area, where the helicopter can land, and where the team can camp.

An example of one of the coveted permits needed in elephant translocations.

An example of one of the coveted permits needed in elephant translocations.

When we visit the receiving reserve, we focus on accessibility and proactive measures. We need to assess the release site to make sure that the dimensions of the offloading ramp are correct, that there is water and forage nearby, that it is not too close to a busy road etc. Proactive is always better than reactive. So, we check the fences, whether there are plants in fenced-in areas or neighbouring properties that the elephants will find irresistible and examine the level of human impact on the reserve. We advise the management on what could become potential issues and how to solve them beforehand.

Once we are satisfied that a translocation can take place responsibly, we start working on getting the necessary permits. This in itself is a complicated process. It may sound relatively simple and straight-forward. But there are always varying issues that needs to be dealt with. The receiving reserve needs to apply for an “import” permit and this requires that they have an approved elephant management plan. Depending on the province and time of year, this can take anywhere between 2 weeks and 2 months. Once this permit has been granted, the source reserve can now apply for their “export” permit. And again, getting the permit approved can take a long time. An extra twist on this whole process occurs when we need to transport elephants through other countries - because then we also need to apply for transit permits from these countries.

Anyone who has ever applied for a permit or something similar will know that this is a long and nerve-racking process, where the outcome is never known until you have the permit in hand.

With all the permits in place, the date for the capture can be set… And the hands-on part of a translocation can begin…


Read our next blog post, which will take you behind the scenes of capturing elephants.


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Mount Camdeboo: A long awaited homecoming

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.

Female elephant with her calf inside the customised translocation crate moments before they were released on Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve. Photo: Ida Hansen

Female elephant with her calf inside the customised translocation crate moments before they were released on Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve. Photo: Ida Hansen

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.

Dr. Andre Uys and Kahn de Jager hovering to ensure that a recently darted elephant is about to lie down without complications. Photo: Ida Hansen

Dr. Andre Uys and Kahn de Jager hovering to ensure that a recently darted elephant is about to lie down without complications. Photo: Ida Hansen

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.

Ida taking measurements of a sedated elephant. Photo: Chris Holcroft

Ida taking measurements of a sedated elephant. Photo: Chris Holcroft

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.

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Watch the video of the elephants taking their first steps onto Mount Camdeboo Private Game Reserve. Click here!


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Samara: Discovering the girls

The two new bulls, Kahle and Mvula, have spent their first weeks exploring their new home at Samara Private Game Reserve. Separate at first, it took them a week to settle in and eventually meet up. They have spent most of their time together since then.

Kahle and Mvula exploring their new home at Samara Private Game Reserve. Photo: Penny Pistorius

Kahle and Mvula exploring their new home at Samara Private Game Reserve. Photo: Penny Pistorius

As for the group of female elephants at Samara Private Game reserve, they had not seen or heard any bulls for a year. Naturally, everyone was excited to see how the elusive female elephants would react to having elephant bull in their area again.

Kahle and Mvula were released on the western side of the reserve. But they seem to have settled on the eastern side, in an area with dense vegetation on the valley floor below the mountain known by the locals as Mark’s Pass. Here, they have plenty of delicious vegetation in the Cabbage trees (Cussonia spicata) and Jacket plums (Pappea capensis) and waterholes close by for drinking and bathing.

Cabbage trees, like the one being reached for here, are a favourite of elephants. Photo: Penny Pistorius

Cabbage trees, like the one being reached for here, are a favourite of elephants. Photo: Penny Pistorius

Nombeko and her family on the other hand prefer the mountain slopes. During the past year, these females have become quite the accomplished mountain climbers, spending most of their time on the mountain. Although the slopes can be steep, they are covered in Cabbage trees and Spekbooms (Portulacaria afra).

There has been a few times where we thought that Kahle and Mvula had met up with Nombeko and the others. The first time was in the first few days after the bulls were released. Late at night watching the updates coming in, it looked like the collars on Kahle and Nomvula were both heading to the same dam. But the GPS showed Nomvula changing direction shortly before ‘making first contact’. A near-miss. Then in mid-December and early January it looked like it might have happened. But we cannot be sure. All the “maybe”-encounters happened during the night with no curious onlookers around.

