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A perilous operation to move 3,000 animals across nearly 600 miles of bush is under way in Zimbabwe.
The animals are victims of climate change. The 1,330 square mile Savé Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe’s Lowveld — nicknamed Hell’s Wood by Victorian explorers — was established in 1991 after prolonged drought made cattle farming unviable.
“Savé urgently needed to reduce its wildlife population to allow the remainder a better chance of survival,” said Dereck Joubert, co-founder of the Great Plains Foundation, which is running the project.
With Zimbabwe’s blistering summer approaching, the relocation plan was drawn up in three months.
In all cases, said Joubert, entire herds, clans, prides and packs will be taken. Helicopters herd elephants towards muster points where they are darted, tagged, hoisted onto trucks with industrial cranes and driven to the road head.
“Elephants are socially complex animals, and they mourn missing relatives,” said Joubert, “so the rule is that we either take the entire family to Sapi, or we take none of them, and that goes for all species.”
So far, 101 elephants have been relocated, and while helicopters scoured the bush for family groups before the summer shutdown — when it becomes too hot to transport wildlife — other capture teams deployed traps to catch other species.
“A boma [stockade] is set up in advance, comprising a funnel of screens through which animals can be herded directly into the transport vehicle,” said Rob Reese, the lead vet.
Josh Mostert of African Wildlife Management & Conservation said: “Impala can be very difficult to herd with a helicopter. The animals are jumpy and easily spooked, putting pilots in danger. Sables are easier to catch, but can injure each other when leaving the truck. Elephants need a huge amount of equipment, and their delivery is fraught with challenges; and buffalo are very dangerous and destructive.”
Animal health is checked before the convoy departs, and monitoring continues throughout the journey.
Moving each elephant costs $10,000 (£9,100), and they were nervous passengers, said Bourquin. Matriarchs are tranquillised for the 20-hour journey, but other family members are fully conscious.
Joubert sees Project Rewild Zambezi as a small-scale pilot for the large-scale translocations of wildlife that he believes are inevitable in the future.
“What’s happening now is an emergency intervention, because if we don’t move these animals they will die,” said Joubert.
The last leg of the journey to Sapi is the most perilous. After the village of Makuti, the A1 highway makes a steep and serpentine descent from the southern Zambezi escarpment to the rift valley. “God forbid that a truck turns over here,” said Bourquin, “but it could happen.”
On arrival at the Great Plains Sapi Reserve, the lorries pull into another boma.
When the animals are ready, a section of fence is removed and they are free to explore the 2,500 square miles of their new home. So far, 101 elephants and 184 impala have been moved to the reserve without a single fatality.
“The game capture manuals consider a mortality rate of up to 5 per cent to be acceptable,” said Joubert. “For us, even a single death is unacceptable.”
Bourquin said: “To achieve a zero-casualty translocation, it’s never good enough to have experts on the job. You need people with an emotional investment in the project, even to the point that they will put themselves at risk to ensure the welfare of the animals. We need compassion out here as much as we need professionalism.”