This week about 20 elephants are being airlifted from Botswana to Angola's Kissama National Park to begin rehabilitating the sanctuary, which was devastated by more than 25 years of civil war. The airlift is the second leg of a project dubbed Operation Noah's Ark, which could turn out to be the largest translocation of animals ever attempted.
Moving the 20 elephants is just a pilot project. If the translocation goes well, the organizers hope to move 300 to 500 more elephants next year.
Operation Noah's Ark is the work of the Kissama Foundation, whose goal is to repopulate the park, which once teemed with wildlife, including more than 4,000 elephants. Today few, if any, elephants remain in the park.
"I've flown over this park many times in the last two years, and other than some springbok and eland, I've never seen anything alive," said Wouter van Hoven, a wildlife management expert at the University of Pretoria in South Africa and president of the Kissama Foundation.
The airlift is being done from Louis Trichardt Air Force Base in South Africa, which can accommodate the Russian cargo planes being used for the project.
The decision to import elephants to Angola was prompted by an urgent need to cull or remove elephants from northern Botswana, which has a population of about 120,000about 70,000 more than the land can sustain.
"Elephants will eat everything there is, pushing over trees to eat the greenery on top when all the other vegetation is gone," said van Hoven. When the land is stripped of grass and leaves, not only the elephants starve but also other animals that feed on the vegetation.
In addition to the problems of growing hunger and overpopulation, elephants confined to national parks often become frustrated and destructive when they are unable to follow their normal migratory routes.
"It is irresponsible not to act on overpopulation," said van Hoven, who is coordinating the effort to move the animals to Angola.
While the elephant population in the eastern part of Botswana is lower than in the north, the number is still too high. "At certain times of year we can be carrying about 700 to 800 elephants. We believe we should only be carrying about 300," said Piete LaRoux, general manager of the Mashatu Game Reserve in eastern Botswana.
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