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Pic credit: Sango Wildlife Conservancy

Inside mass translocation of elephants South of Zimbabwe

CHIREDZI – The rattling sound of a helicopter engulfs the thicket, circling a herd of elephants in the Savé Valley Conservancy, a park south of Zimbabwe, while a drone flies high up, monitoring any breakaways.

Darts, containing tranquilizers are shot from the helicopter, downing six large mammals, before a veterinarian ground team rushes in to monitor vitals of the now sedated elephants.

Darting an animal of this size is a rare occurrence and quite an undertaking even as veterinarian experts are on high alert to ensure safety.

Veterinarian experts monitor the sedated elephants’ breathing making sure they are not panicking or in distress.

The headquarters of the relocation is currently based in Sango Wildlife Conservancy, a 60,000 hectare area in the Savé Valley Conservancy.

“After 30 years of relentless conservation work, we at Sango are proud to be able to contribute to conservation in Zimbabwe through this relocation. This is not our first relocation but so far the largest we have coordinated at Sango. It’s a monumental task requiring teamwork, months of planning, coordination and great care,” says Sango Wildlife Conservancy Manager, Dave Goosen.

After wildlife moving teams clear the brush, the tranquilized elephants are lifted upside down by their legs, using a crane onto a flatbed trailer.

They are then moved into large, specialised containers for transport and travel while awake from the Savé Valley Conservancy to Sapi, Zambezi Valley, in the north of Zimbabwe.

The 700 kilometers journey is not the smoothest of rides.

Parts of the journey hazardous, comprising potholed roads and escarpments. So far 101 African elephants, in groups of six to eight, have been translocated this way.

The 101 are part of 400 elephants being translocated by Project Rewild Zambezi, through Great Plains Foundation.

In total about 2,600 animals will be translocated from the Savé Valley Conservancy which the translocation team says is experiencing a wildlife overpopulation beyond what can reasonably be managed.

The relocation project began in June this year and will run for two years, Project ReWild Zambezi said in a notice.

“There will be consistent assessments on the impact on resident populations, adapting rates of new releases, the impacts on vegetation, migration, and the effects of human interactions,” Project ReWild Zambezi continued.

“Project ReWild Zambezi will facilitate additional anti-poaching training to secure the area, conduct surveys and promote science in association with Washington State University and local Zimbabwe universities with a team of local students.

“In addition, we are starting a range of associated projects alongside this, including our Great Plains Women Rangers recruitment initiative. We are also beginning community involvement programs, outreach, and bursaries associated with wildlife conservation translocations.”

Dereck Joubert – CEO of Great Plains Conservation told Zim Morning Post the translocated elephants have been adapting well to their new environment.

“So far, as we track them online all 101 seem to be adapting well to the area, settling down nicely and have even started integrating with the resident herds to some degree,” he said.

“The translocation was run very professionally and safely for all animals and people involved, with no incident. As such we can say it has so far been a great success. Some concerns about large-scale movement back to the source area have proved to not be an issue, and the opposite concern – that they would simply hang around the Zambezi River – have also not been an issue.”

Each matriarch has been collared, and is being monitored daily via their collar signals.

Some signals indicate that translocated family herds are joining up in their new home, as they probably did in the Savé Valley Conservancy, Jourbert said.

“We were able to collar 10 resident herds and as well as each of the families brought in, and both residents and relocated elephants are following much the same movement patterns from water to feed,” he said.

“We had a concern that they might get confused and head towards farms and villages, so we hired a team of experts and monitors to watch this and flag any movement in that direction. Again, this hasn’t happened, but we are treating this first 101 as a test group for the larger consignment, having taken that advice from many stakeholders and other key players in the conservation of the Zambezi Valley.”

The project will be bankrolled at a cost of between US$3 and U$4 million, although budget may fluctuate.

“Great Plains is funding the operation entirely and this cost will end up being somewhere in that region, although not fixed yet,” Joubert said.

“It is costly to move elephants but moving them is only a part of the cost. We are hiring wildlife monitoring and anti-poaching units and are training those new people in the field. We are establishing locally run research and science projects, community outreach, education, school visits to involve children and initially the move has generated work for over 50 citizens,” he continued.

