A family of elephants at Kissama National Park. Picture: Trip Advisor

University of Pretoria wildlife researcher Wouter van Hoven found himself in a tricky situation in 2001 amid the Angola wilderness. A Russian Ilyushin II-76 plane had just landed with precious cargo: two giant crates holding elephants that had been airlifted from South Africa.

The problem? The flatbed trucks van Hoven had requested for the crates to be directly lowered onto had not yet arrived. When they finally did arrive an hour later, van Hoven then had to figure out how to lift the crates onto them.

The workers ignored his request for a forklift, choosing instead to hoist the crates with hooks — even though van Hoven warned them the crates would fall apart.

Their destination was the Kissama National Park, just 43 miles south of the Angolan capital of Luanda. Once teeming with wildlife, the park’s entire animal population was wiped out by the country’s brutal civil war, which lasted nearly three decades and killed half a million people.

In the 1990s, Angolan officials frustrated by the decimation reached out to van Hoven for help in repopulating the park with many of the same types of animals that once roamed there.

This led to one of the most ambitious relocation projects in modern history — a journey codenamed ”Operation Noah’s Ark” — that transported about 100 animals and seven different species some 2,000 miles.

The project’s roots can be traced back to 1994 when the Angolan military contacted van Hoven with the unusual request.

They wanted their park restored. When van Hoven arrived at the brothers’ invitation to inspect the ecosystem, he found a strong habitat but no wildlife. “It was pretty clear that it was a miserable situation,” van Hoven said.

The project drew headlines and raised eyebrows. “The controversy around it was that most of the species being shipped in were not native to the whole park,” which can lead to disease and habitat destruction, says Will Travers, president of the conservationist Born Free Foundation.

The relocations took place in 2001 and 2002, and amazingly not one of the animals died in transport.
What’s more, in the intervening 16 years, not a single animal has been lost to poaching.

Operation Noah's Ark-an elephant being transported from Madikwe Game Reserve to Kissama. Picture: Supplied

The elephant population, in fact, has quadrupled. van Hoven credits the remarkable achievement to security and education.

Before the animals arrived, his crew trained Special Forces soldiers as conservationists - and now the national park is one of the top national parks in Angola.