In my early travels in Africa, I had the exciting and unpredictable experience of helping conservationists transport one of the largest elephants in Zimbabwe.
I was working in the Save Valley Conservancy, situated in the lowlands in the south east of Africa known as the Lowveld. It was 1992, and unfortunately extreme weather meant I didn’t get the best first impression of Zimbabwe. The rains had not come, people were starving and animals were dying. The earth was sun baked to such extremes that water holes had become dust bowls and river crossings were no longer needed. And the nearby swimming pool was empty as the local wildlife has drunk it bone dry. It was a time of extremes.
Gonerezhou National Park
And where I was based was not the worst hit – further south in Gonerezhou National Park, the game there were suffering, horrifically. Gonerezhou was famous for teeming wildlife, in particular the massive herds of elephants inhabiting the area. It is a beautiful part of the country and exceptionally wild in some places, truly the essence of Africa. But in 1992, it was more accurately described as an elephant grave yard. Gonerezhou was littered with the skulls of elephant, it was a place of death and the stench was indescribable.
Elephants in Zimbabwe needed saving, so action needed to be taken. So the members of the Save Valley Conservancy came up with this plan of translocating some of the elephants out of Gonerezhou and into their reserve. In the Conservancy, there were alternative sources of water and the local game were being fed to keep them alive. If some of the elephants could be saved in the same manner, then it was worth a try.
Translocating the largest elephant in Zimbabwe
So on an early African morning, there was a group of us waiting in the bush for the arrival of the largest elephant in Zimbabwe. We had heard that an enormous bull had been captured, put into a crate, loaded onto a truck and was being driven up to the reserve by road. This was an incredible feat, as at the time as it was the largest animal ever to be moved in Zimbabwe. It could potentially be the beginning of a mass move of elephants and other game out of drought stricken areas. So we were rather anxious as to how the elephant would react to its journey and to its new surroundings.
It is advisable to put a newly translocated animal into a boma (holding pen) for a while, to allow it to get used to its new surroundings and become acclimatised to the different sounds and smells. However, with such a large animal, this was not going to feasible. The plan was to open the crate and allow the elephant to walk out into the Conservancy. Here there were little distractions and the vegetation was similar to that of its previous home. So there we all were, waiting for the newest addition to the reserve.
He arrived in the mid morning, and the crate was positioned so that the entrance pointed into the bush. There were a number of trucks and cars parked at a respectable distance away, we all waited with bated breath. The door was opened… and nothing happened. He just stood there, watching and waiting for I do not know what. He was not coming out, that was one thing for sure. Half an hour passed and nothing had happened. A few people had left but I still watched with anticipation to see the first elephant released into the Save Valley Conservancy. Still he did not budge.
And then suddenly, with no warning at all, there was a trumpet and 4 tonne of elephant charged out of the crate. In the process he left a wake of destruction in the form of broken trees and one dented truck. And then there was silence. That was it. One elephant introduced into Save Valley Conservancy. Rather an anti-climax really.
But that is the excitement of being in the African bush, the unpredictability of life. In the blink of an eye it had all happened and there was now a bull rampaging around my stomping ground. I would have to be a bit warier when out in the bush now. It made my life a bit more exciting in the following months as we met on a number of occasions!