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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 / November 20, 2008

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.

Stephanie Hanes


Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique

Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique

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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.

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.