Late January we got proof that all the elephants at Samara have finally meet each other. Penny and her trainee, Mzi, have been following and observing the bulls since they arrived. And one day, they found Kahle with Nombeko and the other females. They seemed to have met in the middle, on the lower slopes of the mountain.

Kahle and Mvula having after a mudbath. Photo: Penny Pistorius

Kahle and Mvula having after a mudbath. Photo: Penny Pistorius

Mzi was instantly convinced that one of the bulls had joined the female group. It took Penny a bit longer to be persuaded. As always, Penny was very thoroughly going through Kahle’s different characteristics and checking them on the elephant that she could see in the distance. As he moved through the trees and shrubs, she got a better view of him and concluded that it was Kahle with the females. He was not in the middle of the family group, but rather feeding alongside them in their vicinity. A cautious move considering the skittish nature of the female elephants.

Mvula was nowhere to be seen. Both Penny and Mzi scanned the mountain slopes around the elephants, but found no sign of Mvula. It can be very difficult to spot an elephant, when you are far away on a densely vegetated mountain side. It requires eyes like an eagle, patience and a great deal of luck to be looking in the exact spot where the elephant becomes visible in the green sea of trees and shrubs.

Kahle eventually left Nombeko and the others and went in the direction of one of the dams. Penny and Mzi went around to meet him there. After he had been drinking for about 15 minutes, Mvula showed up. We do not know where he had been. It seems likely that he had been in the same area as the others, but maybe just further away from them.

Anything could have transpired, when the two bulls first made contact with Nombeko and the other females. Albeit we could have learned a lot from witnessing the initial meeting, it appears they are off to a good start.

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Watch the video taken earlier this year of Kahle and Mvula with the female group at one of Samara’s dams. The video was taken by one of Samara’s guides, Julius Mkhize. 

https://www.facebook.com/SamaraKaroo/videos/337309286867363/


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Samara: How are Kahle and Mvula doing at Samara

After releasing Kahle and Mvula on Samara Private Game Reserve, we left them alone. Considering what they had just been through, humans were probably not high on their list of favourite things for a while.

Kahle and Mvula sliding down the dam wall on their tummies at Samara Private Game Reserve. Photo: Penny Pistorius

Kahle and Mvula sliding down the dam wall on their tummies at Samara Private Game Reserve. Photo: Penny Pistorius

The ERP Team (Dereck, Daviid, Penny and Ida) took the opportunity to eat a proper meal, have a shower and get a bit of sleep. Some more than others. Dereck and Daviid were left to sleep, as they had carried most of the burden on the road. Ida and Penny took turns. One sleeping while the other monitored Kahle’s movements on the app. We had intentionally set the updates to every 30 minutes to be able to keep a close eye on him. If the bulls decided to try to return home, we wanted to be ready to respond quickly.

The next morning, we were up before dawn, heading to the area that Kahle was in. He had crossed the width of the reserve and had finally stopped at the perimeter fence, moving up and down the fence throughout the night. We did not want to disturb either of the two. But we needed to locate Mvula, who did not have a collar on, which meant we had no opportunity to track him remotely via the app. And he might be with Kahle.

Female cheetah with her cubs at Samara Private Game Reserve. Photo: Ida Hansen

Female cheetah with her cubs at Samara Private Game Reserve. Photo: Ida Hansen

On our way to the area, we happened to come across one of the female cheetahs and her cubs. A sight such as this is a rare one that should be savoured. We stopped, got out and approached them carefully. The cheetahs at Samara are accustomed to having people on foot, and did not change their behaviour just because people were now watching them. Watching the cubs climb a tree one by one and then disappearing in the bush, tailing their mother out of sight was delightful.

Back on the vehicle, we continued the search for Kahle and Mvula. Tracks along the fence told us that at least one elephant had been walking up and down this stretch. As we drove down the fence, we finally spotted Kahle, about 40-50 meters from us. He was walking calmly away from us, glancing back over his shoulder at us. But Mvula was not with him. Happy that we had seen Kahle and that he seemed well, we now searched for Mvula. We went to the area where the female elephants were, hoping that Mvula had joined them. The females were far up on the mountain slopes. But there was no sign of Mvula. He was somewhere else on the reserve. With just under 13,000 hectares there were a lot of possibilities for Mvula to hide. While driving back in the direction of the release site, we spotted elephant tracks along another part of the reserve’s fence. Mvula’s tracks. These were heading south of where we had found Kahle.

