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Jos Danckwerts is project manager for the IFAW-supported Panda Masuie Release Project. The project is reintroducing elephants back into the wild in a protected area close to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Jos learned to care for elephants by working alongside his mom Roxy Danckwerts. Roxy is the founder of Wild is Life-ZEN, a project that focuses on rescueing and rehabilitating orphaned elephant calves at a nursery on the family farm near Harare. As the elephants grow, so does the need for them to be introduced into wild spaces. The Panda Masuie Forest Reserve, a former hunting concession, has been leased with the help of IFAW and is that wild space where they can be released. With large wild herds of free roaming elephants moving through the landscape, the Wild is Life project is already seeing successful interactions between the rescue herd and wild elephants. Prospects are rosy that every rescued and rehabilitated elephant will one day live as a wild elephant.
Tell us about the history of the Panda Masuie Release Project:
Panda Masuie Forest is a former hunting concession in the KAZA region of Northern Zimbabwe. It sits between the Zambezi National Park and Kazuma Pan National Park. In 2016, management of the forest was taken over by Wild is Life and IFAW. Hunting was stopped, poaching has been brought under control, and substantial conservation investment has been made into the area.
The first elephants moved to Panda Masuie in May 2018. A group of six moved together in a truck from the nursery in Harare. So far, two of them have returned to the wild, with one of those returning to the boma after six months.
Tell us about the role of the handlers in re-wilding the Panda Masuie herd:
The process of re-wilding takes a long time and needs to be careful and slow. We implement a very specific programme to enable the elephants to learn more about their new home and the wild elephants that inhabit it. The handlers have a very important role to play as they guide the elephants where to go, where to find food and water. Ultimately, the elephants go back to the wild at their own pace. Interactions with wild elephants are vital to this process. They interact with wild elephants out in the open bush during the days, as well as from the safety of their boma during the night.
Let’s talk about the ups and the downs – there must have been plenty, and there must have been times of despondency?
It’s okay to be honest about those—Zimbabwe is a very difficult country to operate in and the past two years have been very difficult. Shortages of all basic commodities and rampant inflation have made operations very difficult.
The Panda Masuie herd are familiar with human beings – do you have any concerns for long term human-elephant conflict with the local community as a result?
The elephants at Panda Masuie are familiar with humans, but only the handlers and team who work with them directly. They never interact with strangers and never will. As such, they maintain a healthy fear of humans, excluding their handlers. Even when new handlers are introduced, it takes a long time for the elephants to trust them.
Nonetheless, there is a risk of conflict with the local community. We don’t have major concern on this for most of the elephants, besides some of the adventurous ones.
How will you mitigate to prevent that from happening? Will you introduce the fence?
We’ve held extensive discussions with the community since the inception of the project and they have articulated that human-elephant conflict is a major challenge facing people. Aware of the reality of this and the need for co-existence, an ambitious Human Elephant Co-Existence Project has been launched, anchored on a specially designed 13 km fence. This fence will exclude all elephants and other large animals from four villages and their fields and a school. This project has commenced and is being very well received, but has had to be temporarily paused due to the nationwide shutdown.
What have you done to win the support of the local community?
Since the inception of the project, we have engaged positively with the local community. We have listened carefully and this has been our recipe for success. We have followed through and delivered on every one of the promises that we have made. This has included the creation of many permanent jobs from the local community, as well as investments into other areas including school and cattle dipping.
When did the wild elephants first begin to visit the sleeping boma at Panda Masuie during the night?
The wild elephants first visited about a year ago in January 2019. Since then, the visits have become more regular. Initially the visits were only in the dead of night, but steadily these visits are now also in the early evening and morning.
Wild elephants – usually bull elephants - frequently interact with the Panda Masuie herd, both in the boma and out in the bush. The wild elephants visit in the early morning or early evening. Camera traps photograph the elephants when they come into range so we are able to identify many of them.
Are there any wild elephants who are regular visitors or who the Panda Masuie herd regularly interact with in the bush?
Yes, there are some regular visitors – we have identified them and they are being documented in a Wild Ele ID Program. There are some wild elephants, like Nkosi, who the handlers know well and with whom they are more comfortable with than others are.
The ZEN elephants at Panda Masuie have steadily grown more confident where now they will actually approach wild elephants while out in the bush. They all relish the interactions and are always visibly very excited. Some of our elephants, such as Matabele, are much more confident and are leaving on a regular basis for extended periods with wild elephants.
Perhaps you would like to ponder some of the PM elephants leaving for good?
We assume that Matabele and potentially his close friends, Sizi and Tulku, will be the next elephants to leave based on their friendship and confidence with wild elephants. We will be delighted for him, but will obviously miss any and all of the elephants when they leave. Matabele, Nora, and Annabelle are wearing tracking collars, so we are able to monitor their movements.
Wild Is Life is the only project of its kind in Zimbabwe that focuses on rescue, rehabilitation, re-wilding, and ultimate release of elephants. Do you think there will ever be a time when your work here will be finished?
The challenges facing elephants, forests, and nature as a whole are unlikely to go away anytime soon, based on an inherent level of greed in segments of the human population. Therefore, the need for this type of work will not go away and will likely evolve. In these trying times with the new virus, ongoing climate change, ecological destruction, poaching of elephants, deforestation, and the myriad of challenges affecting the planet, the role of Wild Is Life in leading rescue, rehabilitation, re-wilding, and ultimate release of elephants will not go away. More than ever, robust partnerships like that between Wild Is Life and IFAW are needed to address these pressing issues that affect humanity as a whole.
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