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Beneath us, a herd of elephants is roaming across the plain.
“Tell the vehicles to wait there,” the pilot radios to the ground crew on the edge of the flood plain. “Standing by at the junction,” they message back.
Uys pulls a dart from a plastic rack; he has to be careful, just one prick from the sharp spike and its powerful cocktail could floor him in minutes.Dart guns don’t act like normal rifles, he explains. There is no recoil and the dart flies more like an arrow from a bow than a bullet.
This dart flies true, striking the matriarch of the herd in the haunches. The drugs are thousands of times stronger than morphine and the three-ton elephant slows, then drops to her knees.
Capturing an elephant isn’t easy. Imagine trying to capture 500.
African Parks — a conservation non-profit — is capturing and relocating 500 elephants from Malawi’s Liwonde and Majete National Parks, and moving them to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, further north.
There is something incredibly audacious about a plan to repopulate parks where elephants have been almost wiped out by poachers. A translocation of this scale has never been done before.
Elephants in crisis
Elephant populations are plummeting across Africa.
A recent continent-wide survey showed catastrophic losses, with numbers dipping from 1.3 million in 1979 to around 350,000 — far lower than expected.
“Elephant populations in Africa are under pressure from poaching and habitat loss,” says Andrew Parker, African Parks’ director of operations. “They are now increasingly being confined into these smaller and smaller protected areas.”
If nothing changes, these majestic animals could become extinct in certain areas.
Across the continent, conservation groups are trying different ways to save the species.
Some advocate for wildlife corridors, allowing elephants to move from place to place.
Others try to promote human-elephant coexistence, building “fences” of beehives for farmers, to frighten crop-raiding herds away.
In Tanzania, one group is even throwing condoms filled with chili powder — which elephants hate — to ward off the animals.
A pragmatic approach
African Parks has a more hard-nosed approach to elephant conservation.
“Pragmatism is essential for effective conservation,” says Parker. “The idealist view of Africa as this vast open landscape where animals can move freely from point A to point B, that doesn’t exist anymore.”
It is hard to argue with their results: when the group took over Malawi’s Majete reserve in 2003, there were no elephants left. After relocating elephants to the park, its population has swelled to more than 400.
Liwonde’s elephant population has risen to 800.
African Parks works by creating islands of safety — circled by a 7,000-volt electric fence.
Fencing the poachers out
Liwonde is elephant paradise. In the mornings, the herds wander down to the Shire River to drink. In the afternoons, they return to the cathedral-like Mopani forests to graze.
But it wasn’t always like this.
“Elephants were moving out of Liwonde and damaging crops, breaking infrastructure and sometimes even killing people,” says Parker, explaining that “at the very least, effective management needs to neutralize the costs of living with wildlife.”
When African Parks took over Liwonde in 2015, the priority was to rebuild the fence; now it is monitored 24 hours a day, each section watched over by a team leader.
The fence is to keep animals in — and to keep poachers out.
Liwonde’s manager throws open the metal doors of an old park management building to reveal what the park’s workers are up against.
A horrific pile of tangled wire reaches almost to the roof. These are metal snares. Poachers place the looped pieces of wire across animal tracks, where they catch the neck of an antelope or the foot of an elephant, tightening as they pull away, and gouging the animal’s flesh.
In just two years in charge here, wildlife rangers have recovered 23,000 snares from the park.
Now, they say, they have turned the corner. Constant foot patrols and surveillance have reduced poaching, and relations with the local community appear to be improving.
But now they face a different challenge: Too many elephants, placing a strain on the park’s limited space and resources.
Whole herds sedated, moved
The translocation of elephants takes months to plan, but each capture takes just minutes, everything done to minimize risk to both human and beast.
Vet Andre Uys scans the plains from the air each morning, deciding which herds to dart.
“We need to take a cohesive family group, right from the oldest matriarch down to the smallest baby,” says Kester Vickery, who runs wildlife relocation service Conservation Solutions with Uys.
Elephants are incredibly social animals, and keeping family groups together gives them the best chance of success in their new home.
As the tranquilized animals fall, the ground team begins a bone-jarring race through the bush.
“Stay back!” shouts Vickery, as his team approaches the elephants, gingerly. Some are already lying on their side, but others need a top up of drugs and a gentle push before they are fully sedated.
Soon, an entire family lies scattered as 30-ton trucks start rumbling in.
A devastating loss
Each elephant is closely monitored, twigs propping open their trunks to ensure they can breathe easily.
But even with all the planning and dedication, things can go wrong. The elephants’ own enormous bulk is the biggest danger.
In the second capture of the day an adolescent elephant gets trapped under a larger member of the herd.
The team rushes in, drags the trapped elephant away and immediately begins CPR, one team member jumping on the elephant’s chest while another breathes into its trunk, but it’s too late.
“It was that critical thirty seconds,” says Vickery. “We were literally here within a minute. Sad indeed.”
The team is heartbroken, but Vickery pushes them to work on, to make sure the rest of the herd is safe and secure.
This rare loss shows just what is at stake.
The elephants are woken right there on the plain, in custom-built “wake-up” containers, designed to minimize the danger of transport.
Hope for the future
They are shipped out the same day, pioneer herds on their way to their new home in Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve.
Driving overnight through villages and past small farms, they’re welcomed by park manager Sam Kamoto, a seasoned Malawian conservationist.
Years ago, there were 1,500 elephants in Nkhotakota. Poachers slaughtered all but 70.
“When we took over the park, it was so rundown. There were just a few animals left inside,” he says. “The park was under siege.”
Kamoto stands on a disused bridge over a stream and watches as the herd moves tentatively out of the enclosure into their new sanctuary.
A broad smile spreads across his face as he witnesses the first steps of his park’s rebirth.
“This makes me feel happy. These animals have traveled a long distance and finally they are going out into a sort of freedom,” he says.
“Malawi’s elephant population, now, it is safe.”