Elephant translocation is an incredibly complicated process... so we sat down with the expert.
Within the conservation community, Kester Vickery might be the closest thing you get to a celebrity. Whether working with Prince Harry in Malawi or moving hundreds of rhinos in Botswana, the co-founder of African-based company Conservation Solutions has made a name for himself as the guy to go to for animal translocation.
Looking more like a South African Anderson Cooper than a rough and tumble wrangler of dangerous animals, Vickery certainly dresses the part. Wearing a custom army-green jumpsuit and a blue baseball cap emblazoned with his company's logo, you can tell this isn't his first time around the block. And it isn't. He's been at the helm of the translocations of over 1600 elephants and a few thousand rhinos -- not to mention countless other animals.
We caught up with him in July on the eve of Moving Giants' elephant translocation -- and before we sent him to work in the bush, we sat him down and asked him a fair share of questions.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Moving Giants: Why do elephants need to be moved in the first place?
Kester Vickery: The situation in Southern Africa is very different to the rest of Africa. There are four or five countries where the population of elephants is either stable or growing. By definition, most of the wildlife areas in Southern Africa are fenced, so the animals can't migrate by themselves. They can't go from an area where there's no food to an area where there's lots of food. So, fences stop their migration. So, typically, what they do is they destroy the trees, they alter their own habitat really, to the point where they start affecting other species, and these areas can't be managed for a single species. As much as we like elephants and love them, it's not about a single species. We need to look at the ecosystems as a whole.
MG: So why not take down the fences?
KV: Most of the wildlife areas in South Africa are fenced to protect the wildlife that's inside. The fences keep the animals safe.
MG: So what does an elephant translocation actually look like? What is the process?
KV: The capture process itself is a very dynamic one. We don't actually know what to expect. The elephants might be in an area where we can't work with them. They have to be in a fairly accessible area, and by definition, an area where we can take a big truck with a crane to be able to recover the elephants. So, the helicopter will assist with this. We'll find out where the elephants are in the morning, we'll position our ground team and land cruisers and trucks close by, and then the helicopter will help push a cohesive family group as close as possible to the areas where we are hoping to work.
MG: Once you've gotten them into your ideal area, what's next?
KV: The darting process will start. We'll start with the adult matriarch and work our way down to the smallest animal. This process, typically, will take between 5 and 10 minutes. There's a lot going on in the helicopter just selecting the right herd, 'cause the success of the transportation is based entirely on the fact that we have a cohesive group. If you take half a group or part of a group, they're not gonna settle in their new home. We need to make sure that we take an entire, cohesive group from the matriarch right down to the smallest calf. So, the helicopter will then push this cohesive group to an area where we feel we can work, start the darting process. They might be darting one animal every 15 seconds.
MG: You say that you're darting the elephants. What are you darting them with?
KV: A helicopter is a key component in the whole thing. We need to be close. If we were darting from the ground, we would probably only get one animal and the rest would run away. So we use a helicopter to position them in the right area, and then we use a dart gun from the helicopter, which fires one dart at a time with an anti-mobilizing drug. The drugs that we use are highly toxic opioid drugs that are approximately 10,000 times stronger than normal commercial morphine, so it's exceptionally dangerous for humans... So essentially what it does, it just kind of breaks the nervous signals between the muscles and the animals become immobilized. So technically, they can still hear, perhaps see, but they are immobilized. They go down within 5 to 10 minutes after being injected with the dart.
MG: You're darting all of these elephants from little babies to big matriarchs. How do you determine what quantity of the drugs to dart them with?
KV: Before we start the darting process, we do a rough calculation of how many darts are needed. So, if we wanna catch 15 or 20 animals, we will, in fact, have that many darts mixed up beforehand, plus a few spares. So, we have five or six different dosages that we will use. A one-year-old calf will get a different dose to an adult female. So all the darts are clearly marked, so there's a lot happening in the air when the animals are actually darted. You need to select the right animal for the right dart and make sure, for obviously reasons, that a baby doesn't get a dose that an adult matriarch would get, for instance, and vice versa... Uh, luckily we've done this a few times, so we've worked out what sort of doses are needed. So, we will typically go with probably six different doses that we can use on different-sized animals.
