Why are wildlife officials in Malawi relocating hundreds of elephants?

Malawi is using an unconventional method to relocate 500 elephants in the next two months.

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
An elephant is lifted by a crane in an upside down position in Lilongwe, Malawi, in the first step of an assisted migration of 500 of the threatened species, July 12.

The African nation of Malawi is taking an unconventional approach to its animal conservation. In one of the largest scale wildlife relocation projects, 500 of elephants are being relocated to a safer habitat in Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve.

But contrary to what circuses might have you believe, these animals will not form an orderly line and follow a girl with a baton out of one habitat and into a new one, so conservationists had to get creative.

A helicopter homes in over a herd of unsuspecting elephants. From inside, a tranquilizing dart shoots out and hits an elephant in the rear. Once each has been temporarily immobilized, the multi-ton elephants are hung, one by one, from their ankles, hoisted into the air by an industrial crane, and loaded into a truck that will transport it to their new home.

These measures may seem extreme, but in the last fifty years, the elephant population has lost tens of thousands of members to poachers in the ivory trade, while urbanization and development encroaches on habitat of those that remain. In an effort to prevent the prized safari animal from going extinct, wildlife conservation organizations have turned to manmade animal migration to get elephants and other endangered species to protected areas.

"This is very much the way that we'll have to manage things in the future," Craig Reid, manager of Malawi's Liwonde National Park, which is run by African Parks, a nonprofit group based in Johannesburg, told the Associated Press. Mr. Reid described Liwonde as "an ecological island in a sea of humanity."

The first priority is the elephant’s safety.

Immediately after an elephant is tranquilized, a conservationist will cover the animal’s eyes with their ears to block out the sun, and prop open the tip of their trunk to ensure that it has no difficulty breathing.

This is hardly the most unconventional method of elephant transportation. Earlier this year, in a move that sparked a great deal of controversy in the wildlife community, Swaziland sent 18 elephants via Boeing 747 to an American zoo as part of an effort to thin its elephant population during a severe drought in order to preserve water and food resource for its white rhino population.

Over the years, conservationists have worked make the transportation process as quick and efficient as possible to minimize the effect that being sedated has on the animals. Conservationists also make an effort to ensure that the new habitat is similar to the old one, so as not to shock the animal unnecessarily.

One of the main concerns that remains surrounding relocation as a conservation tactic is disease transfer, but Africa already has several success stories including species relocation to Mozambique's Gorongosa National Park and South Africa's Addo Elephant National Park, according to George Wittemyer, an African elephant expert and associate professor at Colorado State University.

"I see it as something that's here to stay, for better or worse," Professor Wittemyer told the Associated Press.

In the next two months, Africa Parks will move 500 elephants from Liwonde and Majete parks to Nkhotakota Wildlife Preserve, which has had nearly its entire elephant population wiped out by poachers. African Parks manages all three reserves and will move another 500 Malawian elephants next year with funding help from The Dutch Postcode Lottery and the Wyss Foundation.

Bas Huijbregts, an African species expert fro the World Wildlife Foundation conservation group told AP that Malawi's relocation project is "a win-win for elephants and people" and that this practice "will likely become the new norm in many places in Africa.”

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