I was sitting in the driving seat of the Ford Ranger, seat reclined, feet resting on the frame of my open door, watching the interactions of two lilac breasted rollers in the mimosa trees on the other side of the sandy track, lost in my thoughts. My two sleeping passengers were oblivious to this, as they were to the little duiker that moments before had darted across the track just feet in front of me, disappearing as quickly as it had come. For the moment, it was a waiting game. The two-way radio that lay next to the gearstick had been silent since Ben, Andres and Lyle had left three hours before.
We were in thick bush at the base of a mountain region just outside the South African town of Hoedspruit. Our objective was to find, dart and radio- collar one of three young bull elephants that had broken out of a game reserve several months previously. They had migrated 40 km from their home and had now settled in this region, hiding in thick bush during the day and then feasting on a local farmer’s mango and orange crops at night. Understandably, the farmer felt that the elephants had outstayed their welcome and was keen to have them removed from the farm before they destroyed his livelihood.
Over the previous two months various attempts had been made by helicopter, initially to herd them back towards the reserve, and then, when they had migrated too far, move them away from areas where they would cause destruction, but both had failed. Now they had the taste for oranges and mangos and seemed to have settled into their daily routine, making this area their new home, and only two options remained: to shoot them, or to relocate them. Fortunately, the farmer was keen on the latter if possible, and the charity, Elephants Alive, had stepped in to organise and fund the operation.
The logistics of relocating three bull elephants weighing about 3 tonnes each, from a fairly inaccessible mountainous area, were colossal, so it was decided to break the operation down into two components. Fortunately, the elephants were sticking together, running as a small bachelor herd. So Phase One was to dart and collar one of the three elephants so that their movements could be monitored and they could easily be located for Phase Two, which would be the actual relocation. Phase One would also give time for a proper understanding of what would be required for Phase Two.
These elephants were completely wild, which not only meant that they were easily spooked, but that they were potentially very dangerous, a danger enhanced by the fact that they were only accessible by foot. For these reasons, the plan was for a skeleton team to go in first to locate and dart one, and then the rest of the team would drive as close as possible, bringing in the equipment for the procedure, once the elephant was down and the area secure. This skeleton team consisted of Andres, the tracker, who was key to finding the elephants; Ben, who would dart the elephant; and Lyle, the third member of the team, who, armed with a rifle, would act as a bodyguard, in case the worst happened and one of the elephants charged them.
After an hour of trying to pick up a good lead on the elephants’ movements from the night before, we had got the two trucks as close as we could, and then Andres, Ben and Lyle had left on foot. It had been extraordinary to watch Andres at work. His vision for things that seemed undetectable to the rest of us was incredible. Water droplets on a sandy track 50 meters from a dam told him that they had drunk from there a few hours previously: walking away from the dam with their trunks down, the water drips out of them in a characteristic fashion. Dry sap from broken branches indicated when the branches were broken. Dung could be aged to the nearest few hours, and then footprints and trunk prints indicated direction, time and speed of their movement. It was a completely invisible language to me, but for Andres is was as clear and as easy as reading a book.
The perfect peace and tranquillity was suddenly lost as a whispering voice crackled across the radio. It was Lyle.
“We have located them, 100 metres in front of us. Ben and Andres are making an approach to get close enough to dart. I will send through our GPS location. Stand by.”
“Roger that.” I replied
My two passengers were instantly roused and ready to go. I climbed out of the truck to relay the news to the others. From the GPS coordinates we could plan how best to access them and how close we could get in the vehicles. But there was no guarantee that this would be their final location. The elephants might spook, leading to several more hours of tracking, and even if darted, they could still travel about 2 km in the eight minutes it took for the dart to take effect. We had to be ready to respond instantly.
A further half an hour passed before we heard anything, but then Lyle came back on the radio.
“They have just darted one. He hasn’t fled, but is moving off, Ben and Andres are following him – but come to the location I sent you.” The relief in his voice was evident. It was difficult to speculate what exactly had happened, but it had obviously been a very tense time.
