Elephant family moved in new program to help African species survive

June 26, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

KRUGER NATIONAL PARK, South Africa -- The vultures gathering high in the blue sky were attracted not by the smell of carrion, but by the sound of a hovering helicopter.

Generally, helicopters mean elephants are being culled from Kruger National Park's growing elephant herd and that leftovers could soon be available for an ambitious scavenger.

Today, though, the vultures would fly home disappointed. The family of 10 elephants that keeled over under the effect of tranquilizer darts were not destined to be dispatched with bullets through the brain.

Instead, they were loaded onto two huge trucks built for the purpose and moved 300 miles across the northern Transvaal, reintroducing their species to a part of South Africa where elephants have not trodden for more than a century.

For years, Kruger has been able to reduce the number of culled animals by selling live ones to other game parks. But this marked the first time that entire family groups were being moved together, a key fact that has brought together bitter enemies over the appropriate way to ensure the survival of the African elephant, which is threatened by poaching, dwindling habitat and political upheaval.

Animal rights groups are now working in conjunction with the park wardens, whom they once criticized for killing the elephants.

"It's amazing that we're even talking to each other," said David Barritt, the southern Africa director of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, an animal-rights group that was helping to finance the operation.

"A year ago, the Kruger people were calling us 'bunny-huggers' and we were calling them killers," he said.

Previous moves out of Kruger had been limited to elephants with a shoulder height of under 7 feet, meaning that only young animals were involved. But while trying to save elephants threatened by starvation in Zimbabwe, Clem Coetsee learned how to move 8 1/2 -foot animals, the size of mature females.

A 24-year veteran of Zimbabwe's park service who is now in the private game-capture business, Mr. Coetsee used his combination of tranquilizers and bigger trucks to move 600 elephants in Zimbabwe last year.

In Kruger park, it all came off as a combination of high-tech science and low-tech muscle power early one recent morning.

The operation began with the helicopter spotting a herd of about 60 elephants. As the aircraft moved lower, the elephants instinctively split into family groups of about 10. One group was isolated, herded near a road, and then shot with tranquilizer darts. Until this point, everything looked like a standard culling operation, as the vultures well knew.

But within seconds of the elephants keeling over, a convoy of trucks and vans descended on the gray hulks. The bush was soon filled with a small army of people.

Veterinarians checked the health and safety of the beasts, making sure their trunks were clear for breathing, measuring their size, administering another tranquilizer. Other workers covered the elephants' eyes with the flaps of their ears and periodically poured water over the still bodies to keep them cool.

Soon, the work became less delicate. Trees were chopped down to allow trucks to approach. Men surrounded the elephants, tied them with ropes, and pulled, pushed and heaved the elephants onto tough rubber mats.

Winches then pulled them up into the big trailers where a veterinarian administered an antidote to the initial tranquilizer. Within a minute, the animals rose to their feet, only mildly sedated for the 10-hour ride that lay ahead.

As difficult as that ride was, it was better than the elephants might have experienced in other years. Without the program, 577 elephants would have been killed in Kruger this year; that number has been reduced by 158 thanks to the new program.

It was the culling of elephants that ignited the spat between Kruger park wardens and conservationists. While conservationists said culling was outdated, Kruger officials maintained it was necessary.

"We believe, and it has been shown elsewhere in Africa, that if the elephants are allowed to increase unchecked, then they are quite capable of having a serious effect on the environment," said Ian Whyte, who runs Kruger's research on elephants.

"So we've always had the attitude that we would keep the elephant population fairly low," he said. The target is about 7,000 elephants in Kruger's 19,000 square kilometers.

"The national park has arbitrarily set a limit of 7,000 elephants, which they admit is very conservative," said Mr. Barritt of the International Fund for Animal Welfare. "We are not saying that all culling is wrong, that would be naive. But there is an alternative as we are proving with this project."

Dave Albert is a neutral observer in this debate. He is in charge of the game program at Welgevonden, the exclusive private resort northwest of Johannesburg that is taking 50 of the translocated elephants, including the 10 captured on this day.

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