Pachyderm sleep-over

An entire herd of sleeping elephants, prior to their relocation.

Three Somerset West residents were part of a team that recently assisted with the largest elephant translocation in history – over a two-year period 520 elephants were moved in family groups from the overpopulated Liwonde National Park and Majete Wildlife Reserve in southern Malawi and released in Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve in central Malawi.

Dr Alison Leslie, a senior lecturer and wildlife ecologist at the University of Stellenbosch, and her research team joined the wildlife capture and translocation team in July, and were able to take blood, other samples and numerous measurements from 120 of these elephants.

So where did it all begin? Dr Leslie, from Stellenbosch University’s Department of Conservation Ecology and Entomology, established the Majete Wildlife Research Programme in Malawi in 2013, in collaboration with African Parks, the University of Malawi and the Earthwatch Institute, USA.

African Parks is a conservation NGO which manages national parks and protected areas across the African continent in partnership with the relevant governments.

In 2003, African Parks took over the management of Majete Wildlife Reserve, a then run-down, wildlife- depleted reserve primarily due to poaching, lack of management and inadequate finances. Fences were erected, scouts trained, infrastructure installed (such as roads, staff housing, a lodge, artificial waterholes, etc).

Between 2006 and 2012, a total of 2 554 animals of 14 different species were re-introduced to the reserve, including elephants, rhino, buffalo, lions, leopards and various herbivores. The 7 002km Majete Reserve is now the Big-5 gem of Malawi.

Since 2013, after building a lovely research camp in the reserve, Dr Leslie and her graduate students have been studying the ecology of the various re-introduced species.

This includes: monitoring of game via aerial surveys, road and waterhole counts and satellite tracking; camera trapping in order to determine how the reintroduced animals are utilising their new environment; dung and scat sampling to determine seasonal diets, vegetation mapping and a whole lot more. All the information collected is shared with the park’s management staff in order to support scientifically based management decisions.

Towards the end of 2015, African Parks added two additional parks to their management portfolio, Liwonde National Park and Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve.

Both parks received a thorough face-lift, and by July 2016, Nkhotakota was ready to receive some of its future inhabitants.

The 261 elephants were moved from Liwonde to Nkhotakota, with
1 100 game animals, including eland, zebra, waterbuck, sable and
kudu, primarily translocated from Majete.

Dr Leslie and her team helped to count, and identify the sex and age of all the animals pre translocation.

The translocation had two main objectives: firstly, to restock Nkhotakota and secondly, to relieve pressure from the elephant and herbivore surplus in Majete and the elephant surplus in Liwonde.

Francis Forrer undertook an elephant demographics (population) study in Majete from 2015
to 2016. A total of 217 elephants were initially re-introduced to Majete, and
during her study, Ms Forrer determined that the population was increasing by approximately 14% a year, which is phenomenally high.

Ms Forrer compiled a photographic database of all the known elephants and by the end of 2016, Majete had over 400 elephants.

It was then that the decision was made to translocate 150 of the animals in 2017, before they started impacting on the reserve’s vegetation. And so African Parks’ project which commenced in 2016, continued.

Katharina von Dürckheim, a PhD student supervised by Dr Leslie, jumped at the opportunity of taking samples from 150 elephants for her dissertation on “Olfaction and scent discrimination in African elephants”.

The actual capture was undertaken by two game capture companies from KwaZulu-Natal, Conservation Solutions and Tracey and Du Plessis Game Capture. Entire elephant herds were located and darted from a helicopter and the ground crew then moved in.

Elephants were numbered using spray paint, and then the research team began their sampling.

Blood samples were taken for DNA analysis, buccal, genital and temporin swabs were collected for the odour analysis part of the study, animals were sexed and aged and numerous measurements were taken.

Ms Forrer photographed every member of each herd, and by using various tell-tale characteristics, such as holes in ears, scars, chipped tusks, etc, she was able to determine exactly which elephants were leaving Majete.

Finally, each animal was weighed, loaded into the transport truck, woken up and then driven to Nkhotakota, an 18 002km wilderness paradise 500km from

Thanks to the Stichting Amfortas in the Netherlands, state of the art satellite collars were placed on the matriarchs in 10 of the larger translocated herds.

The research team are currently tracking the hourly movements of each of the herds as they settle into their new environment – a first for translocated elephants and an exciting monitoring effort.

“This is all in all a good news story for African elephants – something we seldom hear.

“It gives us hope and is an incredible example of collaboration for conservation,” says Dr Leslie.

African Parks is responsible for managing 90% of Malawi’s elephant population – so they are currently in good hands.

Dr Leslie and her team will be expanding their research efforts into both Liwonde and Nkhotakota from 2018.

Follow them on Facebook at Majete Wildlife Research Programme, Malawi, East Africa.