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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.

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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.

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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.