Durban - For iSimangaliso’s operations director Sizo Sibiya it was an emotional moment - the relocation operation of 30 of its uMkhuze elephants to Zinave National Park in the Mozambique.
“In 1994 when elephants were first introduced back into uMkhuze, I was working here as a young section ranger,” he says. “Today is a great indication of the excellent job that Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife has been doing in protecting these animals over the past 23 years to the point where we are able to donate to other parks,” he said.
The donation of the uMkhuze elephants to Zinave National Park, a component of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area, will assist the fledgling park in rewilding its pristine 408 000ha protected area.
The mammoth operation – the largest single translocation of its kind in the park to date – was conducted over two days in June by specialists in capture and relocation of elephants across the continent. The project was primarily co-ordinated and funded by Elephants, Rhinos & People. Another NGO, the Wild Tomorrow Fund covered the costs of helicopter time and fuel. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s Game Capture Unit and conservation staff completed the multi-party team responsible for the translocation.
Zinave is a pristine area near Vilankulos in Mozambique that until recently had been left largely devoid of grazers, following the country’s civil war. Now safely under protection once again, and with more than 1 200 animals reintroduced into the park over the past two years, the region is rich with promise for a new era of conservation.
According to Bernard van Lente, Project Manager in Zinave, “The park offers prime elephant habitat, more than sufficient water resources, and only a handful of local elephants – positioning the uMkhuze elephants, along with 24 donated by the Ithala Game Reserve, to proliferate as the progenitors of a thriving new elephant population.
"The elephants were initially released into an electrical-fenced 18 600ha sanctuary. This will 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. The Park’s protection capabilities were also recently reinforced with 26 new rangers, ranger base camps, patrol equipment and digital communication systems – all as part of advanced and integrated anti-poaching strategies.”
iSimangaliso currently has over 200 elephants shared between the Western Shores, Eastern Shores and uMkhuze sections of the park. Cognisant of the fact that elephants need an enormous amount of terrain and are significant agents of landscape change, as well as births increasing at around 10% per annum, iSimangaliso undertook a campaign of elephant contraception a couple of years ago to slow down the increase in numbers.
“It is important to remember that our protected areas are here for the bigger picture which is to conserve overall biodiversity. That means all species great and small, fauna and flora, as well as water catchment areas. It is a dynamic process within a finite fenced park to achieve an ideal balance. So we are careful that we don’t have a situation where one species flourishes to the possible detriment of others. Our elephant population has done tremendously well and we are pleased that we have reached a point where we are able to offer animals to other protected areas, just as we have done in the past with our rhino. This is a win-win scenario for conservation in Africa,” said Sibiya.
How do you capture elephants?
- Since elephants form strong family bonds headed by a matriarch with her daughters and their offspring, it is essential to capture these as a complete unit. iSimangaliso uses tracking collars placed on the matriarchs along with regular in-field monitoring to identify family groups.
- Capture is done by helicopter, with the highly experienced team of pilot Vere van Heerden and vet Dr Andre Uys darting targeted animals in the family group in quick succession.
- Once the immobilising drug takes effect, the ground teams – including ecologists, biologists and several veterinarians – hurry to the animals to ensure that they are lying in a safe position, take biological measurements and samples, implant microchips and prepare them for hoisting.
- The elephants’ legs are bound by strong, soft tethers capable of supporting several tons of animal. A crane attached to the loading trucks then lifts each animal and lowers them gently into the crates. Extensive physiological monitoring has shown that elephants are not at all compromised by being upside down for a few minutes.
- Once in the crates, the animals are given an antidote to reverse the immobilising drug as well as tranquillisers to keep them calm during the trip. They are loaded several to a crate and once they have company of their family members they calm down and travel very well.
- The journey from uMkhuze to Zinave, transiting eSwatini (Swaziland), was over 1 200km of non-stop driving with regular checks on the animals to ensure their wellbeing. On arrival at Zinave, the elephants were released immediately into secure bomas and left to peacefully discover their new pristine terrain.