We asked the reserve staff to check along the fence line to see if there were any breaks. Just in case. The bulls had not broken fences at Phinda, their previous reserve, but there is no way of knowing how elephants will react to a translocation. Breaking fences to walk home is not an uncommen reaction. When the news came in that the fence was intact, it confirmed our expectations that these two bulls were not fence-breaking elephants and that they just needed a bit of time to settle in, before they started exploring their new home.

The following morning we went out again. We headed straight for Kahle. He was in the same general area as the night before, but in much denser vegetation. It was so thick that we would not be able to see him, even if he was just 15 meters from us.

Kahle the morning after his release, glancing back at us. Photo: Ida Hansen

Kahle the morning after his release, glancing back at us. Photo: Ida Hansen

We got out of the car and climbed up on the mountain side to get a better view of the area. When we could not spot him through the binoculars, we deployed the drone. Even with the drone, the vegetation was too dense for us to spot him from above. Moments later Penny spotted him, or rather the dust he was spraying. In the distance, up on a ridge a cloud of dust blew in the wind - like a whale exhaling but in a sea of deep green instead of blue. That was all we could see of him.

Along the way we happened to come across Pokkie, trainer at the SAT Tracker Academy on Samara, out with with his students following tracks and signs in the bush. Penny asked them to keep an eye out for Mvula and his tracks and if they would let us know if they saw anything.

Dereck, Daviid and Ida had to go back to Pretoria. Penny stayed to continue monitoring all the elephants, particularly Kahle and Mvula.

Penny found Mvula the next day with help from Samara’s rangers and the Tracker Academy that had seen signs of him in the southern section of the reserve. The younger of the two bulls had taken up residence in the riverine thicket, feeding on the lush vegetation there.

In the following days Penny continued to monitor the two bulls and the group of females. On the 25th of November, we got happy news. Kahle and Mvula had finally met up. They were walking and feeding together, and seemed to have settled in at their new home. Now everyone wanted to see Kahle and Mvula join Nombeko and her family.


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Watch the video with the update on Kahle and Mvula here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZAP0vQ80mCA


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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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Samara: Reintroducing elephant bulls to the Karoo

We recently completed the translocation of two elephant bulls to Samara Private Game Reserve, aspiring for a viable population of elephants in their former range and ecosystem.

A view of Samara Private Game Reserve in all its glory. Photo: Ida Hansen

A view of Samara Private Game Reserve in all its glory. Photo: Ida Hansen

This is how it all came to pass… About 20 years ago, on a safari in South Africa, Mark and Sarah Tompkins learnt of the magical Karoo. Soon thereafter they acquired a little piece of this magic place themselves. A bit of land near the town of Graaff-Reinet. With patience, passion and expert advice they started to restore the utilised farmland back to the bush it had once been. As the land improved with rest, they slowly started to restock the area with the species that were once there: black wildebeest, mountain zebra, plains zebra, springbok, and the cheetahs that Samara Private Game Reserve is now famous for.

In 2017, Sarah and her daughter Isabelle contacted Dereck to see if we could help them return the largest of the original species, known across Africa as the gentle giants - the African savanna elephant.

Palaeontological records show that elephants used to roam in this region. Tusks, bones and teeth have been found in the area. Once again, these stomping grounds were to become inhabited by the gentle giants, that were eradicated from the area some 100 years ago by an influx of hunters wielding firearms and killing for sport.

The family group of female elephants (the N-family) that were translocated to Samara Private Game Reserve in 2017. Photo: Ida Hansen

The family group of female elephants (the N-family) that were translocated to Samara Private Game Reserve in 2017. Photo: Ida Hansen

The reintroduction marked the start of the partnership between Samara and ERP. The first part of this relationship was the relocation of a family group of female elephants, known as the N-family, to Samara last year. We have now completed the second part - the relocation of two elephant bulls to Samara.

Planning the relocation of the two elephant bulls to Samara was a bit of a struggle. The original elephant management plan at Samara only allowed for the reintroduction of one bull - not two bulls. However, as elephant bulls are a lot more social than people tend to think, ERP encouraged Samara to amend their management plan to allow for two bulls. Sarah and Isabelle worked tirelessly and with determination on this.

It also could not just be any elephant bulls. Following the advice of various experts and of ERP, they searched for a mature elephant bull in his mid-30s and a younger male companion. It was important to get two bulls that were of the right ages and were known to associate with each other.

