The Thukela Biosphere Reserve was established in 1994 by incorporating a number of private game farms to create an area of approximately 85 000 hectares that was big enough to introduce the Big Five. One of their first priorities was to introduce elephants to the newly established reserve. A small group of young elephants ranging from 18 months to 9 years of age were sourced from incomplete elephant culls in the Kruger National Park. During these culling operations entire family groups were not shot; young elephants and calves were spared and sold to private farms and reserves. Subsequently further research has proved that this type of culling operation should not be executed as it has proved to be extremely traumatizing to the surviving animals that develop unnatural behaviour and social patterns.
The relocation and introduction program at the Thukela Biosphere Reserve unfortunately did not take into consideration the trauma that the young elephants had suffered. Instead of holding the animals in a pre-release boma for some time to adjust they were summarily released into the reserve and were left to fend for themselves. The elephants were not tracked, observed or monitored. Unfortunately some of the young animals that could not cope with the trauma of the culling, subsequent captivity, relocation and harsh released died soon after release. They were simply too young and too traumatized to cope without their families love and support.
For almost 10 years the survivors simply “disappeared”, seeking refuge in remote, inaccessible areas of the reserve. The only evidence of their existence was the odd tracks and signs.
In 2004 the ANC government’s land distribution program resulted in the first signs of imminent collapse of the Thukela Biosphere. A number of the properties making up the Biosphere were successfully claimed and agricultural and game farming activities seized leaving the Biosphere to fall apart.
The area in which the elephants established their home range began to shrink and with more and more humans settling into their home range clashes between man and animal became a real problem. The conflict increased rapidly and some locals took it upon themselves to discharge light firearms at the elephant on sight. The elephants were systematically harassed and provoked while desperately trying to avoid human contact.
As the land claimants took possession of their land new boundaries became increasing complex and perimeter fences fell into disrepair. In 2005 the highly stressed elephants broke out of the reserve, not once but twice. Both times they were chased back using helicopters and shotguns. After a break of some years from the trauma they experienced when their families were butchered in the Kruger National Park this small herd was once again subjected to serious trauma that undoubtedly would have them remember the culling of their families.
It was a recipe for disaster in the making and it was not long when the inevitable happened. During a breakout north of the reserve; bordering a tribal area, one of the elephants killed a local man that tried to approach the herd. This has serious repercussions and calls for the elephants to be removed permanently were voiced. The biosphere had, by this time, shrunk to an area of approximately 10,000 hectares.
The elephants however continued to utilize the original land as perimeter fences had at this time become derelict and in some cases non-existent. With pressure mounting the people who had originally introduced the animals now wanted them removed as they were fast becoming a costly liability.
In 2005 a Professional Hunting Outfitter was given the opportunity to hunt one of the large bulls in order for the elephant’s owners to recoup and offset some of the costs they claimed they had to pay out in damages. Pressure however continued to mount from locals and surrounding farmers to destroy all the animals.
On 1 February 2006 the elephant owners formally requested a 2nd trophy hunting permit from the authorities in order to generate enough money to fund the culling of the entire family herd that by now consisted of adults, juveniles and a small calf; barely a month old.
A permit was issued and on the 26th February 2006 a Professional Hunter arrived with his client to shoot another bull. Fortunately he failed miserably to locate the elephants (even with a helicopter) before news of the imminent culling operation was leaked. There was an immediate public outcry. The hunt was called off sending a very frustrated and angry hunter and highly embarrassed outfitter to go their respective ways
Fortunately for the elephants but to the utter frustration and disappointment of the Thukela Elephant Control Group that was tasked with finding the right clients and hunting outfitters and professional hunters to execute both the hunt and subsequent culling operation, destiny was to intervene and save this small group of elephants that have had their fair share of bad luck.
On the day the information on the intended hunt and culling operation was leaked SanWild had a late night conversation with one of the elephants owners that was desperate to save the elephants despite what had been decided previously. Negotiations went on throughout the night, but before daybreak a sales agreement had been concluded and we purchased the remaining elephants for R50 each via an electronic banking transfer.