I passed on the information, and then jumped behind the driver’s seat. As we set off I pulled over to let Jess, who was driving the Elephants Alive team vehicle, take the lead. They had been patrolling the area for over a month now and had an intimate knowledge of the arterial network of tracks in this thick maze of bush and rocks – though to call them ‘tracks’ was a generous description. They were more like an area in this thick bush where there was slightly less flora and a few more rocks.
Within moments the truck in front was invisible amid the haze of dust it generated. Jess was not hanging about, and with large boulders partially blocking the route in places, it took all my concentration to navigate these obstacles at speed to stay on her tail.
Ten minutes later we arrived at the GPS location. Lyle was standing by the side of the road, gun at the ready.
“He’s gone down over there.” He pointed off into the thick bush to our right. “Fortunately, he only travelled about 200 meters after he was darted, so he’s just a few of minutes by foot. The two other seem to have fled, but I’ll escort you just in case they decide to come back for their mate.” It was a matter-of-fact comment, but the way he left it hanging conjured images in my mind of what that would be like, and I knew it would be utterly terrifying.
Even the ostensibly simple job of placing a radio collar on an elephant required a fair amount of equipment. For starters, the collar itself was about 6 inches in wide, half an inch thick and 10 feet long. Then there was the counter weight, weighing in at about 15kg, which would be attached to the collar on the underside of the elephant’s neck to stop it slipping when the elephant moved. Not to mention the portable angle grinder, an electric drill, and lengths of metal cable and cable ties that were all essential for making the job as quick and efficient as possible. The danger was extreme – not because the anaesthetic might fail, but because every passing moment that this bull elephants was separated from his fellows increased the risk of their returning to find him.
We headed into the bush lugging the boxes of equipment, with Lyle directing us from the rear, gun at the ready, as he carefully and systematically studied every direction for signs of imminent danger. Fortunately none came, and after five minutes of negotiating trees, bushes, a ditch and thick undergrowth we arrived at the elephant. At about twenty-five years of age, he was a sub adult, but still at such close quarters his size was still formidable. Lying on his right side, trunk fully extended, he had gone down perfectly in a small clearing and was sleeping soundly. With every breath came a booming snore that reverberated through his trunk and filled the otherwise silent surroundings. Ben and Andres were had already covered his upper eye with his large leafy ear to minimise external stimulation, and placed a carefully constructed twig in the end of his trunk to keep it unobstructed and to ease his breathing.
Once we had absorbed the initial beauty and majesty of the animal sleeping in front of us, we set about fixing the collar. First, the metal cable was fed under his neck, using cable ties to secure it to the collar itself, which we were then able to pull back through, under his neck. Next, we measured it for size, ensuring the transmitter sat on the top of his neck, and allowing two-hand breadths gap between the collar and his neck so that it wasn’t too tight. The counterweight was fitted and bolted to the collar, the excess length of the bolts and the collar were removed with the angle grinder, and the job was done. It took no more than ten minutes in total. While Ben, Jess and I had been fixing the collar, the others had been gathering various data on the animal for Elephants Alive’s records and database, our safety all the while guaranteed by Lyle’s careful patrol of the area.
The equipment was finally gathered up and people started heading back to the trucks. Drawing up the reversal drug into a 2ml syringe, Ben handed it to me.
“You can wake him up now.”
“Ok” I replied. I waited till everyone was a safe distance away, then found one of the large ear veins and injected the Naltrexone into it, before heading back in the direction of the truck to join Ben by a tree a 100 meters away, from where we could safely monitor the elephant’s recovery. Within a minute he was attempting to lift his head and gain some purchase on the ground with his feet. He had a few failed attempts at lifting his head, rocking himself onto his chest, but within a further minute he had done so and from there he was on his feet. Happy that he was alive and well, and with the collar secured, we scurried back to the truck, and rapidly withdrew.
Once back at the farm, Jess got out her iPad to show us a map of the area, on which could now be seen the route the elephant had taken since waking up. The tracking collar was working. Phase One was complete.