On The Ground For An Elephant Translocation

Before you can move elephants to a better and safer home, you have to capture them first.

December 12, 2018

4:56 pm

Day Before Capture, 3pm

I’m sitting on a stump behind a camera at De Beers Group's Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve in South Africa. With me are two camera operators, a sound operator, and three armed men. We’re filming next to a watering hole to get the best light — the men with guns are there in case they need to scare off any thirsty lions who think a documentary producer looks like an especially delectable afternoon snack.

When conducting interviews, my biggest concern is usually whether or not my questions will illicit compelling responses. In other words, I’m new to wild lions as an obstacle.

The man on the other side of the camera is not. His name is Kester Vickery and he is considered the best animal translocationist in the world. He’s more worried about the fly buzzing around his neck than anything else. This is not his first time at the watering hole.

Tomorrow, we will begin one of the longest translocations in history. Moving a herd of more than 20 elephants — the first of what will be 200 — from South Africa to neighboring Mozambique.

“So what could go wrong?” I ask Vickery, trying to keep my eyes firmly on my interview subject and ignore the armed men.

“Everything,” Vickery replies without missing a beat. “Everything and anything could go wrong.”

I’m certain he’s being hyperbolic, but it will definitely make for a good soundbite so I press on with the line of questioning.

“Well, what are some of the things that could go wrong? If you had to make a list, what would be on it?” I ask.

“If I had to sit down and make a list of everything that could go wrong, I would never get up again.” He replies, sparing a dark laugh.

Vickery impresses upon me the fact that we’re working with wild animals in wild terrain — and the animals we’re attempting to capture and relocate happen to be the largest land mammals on earth. (The average female adult elephant weighs in at 6,600 pounds.)

Still, Vickery has moved thousands of elephants in his stories career. His company, Conservation Solutions, isn’t just "pioneering" in this field, they are the pioneers.

Night Before Capture, 7pm

Kester gathers all 30 people staying in the camp and begins a multi-hour orientation.

He starts by walking us through the basics.

At first light, we’ll determine which herds are best positioned for capture. Then Con de Jager, Vickery’s helicopter-pilot and colleague (who just happens to have the best possible name for a pilot) will lift off in the helicopter accompanied by a vet, a tranquilizer gun, and a whole lot of tranquilizer darts of varying potency. They have to shoot the herd in quick succession in order to capture entire families — moving the herd together gives the elephants their best chance to thrive in their new home. From there, the tranquilized elephants will be individually hoisted by crane into a truck with a removable top. They won’t wake up until they’re on the road to their new digs — about 1,000 miles of winding dirt roads away.

There are what seem like 7,000 other details and contingency plans that we are briefed on — I start recording the whole thing in the voice-memos app on my phone to review later. This isn’t an act of diligence, it’s an act of necessity. My mind keeps wandering down a rabbit hole of the absolute absurdity of what we’ve all come here to do.

“Do you think the elephants will walk out to their new home in Mozambique and go up to some other elephants there and be like, ‘Guys we were totally just abducted by aliens?” I had asked Vickery earlier in the day.

He had laughed.

It had only partially been a joke.

Day of Capture, 4am

I wake up at an ungodly hour to turn on the hot water for coffee — an errant assignment I’d accepted the evening before with full knowledge that I probably would’ve been wide awake by this time anyway. I wasn’t the only one.

Vickery was sitting at a long table with his colleague Dr. Andre Uys, the vet who would lead the capture operation. They were preparing the tranquilizer darts — filling them up with medication so powerful that the tiniest drop would put me in a respiratory depression and leave me dead within a minute. The gentlemen are kind enough to remind me of this fact again. I choose to eat my wheatbix at the furthest away table. Just to be safe.