After exploring options at different reserves, two suitable bulls were found at Phinda Private Game Reserve in KwaZulu-Natal. Following nerve-racking weeks of permit applications, waiting and frequent phone calls, Ida was sent to the office in Bisho, Eastern Cape, to help speed up the process and get the permit through the last hoops. Samara’s last permit was finally issued on the 8th of November 2018, just in time but with none to spare.

With Samara’s permit in hand, all that remained was for Phinda to get their permits approved in KwaZulu-Natal. This was done in record time. A week later, on the 15th of November 2018, Simon Naylor, Reserve Manager at Phinda, got the last necessary permit. This left us with only 24 hours to sort out the final logistical challenges. The elephant bulls were being translocated two days later on Saturday the 17th of November. If the translocation was delayed any further, it would have to be delayed to 2019. It is not responsible to move elephants in the heat of the summer.


Dereck Milburn, Director of Operations for ERP (left)  Ida Hansen, ERP Elephant Projects (right)

Dereck Milburn, Director of Operations for ERP (left)

Ida Hansen, ERP Elephant Projects (right)


Read our next blog post that takes you through the capture, the transport and the release of the two elephant bulls


Check out the video from the translocation of the N-family in October 2017 here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=nevv36OZBzQ


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Samara: Elephants return to the Karoo after 100 years
Kester Vickery busy on the ground checking on the darted elephants. Photo: Ida Hansen

Kester Vickery busy on the ground checking on the darted elephants. Photo: Ida Hansen

Early on the morning of the 31st of October 2017 the ERP team arrives at Kwandwe Private Game Reserve just outside of Grahamstown. We are here to assist with an elephant translocation. As the sun starts to rise, the helicopter is up in the air searching for a suitable group of elephants. It only takes about 30 minutes before a group has been located. The helicopter pushes the elephants towards an open area. Only then does the veterinarian start darting the elephants one by one from the air.

A lone elephant bull is approaching to see what is going on. Photo: Ida Hansen

A lone elephant bull is approaching to see what is going on. Photo: Ida Hansen

The elephants have hardly hit the ground before the team from Conservation Solutions led by Kester Vickery is on the ground busy with the elephants, the harness, the big trucks, and the transportation crates.

In this organised chaos, an elephant bull is slowly approaching from a distance. The commotion has peaked his curiosity. As he gets closer, one of the reserve's vehicles cuts through his path to the sedated females. After a short chase, the curious elephant bull moves away.

 

Within two hours, a family group of six female elephants has been lifted up into the transportation crate and the truck is starting its journey to Samara Private Game Reserve. The drive between the two reserves is normally only around three hours, but it will take the translocation truck twice as long. The truck is accompanied by Kester Vickery, who will keep the elephants mildly sedated throughout the transport to ensure that the elephants will arrive safely with limited stress.

Dereck Milburn from ERP assisting in loading the elephants on the flatbed truck. Photo: Ida Hansen

Dereck Milburn from ERP assisting in loading the elephants on the flatbed truck. Photo: Ida Hansen

The translocation truck and the ERP team arrive at Samara Private Game Reserve just after 13 o'clock. The last stretch to the release site is on a dirt road winding its way to a valley hidden between mountains. Samara Private Game Reserve has prepared a release site with a ramp for the elephants. The release site is in an open areas with lush, green grass, dotted with sweet thorn acacias, and a river close by.

The matriarch is the first of the elephants to leave the truck and enter Samara. Photo: Ida Hansen

The matriarch is the first of the elephants to leave the truck and enter Samara. Photo: Ida Hansen

As the doors of the translocation crate opens, the matriarch is the first to appear. She takes the group's first steps down the ramp and into their new home. One by one, the elephants leave the crate. They follow the matriarch, who is waiting for them in between some nearby trees. Here, they gather in a bunch a little dazed and confuces. A rumble passes through the family. After a few minutes, the matriarch, followed by the rest of her family, walk away from the ramp and in between the trees heading towards the river. They are quickly out of sight. The only way to determine their direction is an occasional rumble and the sound of a branch being broken off a tree.

One last look back before joining the rest of her family in their new home. Photo: Ida Hansen

One last look back before joining the rest of her family in their new home. Photo: Ida Hansen

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