iSimangaliso’s elephants – the big picture

6 Jul 2018

The iSimangaliso Wetland Park recently donated 30 of its uMkhuze elephant population to Zinave National Park situated in the Mozambique component of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Conservation Area. This will assist the fledgling park that is co-managed by the Peace Parks Foundation (PPF) and Mozambique’s National Administration of Conservation Areas (ANAC), in rewilding its pristine 408,000ha protected area.

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The mammoth operation – the largest single translocation of its kind in the Park to date – was conducted over two days in June 2018 in the uMkhuze section of the World Heritage Site by Conservation Solutions – specialists in capture and relocation of elephants across the continent. The project was primarily coordinated and funded by Elephants, Rhinos & People (ERP). ERP, operating under parent company groupelephant.com, was founded to preserve and protect Southern Africa’s wild elephants and rhinos through a strategy based on rural poverty alleviation. To date they have assisted in numerous projects in southern Africa, with this being the first collaboration involving iSimangaliso. ERP is also the official strategic elephant management partner with PPF in Mozambique.

Another NGO, the Wild Tomorrow Fund (WTF) covered the costs of helicopter time and fuel. Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife’s (EKZNW) Game Capture Unit and conservation staff completed the multi-party team responsible for the translocation.

Zinave is a pristine area near Vilankulos in Mozambique that until recently had been left largely devoid of grazers, following the country’s civil war. Now safely under protection once again, and with more than 1,200 animals reintroduced into the park already by PPF over the past two years, the region is rich with promise for a new era of conservation. According to Bernard van Lente, PPF’s Project Manager in Zinave, “Zinave offers prime elephant habitat, more than sufficient water resources, and only a handful of local elephants – positioning the uMkhuze elephants, along with 24 donated by the Ithala Game Reserve, to proliferate as the progenitors of a thriving new elephant population. The elephants were initially released into an electrically-fenced 18,600ha sanctuary. This will allow them to settle into their new environment and be introduced to the family herd that has been resident in the sanctuary for the past year. The Park’s protection capabilities were also recently reinforced with 26 new rangers, ranger base camps, patrol equipment and digital communication systems – all as part of advanced and integrated anti-poaching strategies.”

An initial discussion about growing elephant numbers over a year ago between Conservation Solutions owner Kester Vickery and Jeff Cooke, Head of EKZNW Game Capture Unit, started the wheels in motion as Vickery was aware of the Zinave initiative in Mozambique and their desire to introduce more elephants. The ideal source populations were identified as iSimangaliso’s uMkhuze and EKZNW’s Ithala Game Reserve respectively, both of which had significant elephant numbers.

With the ANAC and PPF on board to receive the animals from South Africa, ERP got behind the project and offered to coordinate the operation as well as fund the substantial costs of the translocation.

According to ERP spokesperson Dereck Milburn, “A project of this nature involves countless logistics which ERP managed, including: facilitation of CITES permits and negotiations with the Department of Environmental Affairs, transit permits, cross border issues, road checks, the MOU with PPF, route checks and a team travelling with the elephants from source to destination. Our organisation is actively finding solutions to alleviate the pressures associated with growing elephant numbers in South Africa and the translocation programme is on the top of our agenda to provide meaningful interventions to limit the need for population control methods. We are very excited about the MOU between ERP and PPF, which will solidify future collaboration between the two organisations in Mozambique.”

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iSimangaliso’s Park Operations Director Sizo Sibiya was particularly pleased to join the relocation operation. “In 1994 when elephants were first introduced back into uMkhuze, I was working here as a young EKZNW section ranger, later progressing to Conservation Manager before moving across to join the iSimangaliso management team,” he says. “Today is a great indication of the excellent job that EKZNW has been doing in protecting these animals over the past 23 years to the point where we are able to donate to other parks.”

iSimangaliso currently has over 200 elephants shared between the Western Shores, Eastern Shores and uMkhuze sections of the Park. Cognisant of the fact that elephants need an enormous amount of terrain and are significant agents of landscape change, as well as births increasing numbers at around 10% per annum, iSimangaliso undertook a campaign of elephant contraception a couple of years ago to slow down the increase in numbers.

“It is important to remember that our protected areas are here for the bigger picture which is to conserve overall biodiversity. That means ALL species great and small, fauna and flora, as well as water catchment areas. It is a dynamic process within a finite fenced Park to achieve an ideal balance. So we are careful that we don’t have a situation where one species flourishes to the possible detriment of others. Our elephant population has done tremendously well and we are pleased that we have reached a point where we are able to offer animals to other protected areas, just as we have done in the past with our rhino. This is a win-win scenario for conservation in Africa,” says Sibiya.

How do you capture elephants?

Since elephants form strong family bonds headed by a matriarch with her daughters and their offspring, it is essential to capture these as a complete unit. iSimangaliso uses tracking collars placed on the matriarchs along with regular in-field monitoring to identify family groups.

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Capture is done by helicopter, with the highly experienced team of pilot Vere van Heerden and vet Dr Andre Uys darting targeted animals in the family group in quick succession.
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Once the immobilising drug takes effect, the ground teams – including ecologists, biologists and several veterinarians – hasten to the animals to ensure that they are lying in a safe position, take biological measurements and samples, implant microchips and prepare them for hoisting.

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The elephants’ legs are bound by strong, soft tethers capable of supporting several tonnes of animal. A crane attached to the loading trucks then lifts each animal and lowers them gently into the crates. Extensive physiological monitoring has shown that elephants are not at all compromised by being upside down for a few minutes.

Once in the crates, the animals are given an antidote to reverse the immobilising drug as well as tranquillisers to keep them calm during the trip. They are loaded several to a crate and once they have company of their family members they calm down and travel very well. The journey from uMkhuze to Zinave, transiting eSwatini (Swaziland), was over 1,200km of non-stop driving with regular checks on the animals to ensure their wellbeing. On arrival at Zinave, the elephants were released immediately into secure bomas and left to peacefully discover their new pristine terrain.

Find out more about the ERP, PPF and WTF initiatives here. Media enquiries should be directed to Slindile Msweli at sli@isimangaliso.com.