File photo: The New York Times
Fifty-three elephants travelled more than 1 250km across three countries to bolster elephant numbers in their new home of Mozambique’s Zinave National Park.

In the uMkhuze section of iSimangaliso Wetland Park in KwaZulu-Natal elephants are flourishing following the reintroduction of the species during the 1990s. Numbers rapidly grew into a 139-strong elephant population today.

uMkhuze only offers a range of 43000 hectares with a finite carrying capacity for these gentle giants.

Only 150km west of uMkhuze, Ezemvelo’s Ithala Game Reserve struggles with the same challenge of effectively maintaining their blossoming elephant population within the reserve’s 30000ha protected area.

Expert teams from Elephants, Rhinos & People (ERP), Conservation Solutions, and Ezemvelo, supported by the Environmental Affairs Department, came together to capture 29 of the uMkhuze and 24 of the Ithala elephants and transport them safely through South Africa, Swaziland and Mozambique to Zinave National Park.

By removing a number of the elephant population from the reserves, it potentially negates any need for further extreme elephant management interventions for at least the next 10 to 15 years.

After two days, the elephants were released into the care of Peace Parks Foundation and Mozambique’s National Administration for Conservation Areas which co-manage their new home.

Zinave, situated within the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area, offers a protected space of 408 000ha with prime elephant habitat, more than sufficient water resources, and only a handful of local elephants. Zinave had been left largely devoid of grazers following the country’s civil war. The new elephants will bring the total population in the park to 67, a number that is expected to double over the next 10 years.

They will initially be released into an electrically-fenced 18600ha sanctuary to allow them to settle into their new environment and be introduced to the family herd that has been resident in the sanctuary for the past year.

Experts estimate more than 30000 elephants are lost to poaching every year.

Ezemvelo Wildlife Veterinarian Dave Cooper said there were various ways in which an overpopulation of elephants can be managed.

“This includes culling, contraceptives, as well as translocations. In both uMkhuze and Ithala, contraceptive plans have already been put into action. This will, however, take time to significantly contain numbers - time that the reserve does not have as the tightly contained herds of elephants start to disrupt ecosystems and diminish resources,” he said.

iSimangaliso’s Park Operations director Sizo Sibiya said protected areas are managed not only for the benefit of specific species, but rather holistically for all biodiversity.

“In the case of the flourishing uMkhuze elephant population, their numbers are reaching a point where a noticeable impact can be seen on the trees. This proposal to donate some of them to Zinave was a win-win solution for all of us.”

Peace Parks Foundation communications co-ordinator Lise-Marie Greeff-Villet said it was breathtaking to see the skill with which game capture teams, veterinarians, rangers, pilots and drivers co-ordinated their responsibilities; and the passion and care that accompanied every interaction with an elephant.