“This budget, as a result, does not cover the entire project because it will be ongoing, beyond when all the animals have been introduced. One area that is expensive is the establishment of a state-of-the-art research monitoring centre and a similarly impressive anti-poaching unit, both of which are ongoing efforts.”

Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Authority spokesperson Tinashe Farawo said the translocation was imperative to maintain healthy habitats in the Savé Valley Conservancy while establishing viable elephant populations.

“The migration will help save the conservancy’s ecosystem by depopulating it. Some of our parks are overpopulated and lack adequate food and water. We have issued permits for the transfers so that animals are moved to areas with water and food,” he said.

Farawo added, the elephants are being translocated with the greatest care.

“This is probably Zimbabwe’s second largest translocation after Operation Noah in the 1950s when Kariba Dam was being constructed,” he said.

However, the project has not been without opposition.

Wildlife researcher and conservationist in Zimbabwe and Southern Africa since the 1960s, Dr David Cumming, opined that the current population densities of elephants in the Mid-Lower Zambezi Valley area do not indicate a need for additional animals.

“Save Valley Conservancy does have an overpopulation of elephants but the numbers are now at a level where removing 400 elephants, from a population that is growing at 5% per annum or more, is not going to solve their problem,” he said.

“To return to a manageable population of about 1,300 elephants at a density of 0.5 per sq km from their current population of 3,500+ they will need to remove more than 3 thousand elephants over the next decade – which is unlikely to happen,” he added.

Richard Maasdorp, strategic director of the Zambezi Society, took exception with the translocation of a range of wildlife species into the Mid-Lower Zambezi Valley being termed as a “rewilding” intervention.

“The translocation from the Low Veld to the Lower Zambezi Valley is being tagged as a rewilding exercise. It is not,” Maasdorp told the Zim Morning Post.

“The Lower Zambezi Valley has viable populations of all major species and therefore moving in animals is not a conservation imperative. Further the drivers of any declining populations have not be have not been fully investigated.

“These drivers extend from deforestation, loss of habitat, siltation of inland water sources, escarpment fires and, to a lesser extent, poaching. All these should be fully investigated, understood and action plans developed before any additional animals are moved.

“It would appear that the motivation for moving these animals is to save their valiant cause. In which case this project is of an animal welfare nature. An appropriate destination for the selected animals would be protected areas of the Sebungwe.

“It is recommended that before the full scale of this translocation takes place the proponents call the relevant stakeholders and experts to have robust and respectful dialogue around the merits of this exercise before it’s completed.”

On the other hand, Wilfried Pabst, owner of Sango Wildlife Conservancy said “we simply have far too many animals here (in Sango Wildlife Conservancy), to relocate them into a new area helps us to reduce the pressure of overpopulation of wildlife on our habitat.”

Great Plains say they are taking all opinions and advise on board.

“Before we started the project we engaged with experts and stakeholders both within Zimbabwe and more broadly. We agree with some of the sentiments, and we are committed to continued consultation with experts who know much more about the local situation than us and seek their guidance,” Joubert said.

Regarding the translocation, the Co-Founder and Chairman of the Great Plains Foundation said the translocation will set a standard across Africa for the movement of large quantities of wildlife from areas of overpopulation to areas of low density.

“It is a landmark project for Zimbabwe and conservation where collaboration between Great Plains, Savé Valley Conservancy (SVC), and Sango (part of the SVC) and the Government of Zimbabwe is really working well to find real solutions to conservation problems, and to set egos, petty politics and agendas aside, to get an important job done,” said Joubert.

“I have been hugely impressed so far with the spirit of collaboration and the professionalism on all sides. Everyone has been extremely engaged and helpful,” he added.

“What is important about the project is not the 101 and soon to be 400 elephants and other wildlife being moved, but that it sets a standard across Africa for the movement of large quantities of wildlife from areas of overpopulation to areas of low density / under population, and that changes the way we view struggling conservation areas everywhere, and brings a functional solution, and a story of hope to those depleted areas.”

Pic credit: Sango Wildlife Conservancy