Moving Giants is in a multi-year process of moving 200 elephants to a better and safer home. But to move 200 elephants, you have to capture them.
Elephants are moved in family groups to give them the best possible shot at thriving in a new home. When translocation was in its infancy, the belief was that full-grown elephants were too large to transport. Instead parks would cull (another word for kill) the adults and move the baby elephants solo. What folks didn’t understand then was that the matriarchal structure of elephant families is essential for their survival. Adult male elephants are the only ones that spend most of their lives away from the herd and this is only after being trained on how to behave and survive by its family. Without a family structure to anchor them, the translocated baby elephants ran rampant and became destructive as they grew out of their infancy.
Fast-forward thirty odd years and the translocation landscape is infinitely improved – with the benefit of experience and the willingness to iterate on the process, Vickery and his team are widely considered to be the best in the business.
While the process is much better than it was, that doesn’t make translocation any easier and it certainly doesn’t lower the stakes. Moving baby elephants might not have been the best for the elephants long term but it was certainly easier to capture and transport them. Now, success depends on being able to move entire herds together – from the matriarch all the way down to the newest born in the family. Being transported together takes some of the stress off the animals during the ride – at least they know that wherever they’re going, they’re going together.
“As soon as the mother elephant wakes up from the sedative dart, the first thing that she does is look for her babies. That’s not the case with other species.” Vickery tells Moving Giants. “For elephants, family is everything, so moving them together keeps them calmer on the road.”
But how exactly do they get them on the road to begin with?
It begins early in the morning with the first pings of a satellite collar – each of the elephant matriarchs are collared. The satellite information is two-hours delayed so, while it won’t help the team pinpoint exactly where the elephants are at that moment, it will give them a sense of where to start their search. Just as importantly, understanding where the elephants are located helps the translocation team choose which herd is in the best location for a capture.
Deciding which herd goes and which herd stays is a last-minute decision and it is influenced by logistical limitations. If the elephants were in an area with lots of trees, for example, that would make it near impossible for the transport vehicles to get close enough to the tranquilized elephants to lift them in the truck.
After the capture team has the satellite data, they rank the herds in order of most likely and least likely to capture. They’ll start with the highest likelihood her first.
But first, you have to wait for the sun to come up.
“You can’t catch elephants if you can’t see them,” says Con de Jager, the helicopter pilot/elephant herder. (But more on him later.)
This is when the veterinary team begins assembling and cueing up the darts. The tranquilizer is incredibly potent, one drop would render a human dead within a minute. That means that loading the darts is an incredibly slow and cautious process.
“We prep three different strengths of dart,” Dr. Andre Uys, the lead vet on the capture team, tells me. “You’re not going to shoot a matriarch with the same amount as a baby.” The three strengths of darts can then be combined or improvised upon once the capture begins.
Dr. Uys will fly with Jager in the helicopter which will serve three purposes: finding the elephants, using the helicopter to herd the elephant out into an open space and then shoot the tranquilizers from the helicopter – hitting each member of the herd in quick succession.
“If you want to keep families together, you only have about 3 seconds between each shot,” according to Dr. Uys.
Of course, the pilot has to take all of this into account while making sure not to crash the helicopter – which is much harder than it sounds.
In order to get all of this done, Con de Jager has to fly the helicopter in a way that is known in aviation as Dead Man’s Curve.
The simplest way to explain this phenomenon is that in helicopter flight, there is a necessary height to velocity ratio.
Pilots don’t like flying low. Period. But they especially don’t like flying low if they’re moving fast. An elephant capture necessitates a low-flying and often fast-moving helicopter which is something most pilots won’t do – only the absolute best can pull it off. Con de Jager’s precision and his expert skill level are a boon for this translocation but even the most expert flying can’t entirely eliminate the risk.
There are many risks to the elephants during this process. A subcutaneous shot, for example, can result in an elephant that can best be described mood-wise as drunk and angry. It is also perilously important that elephants fall on their sides and not on their backs -- because of the way elephants lungs work, spending too much time on its back will result in death by asphyxiation. Of course, if an elephant falls on its back, it’s not a simple effort to get him on his side.
Cue: the ground team.
It can take 8+ grown men to roll an elephant off of its back.
Assuming the elephants land on their sides, a transport truck with a removable top moves in quickly and a crane lifts the elephants into the now topless container truck.
And yet the capture is only one piece of the puzzle. This is the longest translocation ever attempted and there are international borders in the way. To find out what happens next, tune in next week for a new episode of Moving Giants.