The saga of a runaway elephant bull

It was a harrowing scramble to save man and beast when G5, a seven-ton elephant bull, escaped a Mozambique national park.

By , Correspondent

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    Return trip: G5, a wayward bull elephant, was sedated and all 14,000 pounds of him lifted by crane onto a flatbed to return to Gorongosa National Park. The leaves would be used to cool him on the trip.
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Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique

The elephant arrived in September with an entourage. There were veterinarians, rangers, transport trucks, and even a film crew to document the historical moment – the reintroduction of big tuskers to what was once the most animal-rich spot in Africa, Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park.

After his 700-mile truck journey from South Africa, which had donated the animal and five others, the elephant was immobilized and fitted with a satellite collar by Gorongosa’s head of conservation, Carlos Lopes Pereira. The collar’s frequency, and hence the bull’s name, was G5.

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Soon, G5 was hoisting his seven tons back onto his massive feet and walking into the bush.
G5 mingled with Gorongosa’s small herd of tuskless elephants for a few days, grazing his way through the palm and thorn trees.

But two weeks later, something happened. Maybe he was distressed by the fires – set by poachers – that swept through part of the park after he arrived. Or maybe an ornery matriarch chased him away. When Mr. Pereira checked G5’s satellite feed, he realized the bull was gone – he’d left the park, and seemed to be heading back to South Africa, a route filled with roads, railway lines, and tens of thousands of people. His life, and those of villagers in his path, were in danger.

“This,” Pereira said, “could be a disaster.”

• • •

In the 1960s, this park was a top tourist destination. Astronauts and movie stars vacationed here; the park boasted more lions than any other reserve of its size. There were thousands of elephants with massive tusks that measured as much as 8 feet and weighing 100 pounds. But not long after Mozambique won independence from Portugal in 1975, it fell into civil war. Gorongosa was at the center of the conflict, and soldiers from both sides slaughtered the animals for food and ivory.

About 300 elephants remain, almost all tuskless – a sort of natural selection by poaching. (In a normal population, 7 percent have no tusks.) Wildlife experts say the tuskless elephants can be more aggressive than their tusked counterparts. So when the South African park system offered to donate big-tusked elephants, Pereira saw it as an opportunity to diversify the local gene pool.

G5 was just what he wanted: More than 40 years old, 10-1/2 feet tall at his shoulders, ankles three feet around. The visible part of G5’s tusks measured four feet. (The part under the skin almost doubles the length.) And he was unarguably mellow – contentedly munching on thorn trees as tourists snapped photos. Young elephants learn behavior from their elders. So, park officials thought, G5 might calm resident herds.

But now, instead of symbolizing the resurgence of Gorongosa, G5 represented one of the toughest questions in conservation today: whether it is possible to manage the relationship between wild animals and the people who live in their traditional habitats, or whether animals will only survive if kept in fenced, closed parks.

• • •

Pereira held the satellite antenna by the open helicopter door the day after he realized G5 was missing, hoping to get a signal from the elephant’s collar. Beneath him, green palms dotted scorched, black earth.

Though warned not to, many people illegally clear brush in the park by fire, which helps poachers steer clear of lions and herd other animals into snares. These fires also burn the elephants’ food. Though villagers often complain about elephants leaving the unfenced park and eating their crops, there is a clear correlation between park fires and elephant movement.

“What do you expect the elephants to do? They need to eat,” explained Pereira.

For a newbie like G5, he said, fires can be terrifying. So as Pereira flew farther and farther away from the park’s boundaries, he was increasingly nervous. Elephants can cover up to 50 miles in a day if they’re really moving.

After 45 minutes in the air, Pereira returned to Gorongosa to wait for the next daily GPS transmission from G5’s collar. The next morning, he learned that G5 was making his way through small vegetable fields near Nhamatanda, a two-hour drive from the park. And the park director of human development, Mateus Mutemba, started getting calls from the irate Nhamatanda police chief. “He is very upset. He says that he is going to shoot it, that it is a threat,” Mr. Mutemba said.

Elephants are generally gentle creatures, but if threatened, they can easily crush a human.
The park contacted higher-level police officials who ordered the chief to hold his fire.

Meanwhile, the animal had now crossed a main road and railway line and was lingering at a Nhamatanda cattle farm. Pereira sent his best rangers there to form a barrier around the elephant. For three days, they kept villagers away, and kept the elephant from moving on.

But Pereira knew he had little time. So he called two of his associates in the animal translocation field – Kester Vickery of South Africa’s Specialist Game Services and pilot Barney O’Hara. The two have transported everything from rhinos to buffaloes to whole elephant herds all across southern Africa. By that weekend – seven days since G5 escaped – the two were at Gorongosa Park, and Mr. Vickery had sent one of his large animal relocation trucks north from the Mozambican capital of Maputo, 700 miles from Nhamatanda.

Usually, they’d have more equipment to move an elephant. But they couldn’t afford to wait. As it was, there had been problems. At first, police in Maputo stopped Vickery’s truck until others in the government finally persuaded the officers to let it go. Then the driver found four punctured tires. Eventually it arrived, and the wildlife experts made a plan to transport G5.

• • •

Midmorning of the 10th day of G5’s wandering, Pereira sat in the back seat of O’Hara’s helicopter with his dart gun ready. As the helicopter dipped toward the treeline, he had a clear shot and fired a powerful anesthetic into G5’s body.

The chopper landed near the staggering elephant, and Vickery moved the flatbed truck in. The rest of the team tied the elephant to the truck’s massive crane, lifting the animal onto the flatbed. The rangers poured water on his skin, fanned him, and made sure his trunk did not get blocked. They chopped down bushes to cover him and keep him cool for the four-hour drive.

Villagers cheered as the elephant lashed to the flatbed rolled through Nhamatanda.
“We have been very, very scared,” said Nhamatanda resident Antonio Olvera. “We would see the footprints in the morning – we didn’t sleep.”

The rangers waved to the villagers, and everyone seemed joyous.
But about an hour north, Vickery noticed that G5 was struggling to breathe. He flagged the truck to stop, and rushed to treat the animal. But within moments, the elephant had stopped breathing.

A ranger tried to pour water on G5, but then stood still, realizing the futility. The rangers looked at the body quietly, and the other park employees stood silently on the asphalt as if stunned. One put his hand to his heart.

“Now,” said Pereira, jaw clenched, “you are watching a funeral.”

• • •

Lights blinking, the vehicles drove slowly back to the park, and then along dirt road deep into the bush. Rangers started the grim task of removing the bull’s tusks – necessary to prevent ivory seekers from coming into the park. A bulldozer dug a deep hole to bury G5 – because of the anesthetic his meat was dangerous for animals or people who might eat it.
Pereira, Vickery, and O’Hara sat in the shade, quiet. “If you move a hundred elephants, you maybe lose one,” Vickery said. “We knew the risks ... our only alternative was to shoot it.”

As it was, they had demonstrated to the villagers that the park would do everything it could to protect people and animals, said Mutemba. “The people saw that we were willing to make an investment in removing the elephant.... It’s just very sad that he didn’t make it.”

When G5 was finally covered with earth, rangers lined up by the grave, and with an old, barely working rifle, fired two shots into the air.

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