For obvious reasons, but to the great frustration of the local farmers that insisted that the elephants continued to damage their properties, the pressure mounted. However from the start we explained that our reserves perimeter fences had to be upgraded and the necessary permits to capture and relocate the elephants had to be applied for. Reluctantly the same teams who were to cull the elephants offered their services to assist in the capture that was scheduled for October 2006.
The veterinarian in charge of the capture and relocation was the most experienced elephant relocation expert in the country. His input would prove to be critical to this difficult operation to save a small herd of elephants.
Rain had come early and the bush was very thick. To spot the elephants from the air proved problematic, but eventually after almost 5 hours of flying the elusive group of elephants were spotted on the side of a large hill. The terrain was difficult and almost 15 kilometres away from the planned capture site. Taking chances and gambling with the elephants lives in unsuitable terrain was simply not an option and the team had to adjust their plans.
After much deliberation it was decided to dart and collar 3 adult animals to make locating them in the morning easier. It was hoped that the elephants would move closer to the capture site under cover of darkness.
The team went into action and with a lot of luck one of the bulls named Noddy was darted. Unfortunately he went down in an awkward position and because of the difficult terrain a collar could not be fitted. He was given the anti-dote and walked away groggily. Fortunately soon after the matriarch, Nellie and a bull named Bukisa were darted from the air and collars successfully fitted.
The team had hoped that with 2 radio collars fitted and the telemetry equipment working well, it would be a simple operation to locate the herd the next morning but this was not to be. Under cover of darkness the elephants, instead of moving closer to the capture site moved even further away. It was then decided that most capture equipment was to remain in situ in order to be ready as soon as the elephants returned closer to the capture site.
For a week the elephants refused to move from the area and all attempts to get them close to the capture site failed. It was as if they sensed the humans’ intention and possible danger. Sadly we had no way to communicate with them to let them know that this time around, people really wanted to help them.
A month passed when news were received that the elephants were on the move towards the capture site. The team was reassembled and the equipment checked to ensure that all was in place to execute the capture as quickly and effectively as possible.
The helicopter arrived at first light and the team sprang into action knowing that this day would see a challenging operation in which each and every member of the team would have to think on their feet. Most of were prepared to expect the unexpected and be prepared for anything.
Nervously we watched and waited as the blue and silver helicopter dived and darted along the distant hillside to herd the elephants some 9 kilometres towards the capture site. The animals were fortunately cooperating. The radio crackled alerting the team to their approach and then sure enough they broke into the flat lying open area of the capture site in single file following by the helicopter flying low overhead. Within minutes the 8 elephants had successfully being darted and in no time they started going down within an area of 200 square meters.
While the ground team sprang into action the helicopter went in search of one of the bulls that broke away from the herd. After 2 hours of flying the pressure was on to find this animal as the helicopter started to run out of fuel. In a last ditch attempt to find him the pilot pushed the helicopter along the path the other elephants had taken to the capture site in the hope that the lone bull would be following their scent. Screams of joy could be herd when the pilot alerted the ground team that indeed he had found the bull and that he was battling to get it to capture site. The bull appeared to be in a foul mood charging the helicopter and breaking branches to show his aggression. A veterinarian was urgently needed to dart the animal before he could turn and run into inaccessible terrain again. A second vet was quickly picked up by the helicopter that returned to the bull in minutes where a dart could successfully be administered. By this time most of the other elephants were loaded and transported to a recovery truck where they were given an anti-dote before moved across to the transportation trucks and it was not long before the last bull had also been successfully recovered and loaded.
There were off course some minor problems experienced, but soon all but one of the elephants were on-route to their new home at SanWild, some 21 hours away. The last bull left in one of the recovery trucks where food and water was provided while he waited to be collected and transported to re-join his family.
Ten years have now passed since their arrival in 2006 and the Thukela Elephants that welcomed two new calves to their herd have settled well in their new home.