Dex recently championed another exciting, once-in-a-lifetime safari and conservation experience. Along with a team of conservationists and wildlife relocation specialists, he travelled to Phinda in KwaZulu Natal to relocate a small herd of elephants. A unique and pioneering feature of this Tracking Silent Giants trip, was that it was live-streamed exclusively to an audience of YPO members and families around the globe, of which Dex has been a member since 2008.
Should they stay or should they go?
Every ecosystem has a saturation point in terms of the amount of animals it can sustain. Elephants eat around 200kgs of vegetation every day, so in order to limit destruction of the natural environment and keep the natural balance in check, elephants need to be relocated to other nature reserves from time to time.
Home to roughly 130 elephants over 28 000 hectares, Phinda Reserve’s capacity for elephants is full. Along with delivering contraception to the elephants annually via dart guns from helicopters, Phinda has relocated around 60 elephants to other reserves in the past in order to keep the elephant population healthy and viable.
Silent, sentient and super-smart
Despite their size, elephants are smart and secretive and can hide themselves surprisingly quickly and quietly. The elephants at Phinda are wary of helicopters because they associate helicopters with the delivery of their contraceptive injection. For this reason, the capture team had to be extra cautious about not driving the elephants into the dense bush where they might hide amongst the trees of the sand forest – making it near-impossible for them to be located, captured, and relocated.
Even though their new home was hundreds of miles away from their birthplace, the elephants re-orientated themselves in their new location very well. On arrival at Rietvlei Nature Reserve in the Limpopo province, the trucks were opened, the elephants strolled out, and went straight back to grazing. Whereas in the past, relocated elephants were first put into bomas to settle in, nowadays they’re released straight into the bush from the transport trucks.
Cohesive herds are selected for relocation and are never split up as the close social dynamics is what makes relocation stable and successful. Generally, within a day or two, the herd will have completely assimilated into their new environment.
All in all, 5 elephants were relocated on our recent expedition, including a 35-year old grand matriarch along with her year-old calf. The relocation team were especially overjoyed when four days after the herd was relocated, one of the cows gave birth.
(would be awesome to include a photo of the baby elephant here!)
How to move Giants
The relocation operation was carried out by Conservation Solutions, translocation specialists who have successfully translocated in excess of 4000 elephants and rhinos, and more than 100 000 animals of varying species over the last 25 years.
Wildlife relocation requires tailor-made equipment which has been engineered in response to the need to move entire herds on scale, rather than just juveniles. Helicopters are essential for finding the elephants, keeping them together, and driving them to a suitable area where they can be safely captured. Fitted with special hydraulic cranes, the elephants are lifted up by their feet. While it might not look graceful, the elephants suffer no side effects.
Once darted and captured, the elephants are loaded into purpose built, wake-up recovery-crates. They’re immobilized for a short period of time and the quicker the tranquilize-capture-translocate and wake-up cycle occurs, the better it is for the animals. Relocating bulls is typically more difficult due to their size ,as they are roughly two and a half times bigger than the average cow, which means a bigger truck and crane are needed. Calves are loaded up after their mothers and then woken up first to allow them to stay clear of the mother when she receives the antidote, as they share a crate and have to be awake before the journey starts. This prevents the mothers from hurting their sleeping calves when they regain consciousness and start moving around.
The transfer was long – 800km (24 hours) – and the vet was required to be constantly with the elephants, checking on them and making sure they were alright.
A good time to be alive(stream)
Although many elephant relocations have been filmed in the past, this recent exclusive conservation event included the first-ever livestreaming of an elephant relocation. The entire process was lengthy, starting at 7am and finishing around 6pm, but livestreaming took place intermittently for around 3 hours. Painted Dog TV, a virtual safaris & conservation company livestreamed and documented the event. In order for livestreaming to take place, the filming logistics team had to be on site two weeks before the event to check that all signals were functioning as they should. Livestreaming allowed co-hosts Dex and Brent Leo-Smith of Painted Dog to impart interesting information in real time to their global audience.
A sanctuary for sleep
At the end of the day, Dex and Co. rested their heads at Phinda Vlei Lodge, one of andBeyond’s luxury safari properties where the Big 5 roam. Described as a secluded, plantation-style, hideaway on the edge of a rare sand forest, guests can also choose to stay at Mountain Lodge, Forest Lodge, , Zuka Lodge, Rock Lodge, or at the Phinda Homestead.
Overlooking endless African plains, the luxury suites include private lap pools and outdoor showers. Wooden decks spill out onto the African bushveld where guests can watch passing wildlife. The welcoming but elegant interiors of the lodge are exquisite, with attention to detail being their hallmark.
Photo Credit: Phinda Vlei Lodge
After the excitement of the relocation, Dex travelled to Sodwana Bay for one night of R&R and then stayed at Thonga Beach Lodge, a luxury beach lodge nestled between trees and overlooking the warm waters of the Indian Ocean. Situated just below Cosi Bay on KwaZulu Natal’s North Coast, the lodge is a haven and offers access to endless kilometres of private beaches, world-class scuba diving and snorkelling, and remote, pristine natural surroundings.
This recent elephant relocation operation was a huge conservation success. The opportunity to restore and maintain the balance within nature, while ensuring the longevity and health of these majestic animals reaffirms our passion and dedication to the natural world and the animals that reside within.