Video: Elephant herd moved to a new home

  • 20/07/2016
Video: Elephant herd moved to a new home

Wildlife experts in Malawi are embarking on a massive project to move 500 elephants from a crowded national park to a new home 300 kilometres away.

They hope the sanctuary could eventually serve as a sanctuary to restore elephant populations in other parts of Africa where the threatened species is being poached.

A helicopter crew is helping to track down elephants in Malawi's Liwonde National Park.

"Right so they've found a group there, they are busy pushing them down the hill, so this hill in front of us Tinguni, so they are going to try and push them out of the woodland and then try and try and get them on to the floodplain," says conservationist Kester Vickery, who is leading the team on the ground.

Once the animals are sedated, they are checked by vets and fitted with tracking collars, before being hoisted onto trucks.

The massive operation aims to relocate 500 elephants from two wildlife parks, Majete and Liwonde, to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve 300 kilometres away.

Craig Reid, Liwonde National Park Manager says moving the herd is necessary to stop it coming into conflict with people.

"Here in Liwonde we have too many elephants with a very high density of people around the park, so there's a lot of human wildlife conflict and moving the elephants from Liwonde will reduce the pressure on the local communities," he says.

"And then on the other hand at Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve we are busy setting up a national elephant sanctuary for Malawi. So having 500 elephants there by the end of next year will set it up extremely well as a significant elephant conservation project."

Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve is a park of 1,800 square kilometres with more space and security for the elephants.

The relocation by African Parks, a non-profit group based in Johannesburg, comes amid increasing pressure on wildlife across much of Africa.

There is particular pressure on elephants, which have been slaughtered in large numbers to meet growing demand for ivory, mostly in parts of Asia.

The conservationists hope that they can build a thriving elephant population at Nkhotakota, which could be used to supply elephants to parts of Africa where the species has been badly affected by poaching.

The Dutch PostCode Lottery, which supports a number of charity programs, is a key funder of the 1.6 million US dollar relocation project.

African Parks Malawi country director, Patricio Ndadzela, says transporting the elephants is a massive undertaking.

"It's not easy, it's not easy. Hiring all the expertise, all the vehicles, the helicopters and the sort of logistics that goes with getting this done," he says.

"Well, I mean our priority is to ensure that the animals are alive, but I think there are a lot of associated problems, vehicle break downs, sometimes animals getting injured or sometime they die, but I think above all, I think this is a huge task it has never happened before in Africa. I understand Zimbabwe tried it, but they didn't get as much as 500 elephants in two years. This is a record. It's a record."

African Parks manages all three reserves involved in the operation.

Nkhotakota currently has fewer than 100 elephants, whereas Malawi has up to 1,500 elephants in total.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that Africa has fewer than 470,000 elephants, down from as many as three million to five million in the early 20th century.

"Elephants are obviously correctly are endangered in Africa their numbers have plummeted from 500,000 five years ago to 350, 400,000 elephants now. The estimate is somewhere between 40 and 50,000 elephants are poached annually," says Vickery.

"But in saying all of that there are populations which are either very stable or growing and mostly in Southern Africa. And what we are setting out to prove is that scale is not a limitation. We can catch big groups of elephant and move them to available habitat where there is protection. So literally we could move thousands of elephants, so that is what we are trying to set out to prove."

The team says the day's work has been a success: they have safely captured 24 healthy elephants including a large adult bull.

Conservationists say the key to successful relocations is keeping the elephant families together and moving them as a group.

The sedated elephants are placed into a special "wakeup" box where they are injected with a drug to revive them.

The team then herds them into transport containers on the back of trucks ready for the long journey to Nkhotakota.

The first phase of the relocation is taking place in July and August 2016, with a second phase due in the same period next year.