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Cape Town: Three bull elephants were saved from being shot and further damage to mango orchards averted after the bulls broke through the fences of a game reserve bordering the Kruger Park, raiding local farms and affecting human infrastructure.
An elaborate rescue operation was launched by Elephants Alive, an organisation specialising in elephant research and promoting harmonious co-existence between people and elephants, after a call came in from the Hoedspruit Farm Watch that three young bulls had escaped from the Associated Private Nature Reserves (APNR) that border the Kruger Park between Hoedspruit and Phalaborwa in the Limpopo Province.
At first, the elephants, hung around Hippo Pools Resort on the bank of the Olifants River but they soon began nocturnal raids on neighbouring farms causing damage to mango trees and entering gates.
Elephants who break out of reserves and destroy crops and property are regarded, as Damage Causing Animals (DCAs), according to the National Environmental Management Biodiversity Act. This means farmers may apply to the provincial authorities to have them legally shot.
“A big thank you must go to the farmers for their tolerance and care for the elephants,” says Elephants Alive CEO, Dr. Michele Henley. “We hope to show, together with the support of our sponsors, that so-called Damage Causing Animals are often little more than trail blazers caught between expanding human development encroaching on ancient migration paths. Elephants Alive supports the accumulate knowledge of that these young risk takers now carry. When we as humans widen our thinking and circles of compassion, we may just come to appreciate the spatial knowledge of these adventurous bulls.”
How the elephants were captured
The non-lethal alternative employed by Henley and her team is to dart and relocate the elephants back into the wild.
It was a difficult but expertly crafted procedure that began with the setting up of smokescreens of burning capsicum at the entrances to the mango farms for 10 consecutive nights in an effort to prevent any further raids while they set the rescue plan in motion. Capsicum, a member of the chilli family, produces a spicy odour that when burnt is intolerable to elephants.
The team then proceeded to track the elephants on foot. With some difficulty, due to the steep terrain and thick bush where the elephants hid in during the day, they were located and wildlife veterinarian, Dr. Ben Muller, was able to get close enough to dart one bull.
The elephant was christened Wayne, in honour of Elephants Alive’s late partner in protection of elephants, renowned conservationist Wayne Lotter who was murdered in Tanzania last month.
Muller attached a satellite collar to Wayne the elephant before releasing him to rejoin the other two.
With the secretive bulls’ movements now visible online, the plan was to track the group of elephants by air with the hope of darting all three in one go.
Two helicopters, a couple of flatbed trucks complete with crane and a trailer, and a team from Wildlife Vets arrived from Nelspruit to carry out the operation. Poignantly, the teams were joined by Wayne Lotter’s family, wife Inge, and twin daughters Tamsin and Cara-Jane.
Following the signal from the tracking collar, the helicopters drove the elephants out of a steep kloof into a small open area. All three elephants were then darted from the air after which a bulldozer was brought in to clear the way for the trucks through the bush, and the anaesthetised elephants carefully hoisted and secured onto the trucks and driven out of the farmland to the safety of Balule Nature Reserve.
Since one of the bulls had been named Wayne, the other two escapees were named Derek and Lotter – Wayne’s middle name and surname.
The relocation was generously funded by Humane Society International, The Young Presidents Organisation and Transfrontier Africa’s sponsors, Pennies for Eles and Rettet Das Nashorn, in turn.
“The relocation was logistically problematic yet spectacularly successful due to the hard-working team of professionals and farmers who were involved in the rescue mission,” says Henley.