These Giants Are Moving

Moving Giants is trying to save two endangered African ecosystems: one critically needs elephants and one is 200 elephants over capacity.

August 8, 2018

7:18 pm

Welcome to Moving Giants.

In launching our website and communications today, we aim to bring visitors multi-media coverage of elephant- and conservation-oriented news from Southern Africa and around the world.

The name "Moving Giants" refers to an elephant-translocation project that is moving 200 elephants from a South Africa nature reserve (which has more elephants than its ecosystem can handle sustainably) to a national park in Mozambique (which at the beginning of the year had just eight elephants).

In addition to being one of Africa’s most iconic creatures, elephants also play a critical ecosystem role as a keystone species. That means that hundreds of other species — both fauna and flora — depend on elephants for their survival.

And with the African elephant under threat — tens of thousands are killed annually, and their numbers are nosediving — that poses an existential crisis for life on the continent generally.

Family of elephants at the Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve [VLNR] in South Africa.

But translocations offer a potential solution to this elephant emergency and the Moving Giants project is the longest elephant translocation ever attempted.

The Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve [VLNR] — a park in the north of South Africa, close to the Zimbabwe border, and owned by De Beers Group — has a carrying capacity of about 60 elephants. That means its ecosystem can handle 60 elephants. As of July 2018, VLNR had more than 270 elephants.

The number of these massive creatures in the 124 square-mile park has — through no fault of the elephants — imperiled the balance of the overall ecosystem.

After years of searching for a destination to send the excess elephants and relieve the pressure on the park, a willing and eager partner was found in Mozambique.

Mozambique is also unique on the continent, but in a decidedly different way than its western neighbor South Africa. Mozambique suffered a brutal civil war from 1977 to 1992, a conflict that saw the loss of one million lives — many from famine. The country’s once teeming wildlife suffered, as well, as nearly all of the animals in this lush, beautiful country were consumed by warring armies and its food-deprived populace.

Now a recovering Mozambique is ready to "re-wild" its parks, and the Moving Giants campaign — which kicked off by moving elephants from VLNR to Mozambique’s Zinave National Park, a park more than 12 times the size of VLNR — is poised to be a conservation model for the entire continent: Relieve one ecosystem from the numbers of an overpopulated species, and move that species into another ecosystem where it can multiply unfettered.

Of course, moving 200 elephants more than 1,000 miles is no easy task. It requires a cutting-edge technological solution, one that was not possible even two years ago. But advances in both conservation-management theory and technology — particularly in all-terrain vehicles that can more easily aid in recovery of tranquilized animals — have enabled the possibility for this kind of operation. 

As recently as a few years ago, the theory behind elephant translocations was that only young elephants could be easily moved. When translocations were utilized, it was after adult elephants had been culled, and it was the young orphaned elephants that were moved. But because elephants rely so heavily on social cohesion to maintain order — especially in nurturing young calves to behave and respect that order — translocated orphans have proven to be unruly. An example of this occurred in South Africa's Pilanesberg National Park, where the young elephants translocated there became known as "the Delinquents," and became so rowdy that they even started killing rhinos.

The new theory behind translocation is to identify entire breeding herds, and move them together, as a family.

Not only does this allow for the translocated animals to benefit from social cohesion, it also relaxes the elephants in transport by keeping the family units together. And it seems like the right thing to do.

But moving an entire breeding herd as opposed to a few young calves is an extremely complex operation that involves precision planning, a large ground crew (including multiple veterinarians to monitor the elephants’ well-being), and a wide array of vehicles: recovery vehicles, transport trucks, and a helicopter. And those complexities are not without risks to both the elephants and the translocation crew.

Sunset over Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve [VLNR].

In the first phase of the Moving Giants project, which concluded last week, 52 VLNR elephants were identified in seven breeding herds, and 48 successfully made the journey to Zinave. Though four elephants did not survive in the process, the 48 newcomers — including matriarchs, cows, and calves — are expected to settle into their new home in Mozambique and multiply to triple digits in 10 years, creating a legacy for the Moving Giants project that will be measured not in miles traveled, but in the number of elephants that will roam Zinave for generations to come. That legacy is especially critical when compared to the cost of inaction.

Now Moving Giants is attempting to be a win-win-win solution in conservation’s big picture: simultaneously saving two different ecosystems while also pushing the capabilities of this technology to pave a sustainable path forward for Africa, for habitats and, most importantly, for the elephants themselves.