IFAW elephant capture in Malawi starts with resounding success.
This post was filed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare's Michael Booth, who is on the ground in Malawi documenting this translocation. For more information and to donate please visit: http://www.ifaw.org/helpelephants
It was a long-time coming, but villagers in Mangochi were thrilled to see the problem elephants trucked off to Majete Game Reserve. Shrinking habitat and constant distress caused by human-elephant conflict in the area had made the situation unsustainable.
Riding on the back of a flatbed trailer accompanied by four of the elephants, all of us involved in the capture had no choice but to join the jubilant crowd in cheer. Soon after, we embarked on a seven-hour journey to the elephant’s new home.
We had an early start, beginning with a security brief at 05h45am. The trucks were ready, the helicopter had a full-tank of gas and so we took off in search of the infamous Phirilongwe elephants.
We didn’t find them right away – truth be told, we were not having a lot of luck with the radio signals strategically placed in the collars of key elephant matriarchs and solitary bulls. Half an hour into the flight, we finally heard what we had anxiously been waiting for – the beep-beep-beep on the radio – elephant!
Hovering over the mountainous area we quickly spotted a herd of nine, then another 15 to our left, another bull to our right, we then realized that the great majority of the total population of the elephants (estimated at 60) was congregated in this one spot!
A decision was made to target the nine elephants we spotted first and so we started to ‘herd’ the elephants down the hill and over to an open area close to accessible roads for the capture equipment to arrive. It’s a tricky thing this helicopter herding. Elephants are of course scared of the loud and bright yellow machine flying in the sky towards them so they quickly try to out-run it. But this effect doesn’t last long. As well all know elephants are incredibly intelligent and they can soon lose their patience and adopt a new strategy - turn around and charge the helicopter!
Last year, one of elephant actually got up on his hind legs and lifted up its trunk to try and pull the helicopter down from the sky - so it’s vitally important to both minimise the elephant’s stress by backing off every few seconds and at the same time sedate them as quickly as possible before they take the offensive.
A few minutes into the approach and dart-gun sedation from the helicopter I was amazed at the skill of our helicopter pilot: Barney (aka the Vanilla-Gorilla). He swerved and hovered, managed to stay clear of huge baobab trees and gave our vet Andre a clear shot to dart the adult females.
Juveniles and calves usually stay with their ‘sleeping’ mothers, aunts and grandmas and are sedated with low-dose injections from the ground.
After sedation there is a race against time to make sure that every elephant has gone down in the right position. This is crucial as an elephant that falls either on his chest or in a way that obstructs its trunk can suffocate in just a few minutes. Ground teams were close-by to put them all on their side and begin ‘topping up’ their sedation. Every 15-20 minutes, elephants need an extra dose of drugs to keep them sleeping. The last thing anyone wants is an infuriated elephant waking up and running away or worse, attacking a member of the capture team. How do you keep track of which elephants are sedated and when their last dose was provided? Well, you write the time and dosage on the elephant’s ear with a permanent marker, simple.
Slings were attached on legs and elephants were suddenly airborne, a remarkable site to see. Once they were all on the flat-beds we moved towards the transport crates, passing hundreds of jubilant villagers that will now go to school or to work knowing that they are no longer in danger.
At the operations ‘hub’ in the middle of the African bush, nine elephants slid into the ‘frog’ - a massive steel container used to reverse the tranquilising medication that also works as a bridge to the transport crates.
Inside the frog, elephants wake up from the slumber and instinctively walk backwards right into the crates. No one is exactly sure why they do this, maybe it’s a defensive mechanism. The fact is that all elephants are placed with their backs to the crates before waking up, and time and time again they ‘moonwalk’ straight into their transport.
We arrived in Majete almost at midnight. It was dark, and we could barely see but we could definitely hear. We heard the elephants stumble inside the crate and slowly make their way to the gate. After a little hesitation, the matriarch stepped out and eight of her family members aligned behind her. They stepped into a new life, a life in a protected reserve where they will have ample food, water and more importantly peace.
Back in Mangochi, villagers were resting in their beds. Only 50 or so elephants to go, someday soon they will also sleep soundly.
It looks like we’re going to have a few days to rest up before the next move as we’re on a temporary hold while the government works through some legal issues. It will be good to get a bit of sleep and be ready as soon as that issue is resolved!