During a successful first day, on Monday 4th July 2016, the first family group of elephants was captured in Liwonde National Park and loaded on to trucks to make the 300km road journey to their new home in Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, Malawi. So begins the story of one of the most exciting wildlife conservation projects and largest translocations of elephants in Africa.
With populations of elephants across Africa under serious threat, African Parks, in cooperation with the Department of National Parks and Wildlife, has undertaken to move up to 500 elephants from Liwonde National Park and Majete Wildlife Reserve, where populations are too high for these conservation areas to sustain, to the 1,800 square kilometre wilderness of the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve.
The translocation will take place in two phases, with approximately half of the elephants being moved in July-August 2016, along with approximately 1200 other animals; comprised of sable, buffalo, kudu, wildebeest, warthog and impala. The second phase will be at a similar time in 2017. We will be following this incredible return of large numbers of wildlife to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve through our blog and #elesnewhome, as the animals are released and settle into their new habitat over the coming months and years.
What is a translocation? This is the process of capture, transport and release of wildlife species from one area to another.
It is used as a means of conservation, in order to reduce the risk of extinction by increasing the range of species and supplementing small populations with fresh genes from other areas, particularly from locations where the numbers have become too high for the habitat to sustain.
This wildlife translocation is taking place from Liwonde National Park and Majete Wildlife Reserve to Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, further north in Central Malawi; all 3 of which are now under the dedicated management of African Parks.
How will the elephants be translocated?
A team of globally renowned experts has been assembled by African Parks to carry out this mammoth (pardon the pun), challenging and very specialised operation. Elephants are darted from helicopters, loaded by crane on to trucks and awoken in a specially built crate, before being transported the 300 km from Liwonde to Nkhotakota.
On arrival in their new home, they will be released into a small holding facility, protected by electric fencing and provided with food and water. After 12-24 hours they will be released into the wild of the reserve, but within a specially constructed 16,000 hectare sanctuary. Eventually fencing of the entire reserve will be complete and the elephants will be allowed to disperse into the vast miombo woodlands.
Why translocate these elephants?
Over 100 years ago more than 10 million elephants roamed Africa and now less than 450,000 remain, with populations declining at an alarming rate, largely due to illegal poaching for their ivory, as well as human-wildlife conflict, habitat loss and fragmentation.
It is estimated that Nkhotakota was previously home to approximately 1,500 elephants, but now only about 100 remain. The smaller reserves of Liwonde and Majete, in contrast, are at their maximum capacity, with the elephant numbers causing degradation of the habitat in both and human-wildlife conflict presenting a major problem in Liwonde. There are no natural corridors for elephants to migrate between parks and so they are reliant on African Parks to move them to the sanctuary of Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, where they can enjoy the adequate habitat and safety necessary for their survival.
What is African Parks? African Parks is a renowned non-profit conservation NGO, which took on the management of Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve and Liwonde National Park in Malawi on Wednesday 22nd July 2015.
Prior to this, African Parks already had responsibility for the rehabilitation and long-term management of eight national parks and protected areas in seven countries – CAR, Chad, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Zambia. Working in partnership with governments and local communities, their ethos is that making wildlife parks socially and economically viable, particularly for the benefit of local communities, will contribute to their survival in the face of competing forms of land use.
The addition of Liwonde and Nkhotakota brings the figures to 10 national parks and 6.15 million hectares under their management; an area larger than The Netherlands. It is estimated that approximately $18m will be invested in the two parks over the next five years thanks to key donor partners of African Parks, including the Dutch Post Code Lottery, which has made the “500 elephants” translocation possible.
Early on the go this morning, the lack of enthusiasm to get up when the alarms went off at 4.15am dwarfed by the fact we all knew we were going to see something quite spectacular.
After picking the makings of breakfast up from the kitchen we (Stephen, Emmanuel, Ozzi and Donna) travelled through the new fenced sanctuary inside Nkhotakota WR to make our way out of the reserve.
On our way through the sanctuary we observed spore and newly broken trees, showing that elephants had recently been around. As we came out of the reserve, a beautiful Malawian sunrise was straight in front of us. What a glorious way to bring in the morning, seeing the sun rise beyond Lake Malawi. We had to journey through Nkhotakota town before heading back into the reserve on the south side. We arrived at the Boma (the enclosure where the animals are placed for a short period of time before the gates are opened for full release into the sanctuary) just as the African Parks team were offloading the first truck that day, which was full of sable and waterbuck.
It was quite a surreal moment for us all, watching these animals coming out of the truck into their new home. The sable came out very quickly and ran into the boma, the waterbuck were slightly more apprehensive, but after one left the truck they all followed. The second truck was offloaded immediately after the first one; this truck contained kudu and more waterbuck. The kudu actually jumped out of the truck followed by the waterbuck. We managed to back up the Land Rover, so that we could all stand and watch over the fence to see everything that was going on. In about 10 minutes we had all seen more antelope in the reserve than we had done in the last three years; quite a significant event for us all.
After all that excitement breakfast was definitely in order. We had brought breakfast for our guest, Warren, who was filming the whole event. Frying eggs, drinking coffee and listening to African music in the middle of the reserve, whilst discussing the rest of the animals that were going to be translocated in the next few weeks, was a wonderful way to end the event. At one point I felt I should nip myself to make sure it was all real and that I wasn’t still dreaming. Hopefully we will be privileged enough to get to see the elephants being offloaded, but I am also very excited about the translocation of the impala and warthogs that are coming soon too..