Elephant Capture – an eye-witness account

This section has been provided by WildlifeCampus graduate Dr. Kathy Whittaker (MD).

Dr. Whittaker was fortunate enough to attend an elephant translocation operation, in the Madikwe Game Reserve, and kindly supplied the narrative

On the 10th of October 2001, I was privileged to be able to watch the capture of a breeding herd of elephant for translocation.

Madikwe Game Reserve has an abundance of elephant at the moment. The Parks Board is selling off elephant to new reserves that require them. Whole breeding herds are taken in one go, with a couple of bulls captured at a different time to constitute a complete breeding unit. A new reserve in the Eastern Cape required a herd, so here we were, ready to catch them and put them on the trucks for transportation.

Over the previous few days, the ecologist in conjunction with Park staff had been travelling around the park looking for breeding herds of the right size, and particularly of the right temperament. A breeding herd of 6 adult females with five juveniles and one baby was identified and followed over the day. When he was happy that this was a good group to translocate, a day was set for the capture.

At 6.30 the next morning we were at the appointed meeting place, waiting for the teams to arrive. The early start was necessary as the ambient temperatures were up to 30 ºC [86 ºF] by the middle of the day. The plan was to have the elephants waving goodbye by mid morning. These creatures had a 30 hour, 1000 km drive ahead of them!

[quote_center]These darts were very interesting to see. Each dart has a propellant chamber containing acetic acid in one end and bicarbonate of soda in the other. [/quote_center]

First the vet arrived. He started loading up his dart guns. He used M99 (etorphine) at an estimated dose for each elephant based on body size. Each dart that he prepared was labelled i.e. adult 1, adult 2, calf 1 etc. These darts were very interesting to see. Each dart has a propellant chamber containing acetic acid in one end and bicarbonate of soda in the other. A metal plate with an eccentric weight separates these. When the dart gun is fired, it causes the metal plate to move forward.

Because the weight is unevenly distributed, it rotates slightly and allows the two chemicals to mix. Carbon Dioxide is produced which then shoots the actual dart needle with the etorphine into the animal’s hide.He also made ready all his antidotes to the M99 i.e. M50/50 plus tranquillisers and other medications needed. His plan was to fly above the herd in a helicopter, with an extremely skilled pilot.

The helicopter would “herd” the elephants into a reasonably open area, then he would dart them from a height of about 10 to 15 metres above each elephant.The area aimed for would be high on the buttocks, to enable ease of recovery of the dart, and prevent the elephant from lying on it while unconscious.Then arrived the vehicles – and impressive they were too! Some of these vehicles were equipped with impressive cranes and winches.The vet then took off in the helicopter, and the long train of vehicles followed down the road. Within a few short minutes, the herd had been gently encouraged to move into a fairly open area close to the road, and with some skilful low flying, the elephants had all been darted, and were gently collapsing onto the ground.Then came the action!

The team split up and two at a time, rushed to each elephant. Immediately, their eyes were covered by their ears, and a stick used to keep their trunks from collapsing closed.Each elephant’s pair of legs were bound together with strong strapping.One of the ecologists then took a tissue sample from the ear of each elephant for genetic studies.The dart was recovered from each elephant, as these can be reused.

[quote_center]She was too heavy to be lifted using the cranes, so was winched up onto a special trailer to be taken to the transport vehicles.[/quote_center]

Each elephant was marked with a spray painted number with a corresponding number for her calf, to enable mother and calf to be loaded together.Then each elephant was hoisted with the cranes onto the flatbed recovery vehicles, to be taken off to the main loading and transport vehicles.The matriarch was fitted with a radio collar, to enable future tracking in her new home. She was too heavy to be lifted using the cranes, so was winched up onto a special trailer to be taken to the transport vehicles.By now, the first of the elephants were being loaded into the transport vehicles, mother and calves together.

You will have noticed in earlier pictures of the vehicles, that there was one large transport truck, and a smaller “crate” that could open both sides. This enabled elephants to be loaded into the transport truck at the same time as elephants loaded into the crate.Once the elephants in the loading truck were moved backwards to the front of the truck, then the loading truck reversed up to the crate, and the elephant there was encouraged to move into the loading truck.

This speeded up the process immeasurably, basically being able to load twoelephants at a time.Once each elephant was in the truck, the vet administered an antidote to the immobilization drug, and the doors were hastily shut. Within a few minutes, the elephant was up on her feet.Using a compartmentalized sliding door system, she was encouraged to move to the front of the truck, the sliding door was closed and the back compartment was then opened to start with the next elephant unloading. Systematically, each elephant was loaded and moved.

Last to go in was the female with the smallest calf. It was so gratifying to see the baby suckling within about ten minutes of being loaded.All the elephants were hosed down in the truck, and tranquillisers administered by injection through small openings on the side of the truck.Within two and a half hours from the time the vet took off in the helicopter, the elephants were ready to undertake their journey to their new home.

The speed and efficiency of this game capture team was incredible and extremely impressive.My sincere thanks go to the vet and ecologist plus the capture team for allowing me to witness this amazing event.