Day of Capture, 6:37am

The sun is finally up and the helicopter begins to whirl just outside the lodge. The ground crew and the film crew are moving outside quickly to jump into one of the assembled open-air land cruisers. It’s a cold morning and I’m huddled in with some of the video team and a whole lot of camera equipment. The car moves quickly though the cold morning bush. A whole family of giraffes stands right beside the road, their backs facing a striking savanna sunrise and their eyes on us. On any other day, we would’ve slammed on the breaks and gotten as much footage as we could. On any other day, this would’ve been the prized picture. Today is not any other day.

Day of Capture, 7:43am

We had hurried up to wait. It’s not something we are unprepared for.

“Hours of boredom interrupted by seconds of panic.” This is how Kester Vickery had described the capture process.

We are waiting for the helicopters to radio down once a herd has successfully been tranquilized. From there, they can give us the herds' general coordinates and we’ll be off. Every couple of minutes, the relative silence is interrupted by the radio going off and several sentences being exchanged on either side. Unfortunately for me, the sentences are spoken in Afrikaans, so I remain completely unaware of the happenings from the sky. Instead, I squat quietly behind a bush because I’m very hungry but I am also not generous enough to share the stash of almonds I have conveniently hidden in one of the camera cases.

Day of Capture, 9:15am

When word comes, the transition is swift and we all kick it into high gear. Jumping back into vehicles that head off in slightly different directions. The elephants don’t fall the moment that they’re hit with the tranquilizer darts, so the now "mostly" sleeping elephants are scattered away from each other at some distance.  

We’re quickly on foot and I spot the giant gray mass against the cracked red ground. She’s the matriarch, I’m told somewhere in the midst of all of the commotion. The film crew gets footage before running off toward the next.

I decide to stay behind. In spite of the tranquilizers, this particular elephant starts sleepily rolling up her trunk. Somebody on the ground team unravels her trunk but as soon as he’s finished, she rolls it up again. I stand and watch and the ground team member catches my eye. “You stay here and make sure she doesn’t do that. We have to make sure she can breathe. Very important.” With that, he runs off to attend to another immediate need. (Side note: It was most likely completely unimportant and instead a very clever way to make sure I stayed the hell out of the way.) Either way, I take on this task with unbounding determination. I spend the next 15 minutes doing what I can only describe as arm wrestling with a sleeping giant. She wants her trunk curled. My job is to uncurl it. Sufficed to say, she and I are at an impasse.

Day of Capture, 9:31am

A crane (not the bird) is heading in the direction of me and my trunk-furling friend. Out of the bush come two men collecting the elephants' four pillar-like legs and tying her at the feet for her transport into the truck. Watching them tie the knots is mesmerizing, as it’s impossible for me to imagine any amount of rope being capable of lifting an elephant in the air. As one of the ground-crew members loops the knot over a gigantic metal hook that’s attached to the crane, I’m told to step back. And step back I do. Quickly. The rope gets taut as the hook lifts and then, quite suddenly, my quite-recently-horizontal friend is being lifted from the ground.

Watching a 6,600-pound elephant be hoisted by a crane into the bright blue sky confounds the imagination. It’s an absolutely absurd thing for the brain to have to process. “I’m watching an elephant fly.” I say aloud, to nobody in particular.

But nobody is responding because they are concentrating on their important work. The elephant has been safely loaded into the truck and it’s time for the crane to roll onto the next one. Everyone is already on to their next task.

Day of Capture, 1pm

The process had repeated itself three more times before we had captured all of the elephants — likely one herd made up of several different families. The elephants will be on the road soon. We will all be on the road soon. The elephants have to get to their new home and as Mr. Vickery would remind me, there are still thousands of things that can go wrong on the road. I also have to get to the elephants' new home, only I have to beat them there.

The task has only just begun.

But I do give myself several moments of reflection. This has, after all, been one of the more preposterous days of my life.

But one thing does occur to me: humans, throughout history, have gone to great and absurd lengths to destroy the natural world. What an absolute privilege to be able to watch humans go to great and absurd lengths to try and save it.

This feature is a companion piece to Episode 3 of our "Moving Giants" video series, which you can watch below. To see previous episodes in the series, please visit our video hub here.