Human-wildlife conflict is one of the greatest threats facing elephants, as mankind continues to commandeer swathes of their habitat for farming and construction. Relocation is often the best way to mitigate these potentially lethal scenarios, moving marauding elephants into a protected wilderness.
With this in mind the SWT has, over the past two years, worked towards establishing capacity to assist the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in the translocation of elephants when called upon. Sometimes troublesome individuals have the potential of making their presence know within natural areas too, as was the case within the Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary in Tsavo West National Park.
On the 25th and 26th of August 2020, in a joint operation with KWS, we moved seven unruly elephants because they had been wreaking havoc on the water installations within the sanctuary - breaking water troughs, pipes, and water tanks. Given the onset of the dry season, their antics had shifted from merely mischievous to something more harmful, as they threatened the water supply (and thus, survival) for the rhinos and other creatures within the sanctuary.
Under even the best of circumstances, moving seven wayward elephants is no small task. Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary is marked by dense bush which, coupled with soaring temperatures, further complicated proceedings. The KWS head of animal capture, Dr. Isaac Lekalol, directed the whole operation to ensure the welfare of each elephant. From the air our pilots located the culprits with the help of Richard Cheruiyot who knew them well, before directing the ground teams to their location. Meanwhile, another SWT pilot flew KWS vet Dr. Poghon in our helicopter, which provided a stable platform to dart the elephants from the air, and then guided them into more open ground. As soon as a bull was tranquilised, both the KWS and SWT translocation trucks rolled in, using their built-in cranes to carefully lift the individuals onto the truck bed. The two crane trucks with their flatbed backs and the SWT low loader truck were able to ensure that more than one elephant could be moved at a time. After strapping them in, they were driven to a protected area 20 kilometres outside the perimeters of the sanctuary. Throughout the journey, the KWS veterinarians monitored their vitals and topped up the anesthetic to ensure they remained safely asleep until they reached their final destination. Each elephant was unloaded close to water, so they could enjoy a drink while they acquainted themselves with their new surroundings.
The team went about the relocation of each bull with utmost caution, so it was a painstaking process. However, thanks to the expertise of all involved, a total of seven elephants were moved over the course of just two days — which was two more than our original target of five. On the first day, two bulls were moved in the morning and another two in the late afternoon. The next morning, a further three were moved, including the ringleader, who was so enormous that he had to be transported on our low loader truck! There was only one major setback, when a bull fell asleep on his haunches against a small tree, but the ever-resourceful team rapidly cut down the tree, so he could be maneuvered onto his side and loaded onto the truck. Otherwise, everything went off without a hitch.
If elephants are to survive in our ever-expanding world, we must sometimes think outside the box — or, in this case, outside the perimeters of the sanctuary. These seven bulls now have the ability to roam far and wide, no longer hemmed in by the fenced boundaries of the rhino sanctuary. They have the vast expanse of Tsavo West National Park to discover. The long-suffering staff and rangers in Ngulia Rhino Sanctuary, who have been dealing with these truants for quite some time, are breathing a collective sigh of relief. And importantly, the sanctuary’s resident rhinos and remaining elephants benefit, as they no longer have these troublemakers putting their water sources at risk.