Zimbabwe: Cranes, helicopters and easy on the brakes: saving 400 elephants from drought

Sep 26, 2022 | News

By Chris Haslam, The Sunday Times (London)

A perilous operation to move 3,000 animals across nearly 600 miles of bush is under way in Zimbabwe. 

One of the biggest single translocations of wildlife in history, Project Rewild Zambezi involves the capture of 400 elephants, 2,000 impala, 70 giraffes, two prides of lions and hundreds of other animals in the south of the country and their transport to new homes on the Zambezi River in Zimbabwe’s far north.

The animals are victims of climate change. The 1,330 square mile Savé Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe’s Lowveld — nicknamed Hell’s Wood by Victorian explorers — was established in 1991 after prolonged drought made cattle farming unviable. 

Three decades later, a new and more persistent drought threatens thousands of creatures with slow death from thirst or starvation. 

“Savé urgently needed to reduce its wildlife population to allow the remainder a better chance of survival,” said Dereck Joubert, co-founder of the Great Plains Foundation, which is running the project. 

“We had the perfect habitat available at the Sapi Reserve — an empty former hunting concession on the Zambezi — and we had the experts on hand to plan and execute such a complex operation. All we needed was the $5.5 million [£5 million] required to pay for it.” 

The first tranche came from the company’s reserves. The outstanding $2.75 million (£2.5 million), hopes Joubert, will come from a series of crowdfunding campaigns. “If we miss that target, animals will die,” he said.

With Zimbabwe’s blistering summer approaching, the relocation plan was drawn up in three months.

“We had to cut paths and hire earth-moving equipment to reinforce and grade the entire 560-mile route between Savé Valley Conservancy and the Great Plains Sapi Reserve to make sure the highways could support 32-ton trucks,” said Sven Bourquin, a conservation ecologist.

“Working with animals like elephants is an incredibly costly and dangerous process. We need to pay for helicopters, marksmen, veterinary care and supervision on the road. The money has drained away like water from a leaky bucket.”

In all cases, said Joubert, entire herds, clans, prides and packs will be taken. Helicopters herd elephants towards muster points where they are darted, tagged, hoisted onto trucks with industrial cranes and driven to the road head. 

When, on one occasion, a single elephant evaded the sharpshooter, the rest of the herd, darted and unconscious, was revived and released.

“Elephants are socially complex animals, and they mourn missing relatives,” said Joubert, “so the rule is that we either take the entire family to Sapi, or we take none of them, and that goes for all species.”

So far, 101 elephants have been relocated, and while helicopters scoured the bush for family groups before the summer shutdown — when it becomes too hot to transport wildlife — other capture teams deployed traps to catch other species.

“A boma [stockade] is set up in advance, comprising a funnel of screens through which animals can be herded directly into the transport vehicle,” said Rob Reese, the lead vet. 

“It seems straightforward, but all species have their own unique problems, be it size, family make-up, ability to transport in a single compartment or interaction between members of a group. All can affect the ease or difficulty of a capture operation.”

Josh Mostert of African Wildlife Management & Conservation said: “Impala can be very difficult to herd with a helicopter. The animals are jumpy and easily spooked, putting pilots in danger. Sables are easier to catch, but can injure each other when leaving the truck. Elephants need a huge amount of equipment, and their delivery is fraught with challenges; and buffalo are very dangerous and destructive.” 

Giraffes, too, are potentially lethal. “When you wake them, they jump up immediately, leaving us little time to get out of the way,” said Mostert.

Animal health is checked before the convoy departs, and monitoring continues throughout the journey.

“Anything and everything can go wrong,” said Jacqueline La Grange, a vet. “After one capture, we had a truckload of zebras separated into family groups in three compartments. The driver wedged the truck under a low branch and in attempting to get free he dislodged a bees’ nest that dropped into the vehicle. In the ensuing chaos the compartment doors were broken down and the herds got mixed up. That’s a hard situation to anticipate.”

Moving each elephant costs $10,000 (£9,100), and they were nervous passengers, said Bourquin. Matriarchs are tranquillised for the 20-hour journey, but other family members are fully conscious. 

“The drivers must not stop in public places, they can’t use their horns, need to be gentle on the brakes and avoid potholes,” he said. 

“We had to fit screens in the trucks when we realised the elephants were becoming distressed by the headlights of passing cars at night. We move in groups of between eight and ten per truck, and if a young bull gets frisky in the wagon we have to tranquillise him.”

Joubert sees Project Rewild Zambezi as a small-scale pilot for the large-scale translocations of wildlife that he believes are inevitable in the future. 

According to Conservation International, seven of the ten countries most vulnerable to climate change are in Africa. Drought and soil erosion have degraded 65 per cent of the continent’s grassland, threatening the livelihoods of 100 million herders and farmers. 

Funding deficiencies and political expediency put many of Africa’s 7,800 protected areas at risk of human incursion, forcing out wildlife and wiping out habitats.

“What’s happening now is an emergency intervention, because if we don’t move these animals they will die,” said Joubert. 

“Within years, though, such relocations will become routine. We’ll be moving tens of thousands of animals around the continent to maintain the biodiversity upon which ecosystems depend, so we’re developing an open source methodology that anyone can copy. We make no profit from this, but we don’t mind if others do, if it’s for the benefit of wildlife and environment.”

The last leg of the journey to Sapi is the most perilous. After the village of Makuti, the A1 highway makes a steep and serpentine descent from the southern Zambezi escarpment to the rift valley. “God forbid that a truck turns over here,” said Bourquin, “but it could happen.”

On arrival at the Great Plains Sapi Reserve, the lorries pull into another boma. 

Antidotes are administered to tranquillised animals, tracking devices are fitted, ramps are lowered and the animals are left to exit the vehicles in their own time. 

The boma offers food, water and the opportunity for creatures to become accustomed to their surroundings, a rich environment of riverine forest and water meadows very different from the scorched former cattle country of the Savé Valley.

When the animals are ready, a section of fence is removed and they are free to explore the 2,500 square miles of their new home. So far, 101 elephants and 184 impala have been moved to the reserve without a single fatality.

“The game capture manuals consider a mortality rate of up to 5 per cent to be acceptable,” said Joubert. “For us, even a single death is unacceptable.”

Bourquin said: “To achieve a zero-casualty translocation, it’s never good enough to have experts on the job. You need people with an emotional investment in the project, even to the point that they will put themselves at risk to ensure the welfare of the animals. We need compassion out here as much as we need professionalism.”


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