MG: And then...?
KV: Our sole focus is to make sure that the safety of the elephants is looked after throughout this whole process. And when you de-mobilize them, they don't have control of everything. So, quite often they fall on their chests. It's a really risky position to be in for an elephant. They can't lie on their chests. Their lungs are not free floating in the chest cavity, so when they lie on their chests, on their sternums, they essentially can't breathe. So we need to, as quickly as possible, be close to position the elephants on their side in a lateral recumbency position, and then they can breathe freely.
MG: Aside from the elephants falling in the wrong position, what else can go wrong?
KV: There's a heap of things. There's so many things that could potentially go wrong. It's a really, really risky, dangerous procedure, so there's so much that we need to keep in mind when we're working. Our ground crew needs to be close to be able to mitigate risk, but at the same time, not too close that we have elephants trying to tip over our land cruisers and endanger our staff and our crew. So it's a very dynamic process and we don't know how it's gonna pan out. We're not sure ... There are lots of variables which will change, and we have to deal with it and make quick decisions when that happens.
MG: Earlier you said that you've done this a few times before. Now that's a bit of an understatement, isn't it?
KV: So we've been catching animals for approximately 20 or just over 20 years, and in that time, in the last 10 or 15 years, we've moved in excess of 1600 elephants and a couple of thousand rhinos.
MG: What other animals do you move in addition to elephants and rhinos?
KV: We move pretty much all different species and all across the continent. We've done projects in about 15 different African countries to date... So, not only will we move elephants and rhino, but we certainly will do antelope and other species too, but our focus at the moment is on elephants and rhinos.
MG: How do the elephants feel during the translocation? Obviously we can’t know, but to the best of your knowledge: are they panicked? Are they upset? Do they feel like they've been abducted by aliens?
KV: When we actually do this translocation process, there is a small element of stress involved when you're pushing the elephants to the area where you wanna work. So, probably for 5 or 10 minutes of their time, they're not sure what's happening... But once the animals are immobilized, then we administer some of the tranquilizing drugs. The stress is minimal. One of the key factors is that we catch and move cohesive family groups. So the fact that a matriarch is with her calf and the rest of the family automatically calms and settles the group. Before they are transported, we'll administer some additional drugs via pole syringe.
MG: And how about upon their arrival? How do they feel then?
KV: Once they're offloaded together in the recipient reserve, you'll see them within 24 hours or 48 hours after being offloaded, and you would swear that those elephants had been there for their whole lives. They really do settle down easily, and as long as they're together and, obviously, there's food and water where they're going to, they settle down extremely quickly, and get on and do what elephants do.
"There's so many things that could potentially go wrong. It's a really, really risky, dangerous procedure, so there's so much that we need to keep in mind when we're working."
MG: Some conservationists are critical of translocation because they see it as "playing God" and they fear the long-term impacts. What would your response be to them as somebody who does this for a living?
KV: Well, we obviously aren't totally sure as to what the long-term impacts are... But we're trying to reverse the impact of poaching and trying to keep protected areas protected. But what is a given in Southern Africa is that protected areas have large populations of elephants. They are populations that are growing, and growing to a point where they are altering and affecting their own habitats and also affecting the other populations of animals that live in these fenced areas. So, to me, I think it's key to protecting the habitat from whence they come. And of course, restocking new areas and setting up new populations of elephants.
MG: What has surprised you in working so extensively with elephants?
KV: The learnings we've been finding through these translocation processes is that elephants are exceptionally adaptable. They adapt to most habitats, they settle quickly, and if we want to reverse the tide and basically increase the populations throughout the continent, the only way we're gonna do it is to be able to move large numbers of elephants from protected areas where their populations are in excess and move them to areas where there's habitat available. That's the only way we're gonna do this. We have limited habitat in South Africa, or in Southern Africa, I should say. And there's a lot of available habitat in the rest of Africa, so provided it's protected, then hopefully we can reverse this tide and actually increase elephant populations throughout the continent, rather than seeing them decline at 40,000 a year.