UPDATED: Cote d'Ivoire elephant rescue: stakes high as team prepares for historic move

The author and capture team from South Africa inspect the trailers, trucks and crates to be used during the elephant rescue.After meeting our capture team colleagues at OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg, I jumped into a flight bound for Cote d'Ivoire via Ghana.

We landed in the country's largest city, Abidjan, on Tuesday night. Other International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) colleagues who had just arrived from France and the U.S. met us at the airport and in our hotel and we've since had a very busy couple of days preparing for the first-ever forest elephant capture and relocation.

Our first day included a visit to Les Centaures Routiers, a long-haul transport company that specializes in moving equipment throughout West Africa. Our contact Mr. Eric Foua showed us around the lot where we quickly checked the custom-built equipment required for the capture and the transportation of the elephants.

SEE ALSO: VIDEO: first ever Cote d’Ivoire elephant rescue team will face major challenges

For this mammoth operation, we'll be using a 6X6 recovery vehicle with a crane, and a lower bed trailer for transport. Two other vital components are the solid steel transport boxes and a massive wake-up box. Eric has done a fantastic job to replicate the equipment we've used in a previous relocation in Malawi. Aside from saving on the costs and headache of traversing the whole continent to bring the original equipment from South Africa, this new set-up will be left in-country and will hopefully allow additional elephants and other large herbivores to be rescued and moved long after the mission we're all here for.

With everything sorted on the equipment side, we rushed out to the local market to complete our list of some logical items like chainsaws and pick-axes to clear the paths and allow for a safe capture and move, and some 'not-so-straightforward' items like two liters of dishwashing liquid that we'll use to help our conveyor belts slide easily with several tons worth of sleeping pachyderms into our trailers.

Our good fortune continued this morning when we met with the Ivorian Ministers of Environment and Water and Forests that pledged full support and signed a protocol agreement with IFAW giving us full permission and assistance to carry out this complex mission.

We will certainly need that promised support because just a few hours after our morning meeting we were confronted with our first major challenge. As I write this, we're heading back from the release location, Azagny National Park, about an hour and a half drive from Abidjan. To our surprise, none of the prep-work promised by officials has been done and believe me, the clock is ticking. We're scheduled to start capturing elephants on Sunday but just three days out, we have no way to get to our final destination and release the elephants!

The entry road to the park is at present, inaccessible. Why? Because the overgrown forest has claimed what used to be a dirt road that led toward the core area of the park. Forget about a giant truck and trailer carrying elephants, as it stands now, it's even hard for us to manage by foot, so much is obstructed by the dense jungle.

Still, we hear confident voices assuring us that this can and will be done in time. So we carry on.

After a good night rest after trekking through the jungle, we will head out first thing to Daloa, the site where these elephants survive after years of conflict with humans. Now, we must give this tragic story a happy ending. We all know that we have many more challenges to overcome but in these initial days, hope and optimism runs high and we're all excited to meet the elephants once again and 'carry' them to safety.

Thank you all for your words of encouragement and ongoing support. Stay tuned for more field updates as we count down to this historic rescue.


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1.19.14 UPDATE: It's been quite busy these last few days. Access roads are getting completed in Daloa (capture location) and Azagny National Park (release location), transport trucks, trailers, cranes, helicopter, etc., have arrived on-site and today, the capture team was able to tranquilize and place a satellite collar on one of the elephants. This means that it's now easier to locate that individual and two other elephants in his group.

A member of the IFAW capture team was able to tranquilize and place a satellite collar on one of the elephants. This means that it's now easier to locate that individual and two other elephants in his group. c. IFAW

1.20.14 UPDATE: The image below is of a four-tonne bull elephant on route to Azagny as this amazing elephant rescue starts in Cote d'Ivoire. The operation continues tomorrow. Stay tuned!

1.20.14 UPDATE: The image below is of a four-tonne bull elephant on route to Azagny as this amazing elephant rescue starts in Cote d'Ivoire. The operation continues tomorrow. Stay tuned!

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Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, Director, France and Francophone Africa
Director, France and Francophone Africa
Dr. Cynthia Moss, IFAW Elephant Expert
IFAW Elephant Expert
Grace Ge Gabriel, Regional Director, Asia
Regional Director, Asia
James Isiche, Regional Director, East Africa
Regional Director, East Africa
Jason Bell, Program Director, Elephants Regional Director, South Africa
Program Director, Elephants, Regional Director, South Africa
Vivek Menon, Director of IFAW partner, Wildlife Trust of India
Senior Advisor to the CEO on Strategic Partnerships & Philanthropy