When elephants fly - a new migration

To help cull its population, South Africa will fly 16 elephants to Angola this weekend.

A South African wildlife-management professor, Wouter van Hoven, is wowing conservationists and captivating the public here with his larger-than-life plan to capture, crate, and airfreight 16 portly pachyderms to Angola this weekend.

Migrating the modern way, two complete families of elephants will be traveling to Quicama National Park, about 35 miles south of the Angolan capital, Luanda. (No word on whether peanuts will be served on the flight).

Transplanting young South African elephants to foreign parks and zoos has been done before. But never on this scale. This will be the first time entire families have made such a move. And conservationists laud the strategy.

"We support this approach in principle because we've always claimed that translocating elephants is an alternative to culling them when their numbers become too many," says Jason Bell of the South African office of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).

The air shipment seems to offer a win-win situation for all concerned.

The elephants were donated by South Africa's North West province parks board, which has too many elephants in its Madikwe reserve to maintain the park's ecological balance. The usual practice is to cull, or kill, surplus animals.

Van Hoven's imaginative use of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals approach - finding animals new homes - means there's now enough space at Madikwe for the elephants left behind.

And there's certainly plenty of room for the 16 elephants moving to Angola. Decades of war and poaching have left very few indigenous tuskers in the country.

Angola, meanwhile, has the beginnings of a population of the "Big 5" African game animals (elephant, lion, rhinoceros, water buffalo, and leopard) with which it hopes to kick-start tourist interest in its national parks.

Van Hoven says adventure tourists should realize the war in Angola "is over." However, the Kissama elephant translocation effort is not just about building tourism in a country whose current claim to fame is its landmine problem: It's also about rebuilding the war-depressed national psyche.

"We plan to take children from the squatter areas of Luanda next month to see the elephants," says van Hoven. "Mentally, Angolans are so ready for something nice to happen in their country, something good. People have been waiting for these animals for five years. They're very inspired by this."

This weekend's shipment is expected to be the first of several, with a total of 30 elephants promised to Angola. South Africa has an estimated 12,000 elephants.

A few years ago, van Hoven helped the Angolans establish the Kissama Foundation to build and maintain animal populations in the parks. Kissama does not depend on unreliable government funds, but instead has tapped the international oil companies exploiting Angola's vast offshore reserves.

About $2 million was raised for the venture, which includes an electrified fence around 40,000 acres of parkland in which the elephants will be contained; radio collars for the elephants; and several dozen well-paid rangers to prevent poaching.

At first, some conservationists were skeptical of the plan. "Wouter van Hoven has managed to convince me the park is secure in terms of preventing poaching. Also, because the area south of Luanda hasn't been a war zone, he has assured me there isn't a landmine problem," says Mr. Bell at the IFAW. Bell is also pleased that van Hoven is choosing complete family groups of elephants for translocation. "Elephants are very family-oriented, and it is cruel to break up the families as has happened in the past," says Bell.

So how do you capture, crate, and airfreight 16 elephants in one Russian Ilyushin cargo plane?

First, Kissama bought two 20-by-20-foot shipping containers, one for each elephant family. Each container is divided into four partial cages: the bars extend from the ceiling halfway down to the floor. The idea is to keep the upper bodies of the big adults in tight quarters, but permit the juveniles to move around below and nurse.

Today, van Hoven's team plans to fly by helicopter over the Madikwe savannah and identify two family groups. Each family member is to be knocked out using tranquilizer darts that act just long enough to get the animals hydraulically lifted into the cages. Well before the "fasten your seatbelts" sign comes on the elephants should be on their feet in the crates, facing the South African paparazzi. The plane is capable of carrying more than twice the 18 tons of elephant it will haul across African skies on Saturday.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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