Moving an Elephant Family to Safety

Published on the 30th of October, 2023

On 24th October 2023, we pulled off one of our most challenging field operations to date. For the first time, we translocated a family herd of four elephants — two mothers and two babies — off community land and back to the safety of Tsavo East National Park.

A lot of careful consideration went into this operation. The thick vegetation and their reluctance to cross the fenceline even after the fence was dismantled made for an extremely complicated situation. Translocations are a last resort, only to be mobilised in situations where elephants cannot be safely pushed back into protected areas by vehicle or helicopter.

Such was the case with this family of four, consisting of a very strong-willed matriarch (in Swahili, we would call her ‘kali’) and her sub-adult calf, plus a younger mother (who was also likely the matriarch’s daughter) and her four-year-old baby. They had been living on community land for at least eight months. Earlier this year, a new fenceline was erected by the county government around community land bordering the Tsavo ecosystem. This is ultimately a very positive development to help alleviate human-wildlife conflict. However, during the fenceline’s construction, this particular family of elephants were ‘marooned’ on community land.

Over the past several months, our teams have dedicated hours and hours trying to shepherd the family back into the park. It might take two aircrafts and many attempts, but even the most stroppy bulls can usually be coaxed in a certain direction. But this matriarch was different. She was fiercely protective of her family and refused to cooperate, despite numerous attempts. After she had a run-in with a local woman, leaving her gravely injured, the situation escalated. For everyone’s welfare, it was time to give these elephants an emergency exit.

We have done many translocations in partnership with the KWS, several involving multiple elephants. However, these operations almost always involve bulls. We had never before moved an entire family unit. Every logistic — of which there are many, in a translocation — was quadrupled.

Wheels started turning at 3:00 am that morning, when the first SWT teams departed from Voi. An operation of this scale required three KWS veterinarians on-site, so Dr Limo and his assistant drove up from Voi headquarters while Dr Rono flew down from Nairobi.

Meanwhile, based on aerial reports of the sizes of the various elephants, we assembled our fleet to translocate them. The SWT crane truck, tractor and low-bed trailer, low-bed truck, backhoe, and team vehicles departed from our Kaluku Field Headquarters. Everyone gathered at the meeting junction by 7:00 am.

As the ground teams left Kaluku, our SWT fixed-wing and helicopter pilots embarked on the all-important search mission. We had a general idea of the family’s last known location, but they were very difficult to find. The bush is thick in this area, providing good coverage for four elusive elephants. After flying dozens of transects, they were spotted camouflaged in the scrub.

Every single detail had been organised: The vehicles were in place, the aircraft were moving, and nearly 50 people were standing by to bring the translocation to life. Now all we needed were the stars of the show.

However, elephants keep us humble. Metre by metre, the SWT helicopter painstakingly shepherded the family towards an open area that ground teams could access. Just when they were perfectly positioned, a passing truck drove along the main road and sent the elephants scattering in the opposite direction. Wary of over-stressing and over-tiring the family, especially with the little baby in tow, we decided to halt operations and try again later that day.

Mid-afternoon, the SWT helicopter and Super Cub flew a second recce. They found the family in an optimal location, close to the park boundary fence and in an open area. It was all systems go, but we were working against the clock. The elephants had to be darted and loaded in daylight — and time was rapidly running out.

Big machinery moves slowly, especially on rough park roads. As the convoy made their way to the new meeting point, the Super Cub pilot kept eyes on the family while the helicopter scooped up Dr Limo. Moving them to an open area was tricky, as the matriarch was very reluctant to follow any direction from above. It took the better part of an hour, but the Aerial Unit finally got everyone into position. Meanwhile, the backhoe swept the area so all the ground vehicles could access the clearing.

The matriarch was darted first, followed by the second female, and finally the sub-adult calf. Our plan was to manually restrain the youngest calf, given his relatively small size. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief as the matriarch succumbed to the anaesthetic, followed by the other two. Ground and aerial teams did an excellent job ensuring that each elephant fell a safe distance away from each other. From there, everyone was loaded on their various modes of transportation: the matriarch and second mum were lifted onto the crane truck, while the sub-adult calf went on the tractor trailer.

Now, we just needed to get the baby on board — but again, elephants keep us humble. Our Voi team has pulled off countless elephant rescues, including many calves of a similar age. However, he bowled right through them, sending six full-grown men flying in his wake. Clearly, we needed a different tactic.

The SWT helicopter radioed Dr Limo, who was with the three anaesthetised elephants, and suggested he prepare a fourth dart. After scooping up the veterinarian, our pilot shepherded the baby towards the ground team. The moment the dart took effect, the Voi team loaded him onto their trailer.

Both our helicopter and fixed-wing pilots flew overhead, directing operations and guiding ground teams towards their final destination. We chose a place fairly close to the Athi River, within the fenced national park boundary. As an added bonus, this area is nice and green thanks to recent rains.

The final leg of the operation, driving the sleeping elephants off community land and into Tsavo East, was a journey of just 8 kilometres. However, it was dark by the time they reached the unloading site. Illuminated by torches and headlights, the matriarch and big female were offloaded from the crane truck, followed by the big calf from the tractor trailer, and finally the little calf from the truck. KWS requested a tracking collar be put on the matriarch in order to monitor her movements.

Both vets worked in tandem to ensure that all four elephants woke up together. The matriarch needed a helping hand from a Land Cruiser with a tow strap, but soon the entire family was back on their feet. They walked off as a family unit towards the river. Only then did the convoy make their way back to Kaluku. The final vehicle pulled into headquarters at 9:00 pm — a full 18 hours since the operation’s first vehicle started off that morning.

It took 18 hours, 10 vehicles, 2 aircraft, and 45 people to bring these four elephants to safety. This result will mean a world of difference for everyone. The local community is relieved to no longer face any threat from them, while the elephants are back in a safe and protected environment, where they can live peacefully. Based on collar data, they have moved east about 25 kilometres away, exploring the fertile areas that received the recent rains.

This operation demonstrated how sometimes translocation is the only viable option in order to save lives and keep wild families together. In cases that demand such a monumental response, we are able to answer the call — even when it means moving a family of four. We are very grateful to our donors, who give us the wings to pull off these massive operations.

Your support makes these monumental missions possible. If you are in a position to give, please consider making a contribution towards our field conservation work — helping us provide elephant families like this one with the secure future they deserve.

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