For my presentation today I want to tell you about how groups of elephants have been moved and settled in new reserves. This is known as translocation and has been carried out in Malawi in Africa in recent years. The reason this is being done is because of overpopulation of elephants in some areas.
Overpopulation is a good problem to have and not one we tend to hear about very often. In Malawi's Majete National Park the elephant population had been wiped out by poachers, who killed the elephants for their ivory. But in 2003, the park was restocked and effective law enforcement was introduced. Since then, not a single elephant has been poached. In this safe environment, the elephant population boomed. Breeding went so well that there were more elephants than the park could support.
This led to a number of problems. Firstly, there was more competition for food, which meant that some elephants were suffering from hunger. As there was a limit to the amount of food in the national park, some elephants began looking further afield. Elephants were routinely knocking down fences around the park, which then had to be repaired at a significant cost.
To solve this problem, the decision was made to move dozens of elephants from Majete National Park to Nkhotakota Wildlife Park, where there were no elephants. But, obviously, attempting to move significant numbers of elephants to a new home 300 kilometres away is quite a challenge.
So how did this translocation process work in practice?
Elephants were moved in groups of between eight and twenty, all belonging to one family. Because relationships are very important to elephants, they all had to be moved at the same time. A team of vets and park rangers flew over the park in helicopters and targeted a group, which were rounded up and directed to a designated open plain.
The vets then used darts to immobilise the elephants – this was a tricky manoeuvre, as they not only had to select the right dose of tranquiliser for different-sized elephants but they had to dart the elephants as they were running around. This also had to be done as quickly as possible so as to minimise the stress caused. As soon as the elephants began to flop onto the ground, the team moved in to take care of them.
To avoid the risk of suffocation, the team had to make sure none of the elephants were lying on their chests because their lungs could be crushed in this position. So all the elephants had to be placed on their sides. One person stayed with each elephant while they waited for the vets to do checks. It was very important to keep an eye on their breathing – if there were fewer than six breaths per minute, the elephant would need urgent medical attention. Collars were fitted to the matriarch in each group so their movements could be tracked in their new home. Measurements were taken of each elephant's tusks – elephants with large tusks would be at greater risk from poachers – and also of their feet. The elephants were then taken to a recovery area before being loaded onto trucks and transported to their new home.
The elephants translocated to Nkhotakota settled in very well and the project has generally been accepted to have been a huge success – and not just for the elephants. Employment prospects have improved enormously, contributing to rising living standards for the whole community. Poaching is no longer an issue, as former poachers are able to find more reliable sources of income. In fact, many of them volunteered to give up their weapons, as they were no longer of any use to them.
More than two dozen elephants have been born at Nkhotakota since relocation. With an area of more than 1,800 square kilometres, there's plenty of space for the elephant population to continue to grow. Their presence is also helping to rebalance Nkhotakota's damaged ecosystem and providing a sustainable conservation model, which could be replicated in other parks. All this has been a big draw for tourism, which contributes five times more than the illegal wildlife trade to GDP, and this is mainly because of the elephants. There's also been a dramatic rise in interest ...