Moving Mountains

Published on the 30th of March, 2023

Amidst our changing and increasingly developed world, it is too often the animals who get left behind — quite literally. This is particularly true for the biggest animal to walk planet earth. What happens when an elephant gets stuck far from home?

In this edition of Field Notes, I wanted to explore elephant translocations. A vital but perhaps less known aspect of our work, this is an important part of our human-wildlife conflict mitigation efforts. We firmly believe humans can live alongside wildlife in harmony, but it takes a lot of work — and some outside-the-box measures. This month, discover how we move mountains.

– Angela Sheldrick

Moving Mountains

Moving mountains. In its simplest terms, that is what it means to translocate elephants to safety.

Elephants are the world’s largest land mammals. Their size is their strength: It is what makes them a keystone species, shaping the ecosystem through their very existence. During the dry season, they dig for water in parched river beds, unearthing subterranean springs for creatures great and small. Their well-trod pathways to drinking sources create water catchments in the rains, while their ample bodies form a seal as they wallow, helping waterholes better retain water. Their dung is full of seeds, which fosters the genetic diversity of savanna vegetation. As they move, they open up sterile bushland and create room for grasslands, where herbivores thrive. Collectively, their everyday actions drive a healthy ecosystem.

However, an elephant’s size can also be their downfall. We live in a world where habitats are disappearing at alarming rates, and they feel the effects of development keenly. Freedom of movement is key to the survival of the species. Elephants have prodigious appetites, and during the dry season, they must be constantly on the move in search of adequate browse. Increasingly, their rangelands are dotted with farms, homesteads, highways, trainlines, and entire towns, interrupting age-old migratory paths instilled in them by their forebears.

This creates a significant problem — both for elephants and the people who live alongside them. Elephants are hardwired for survival, just like any other wild animal. Especially during a drought, when resources become scarce, their quest for food and water may take them outside the protection of the park and into neighbouring communities. This even happens when there is ample vegetation on the ground: Like so many creatures, elephants are tempted by the path of least resistance, and the prospect of a farmer’s bountiful crop often proves too much to resist.

Human-elephant conflict is a complex issue, with lethal implications for all parties. Many parts of rural Kenya are highly impoverished, with families living hand-to-mouth. Although their motives are purely driven by survival, a marauding band of bulls or even a single elephant can devastate a farmer’s crops. When elephants risk a person’s life and livelihood, they may be compelled to take drastic measures.

Of course, prevention is the first step. Where possible, electric fencelines are the single most effective way to mitigate human-wildlife conflict, creating a literal border between habitats and communities. Beehive fencelines are a sustainable, non-aggressive way to deter elephants, who have an innate aversion to the buzzing of bees. However, given their upkeep and reliance on water, they are impractical in many arid parts of Kenya. Even electric fencelines are not always a tenable solution — for instance, in an area that borders a river and cannot be fenced in. Occasionally, elephants break through or take advantage of an existing gap in the fence.

That’s where a rapid response comes in. Working with the KWS, our Anti-Poaching Teams are the first port of call. They have developed a productive rapport with local communities, who report marauding elephants. They identify the animals from the ground and temporarily remove a section of fenceline, if needed. Sometimes, they are able to push the interlopers back into protected areas using their vehicles, but in most cases, our Aerial Unit provides support.

Pilots must be patient and precise. Despite their herd-based social structure, elephants have a mind of their own — and even the presence of an aircraft is not always enough to shepherd them back onto protected land. Pilots must fly low and slow, firmly coaxing their targets without causing panic. The challenge is magnified when they have a large group of disorderly bulls to contend with, as is often the case. These groups can be very large — our pilots have moved as many as 40 bulls off community land at one time.

But sometimes, shepherding elephants isn’t an option. There are myriad reasons why: the elephant is in an area of dense habitation, or perhaps a road or railway will block their way back into the park. These are mighty stumbling blocks, making safe passage by traditional routes impossible.

And that is when we move mountains.

Human-wildlife conflict has emerged as one of the greatest threats facing elephants today. Conscious that there would only continue to be an increased need for translocations, we made it a priority to enhance our capabilities in this highly specialised area. In 2020, we established our Tsavo Elephant Translocation Unit. This specialised task force is on-call to support KWS in the movement of ‘problem’ elephants.

Thanks to donor support, we procured a custom-made elephant mover truck. This vehicle, which was created specifically for purpose, was a transformative addition to our fleet. It consists of a wide flatbed with a large crane installed just behind the cab. The power of this truck is almost inconceivable, capable of lifting and transporting a six-ton animal.

The elephant is darted — often from the air — while ground teams converge on the area. The entire success of the operation hinges on this dart. KWS veterinarians are extraordinarily skilled, dosing just enough anaesthetic to keep the elephant unconscious for the duration of the operation.

(A brief aside: You may notice I am referring to the elephant as he. While it is not always the case, bulls are far more likely to be candidates for translocation than females. Females, with their family responsibilities, are inherently more risk-averse than males. With that said, drought drives desperation. In the past year, we have rescued many orphans whose mothers were the victims of human-wildlife conflict — yet another sobering demonstration of the changing ways of the world.)

As soon as the elephant is anaesthetised, the team binds his legs together using custom straps. Then, ever so slowly, the crane lifts him onto the truck bed, where he is secured with a different set of straps. It is slow going as the truck navigates rough roads with precious cargo onboard, but every minute counts. A KWS veterinarian remains by their side throughout, conducting constant wellness checks on the elephant.

Translocations are intense operations, but they are also an example of teamwork at its finest. Everyone knows their role and executes it with perfection. Joseph, our truck driver, plays a pivotal part. He learned to drive with us more than 25 years ago, and now he is the operator of one of the most challenging pieces of equipment in our fleet. It is dangerous, highly specialised work that conducts to the highest possible degree. I have never seen Joseph get stressed, even when he is controlling the crane to deposit a 12,000-pound bull onto his flatbed.

The destination changes for each translocation. However, there are always a few common qualities: Elephants are released deep within the park, in a place where water is readily available. Many people worry that they won’t be able to link up with their friends, but elephants have extraordinary methods of communication. Bull society is fluid to begin with; they link up with fellow bachelors for days, weeks, or months at a time, then often splinter off in their own directions, only to reunite later down the road. Simply put, a Tsavo elephant’s life is never lonely.

Elephant translocations are a last-resort — but they are also a life-saving resort. We have witnessed the lethal consequences of human-wildlife conflict time and again. An elephant who becomes a fixture on community land has a target on their back. Thanks to our ability to move mountains, we can give these creatures a second chance and support the communities who live alongside them.

Unfortunately, I predict the need for translocations will only continue to rise in the future. But when elephants require safe passage, we will be there — by air, by ground, or by crane.

Field Notes is a monthly newsletter written by Angela Sheldrick to share a unique perspective into our field projects and the people behind the cause. The email edition includes an interview with a member of the team, which is exclusively available to Field Notes subscribers. To receive the monthly email edition of Field Notes, please sign up here.

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