One of two big tusker elephants being relocated from Tembe Elephant National Park in KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: SUPPLIED
One of two big tusker elephants being relocated from Tembe Elephant National Park in KwaZulu-Natal. Picture: SUPPLIED

The bushveld has a magical quality around dawn. Tinges of orange seep into the receding indigo shades of the night sky. The air gives a final bristling whisper as it braces for the imminent, dull heat of daytime and insects and birds commence a cacophony of vibrations and songs to signal devotion to their daytime gods.

Today, everything is even more special, a sense shared among the 40 or so people gathered in the Tembe Elephant National Park in KwaZulu-Natal. We’re here either to witness or to participate in the relocation of two “big tusker” elephant bulls to a sister reserve, the Eastern Cape’s Addo Elephant National Park, 1,300km away.

Quiet whispers and shuffling smiles betray the nervous sense of expectancy of the momentous mission. Months of preparation have preceded this point, the coming together of national park red tape and protocols, team and resource availability, intricate logistics planning and not inconsiderable funding — much of it from individual donors co-ordinated by the international animal welfare organisation, Network for Animals, as part of its continued commitment to the protection and conservation of elephants across Africa. 

20,000 elephants are slaughtered each year, an effective rate of one every 30 minutes, and more elephants are poached than born
David Gorin

The roots of the initiative are complex, and go back decades. The Tembe and Addo national parks are safe havens, but elephant populations throughout the continent are in crisis. Numbers have plummeted 90% in the past century, and by a third in the past 20 years alone. Rapacious poaching continues despite a near total ban on trade in ivory: 20,000 elephants are slaughtered each year, an effective rate of one every 30 minutes, and more elephants are poached than born. “Unless something changes elephants will become extinct in the next few decades,” Network for Animals chief campaigner David Barritt warns. “Conservation efforts have never been more important.”

Poaching has also delivered a side-effect, slow-drip poison to the species. By targeting elephants with large, prized tusks — axiomatically the younger bulls in their reproductive prime — poachers have triggered a weakening gene pool, worsened by the reduced freedom of herds to migrate freely. The Addo park’s female elephant population is now almost entirely tusk-less, with wildlife researchers reporting similar data in other parts of Africa. “The relocation operation is vital to make our Addo population more robust,” says the park’s manager, Nick de Goede.

A tusk-less elephant is a handicapped elephant. Animal scientists and biologists are only beginning to understand the implications of diminishing numbers of elephants with tusks. An observable effect is upon the behaviour of individuals, such as how and what it can eat, in adaptations to protects its trunk, and in different strategies in mating duels.

But social behaviours are also mutating, as herds must adapt their approach to protecting their young against predators, and may now need to roam further to find food sources no longer readily available to them without the physical means, for example, to strip tough bark, or dig deep for water. The ecosystem and ecological effects of elephants going tusk-less may only just be unravelling.  

A team assisted by a crane and pulleys lever Tembe expertly onto a capture truck. Picture: SUPPLIED
A team assisted by a crane and pulleys lever Tembe expertly onto a capture truck. Picture: SUPPLIED

The team runs an equipment check, and then things move quickly. The specialist veterinarian loads his darting rifle — which seems trifling for the task — and climbs into a disproportionately small helicopter, like a bumblebee on a Goliath mission.  An hour later we circle respectfully, and in marvel, around the prone, sedated mammoth.

Expertly, a crane and pulleys lever him onto a capture truck, which navigates bumpy terrain to the specially designed transport vehicle. Tension builds: the antidote drug must awaken the bull quickly, and he needs to stand up in the transport vehicle so that his six-ton weight doesn’t crush his internal organs.  

Too much time passes. The veterinary team, unable to coax him upright, is discernibly anxious. We can’t decipher their mutters, but the frowns creasing sweat-stained brows are clear, and the tusker has to be offloaded from the vehicle. The cooling pre-rain atmosphere cuts with concern as the team wills him to stand, and prays for him to walk away, unharmed. The day has ended frustratingly, but at least there’s that.

Tomorrow we’ll try again. But time and resources dictate the decision that now only one bull will be relocated.

The majestic giant lies still, a Gulliver bound gently but firmly. His breathing is slow, as deep as is to be expected in expelling 310l of air per minute. A ranger reverently folds an enormous ear to cover his head, intended to shield his eyes from waking fright. Paradoxically, this huge bull looks fragile: tusks upturned and unguarded, creased and bubbled skin exposed, legs and gnarly hooves frozen in gazelle-like pose. Some team members are moved to stroke his lolling trunk, an expression of reflexive tenderness, perhaps, as if to say, “It’s OK.”  

A team member strokes the elephant’s trunk to help ensure it is calm when it awakes. Picture: SUPPLIED
A team member strokes the elephant’s trunk to help ensure it is calm when it awakes. Picture: SUPPLIED

There’s no welcoming party at Addo. But Nick de Goede is beaming when the big tusker is gently prompted and pushed out a gruelling 27 hours later. “This is exactly the genetic augmentation we need,” he says. Standing proud, Addo’s new bull is a regal specimen, more than 3m in height with tusks nearly 1.5m long. The hyenas scatter when he stomps, bringing up a cloud of dust, and summoning a belated welcome from four females.

Watching through binoculars, De Goede’s grin spreads to each side of his quintessential bush-hat. “I think this is going to work.” There’s relief and hope in his voice, and — like a birth ritual — he and his colleagues agree on a name, Tembe, to honour the bull’s origins.

It’s difficult to explain the moist eyes among many sharing this scene. Exhaustion may be part of it, and deliverance from a state of nervousness that something would go wrong on the long, painstaking journey. But it’s also moving to witness what people can do when we nurture and protect, when we act with conscience towards species which share our Earth.

Amid the high drama, there’s a morality tale in this story: the upwelling of emotion springs from the subconscious realisation that humans have betrayed countless other creatures. This huge operation was one tiny act of contrition.