National Geographic News
A photo of an elephant in a truck.

An elephant wakes after being tranquilized outside of Daloa, Ivory Coast.


Angie McPherson

National Geographic

Published January 31, 2014

Originally deemed as an impossible task, staff with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) have successfully transported four wild African forest elephants across the Ivory Coast (Cote D'Ivoire).

The challenging relocation was conducted to relieve growing conflict between the large animals and villagers in Daloa, a town near the elephants' home in Marahoue National Park.

Four of the elephants made it, two of the rare mammals died—a loss that's high but "not surprising" for this type of risky operation, said Joyce Poole, co-founder of the conservation group ElephantVoices. (Related: "Success and Tragedy: IFAW's Project to Relocate Elephants in Cote d'Ivoire.")

A photo of an elephant hiding in the bushes.
An African forest elephant hides in the forests outside of Daloa.

Not only is it hard to move one of the largest animals in the world, it's also difficult to find the notoriously shy African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis), which was recently recognized as a distinct subspecies of African elephant (Loxodonta africana). (See pictures of forest elephants.)

One of the rarest subspecies on the continent, there are an estimated 60,000 to 150,000 African forest elephants left in the wild, according to Cornell University. The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the species as vulnerable.

"Translocating elephants [as a] solution is only used as last resort—the operation is risky and very expensive," said Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, a director at the IFAW.

"Instead of killing these elephants, which are the country's national emblem, they wanted to find a humane solution, and knew we had moved elephants in Malawi before," said Sissler-Bienvenu.

A photo of a person tranquilizing an elephant.
An African forest elephant is shot with a tranquilizer dart from a helicopter.

Elephants vs. Villagers

Deforestation in Marahoue National Park is one reason that conflicts escalated between elephants and humans. According to Sissler-Bienvenu, an estimated 80 percent of the park has been converted to agriculture since the Ivorian Civil War began in 2002.

Without homes or food, the restless and hungry elephants began to roam, becoming dangerous neighbors for the residents of Daloa and other surrounding villages: The animals have stomped three people to death and eaten much of the local crops. (Listen to an interview about living with lions in the Serengeti.)

When villagers threatened to kill the encroaching species, the Ivory Coast government intervened in April 2012, asking the IFAW to help resolve the conflict.

So, to protect the pachyderms, the IFAW translocated four males, tranquilizing them and transporting them in trucks about 310 miles (500 kilometers) from Daloa to Asagny National Park, a federal wildlife reserve that consists of 19,400 hectares (47,938 acres) of forest and wetlands along the Gulf of Guinea.

Route to relocation

Map of elephant journey to Asagny National Park.
A heavy load: The journey from Daloa to Asagny National Park should take five hours in a car—but with an elephant in the trunk it took the team more than ten.

The reserve is protected on three sides by natural borders such as rivers and oceans, which should significantly limit the elephants from wandering and help prevent interaction with humans.

"These elephants are shy and usually try to escape from humans. I don't think they will try to go back to the contact of human beings," said Sissler-Bienvenu.

Shocking Deaths

Of the estimated 12 elephants in the area, a predominantly male herd, the IFAW captured six and successfully translocated four.

One elephant died when it drowned after it was tranquilized and fell into a swamp near Daloa, and the second passed away from a heart attack.

The IFAW staff was shocked and saddened by the deaths, Sissler-Bienvenu said on her blog.

A photo of people using a crane to lift an elephant.
The translocation crew prepares to lift the sleeping elephant onto a truck using a crane.

"Even with all of our protocols that have been scrupulously followed, even having the best translocation professionals in the business, we know that the risk of losing an elephant exists," she wrote.

"If this elephant were to stay in Daloa, if the alternative of translocating the elephant were not an option, he would soon become yet another fallen victim of human-elephant conflict."

Poole, who is also a National Geographic grantee, agreed: "The loss on this operation was very high, but it was probably due to very difficult circumstances." She explained that immobilizing an elephant is extremely difficult, and even more so in thick vegetation.

The IFAW, which has been involved in numerous elephant translocations in southern and eastern Africa, is "known for putting the animal's welfare first, and I'm sure they did everything possible to avoid a situation like this," Poole said.

According to the IFAW, Ivory Coast government officials monitored the death of the elephants and handled the disposal of the bodies.

A photo of an elephant being lifted by a crane.
The sleeping elephant is lifted onto a truck using a crane.

How to Move an Elephant

The translocation project took more than 18 months to plan and ten days to implement.

The first obstacle, and arguably the most challenging, was finding the animals. Villagers provided tips on where to find them, and then the team used a helicopter to locate the animals.

After an elephant was found, it was tranquilized by dart, either from the ground or the helicopter.

It's safer to dart elephants from a helicopter because there's less threat of being chased by a startled elephant. "Which did happen on occasion," said Sissler-Bienvenu. (Also see "Urban Wildlife Corridors Could Save Africa's Free-Roaming Elephants.")

A photo of an elephant being lifted by a crane.
These African forest elephants can weigh up to seven tons.

While the tranquilizer took effect, in about five to ten minutes, the team followed the drowsy elephant. "During this process, we paid particular attention to where he fell asleep. If it was a dense forest area, we had to clear some of the vegetation for the trucks to have access to the elephant," said Sissler-Bienvenu.

Once the area was clear, they used a crane to lift the elephant onto a truck. The truck delivered the elephant to a platform where it could mosey out of its sleepy stupor and into the transport crate.

Then came the easy part. According to Sissler-Bienvenu, when groggy elephants wake up, they naturally walk backward rather than forward. So the team placed the cage behind the animal, using "that natural instinct to our advantage."

The transport crate containing the elephant was then loaded onto a truck for the 10- to 13-hour drive on dirt roads to Asagny National Park.

An aerial photo of an elephant being moved on a truck.
Villagers surround the truck as the elephant is hauled away.

"Emotional Moment"

After the team spent hours capturing and loading the elephants onto trucks, they were excited to release the animals into the wild.

"The release was an emotional moment for us, but a fast one," said Sissler-Bienvenu. After the crates' doors were opened, it took only five minutes for the elephants to stride away into their new terrain. (Also see "Pictures: Rare Black Rhinos Airlifted to Safety.")

"It was a long trip for the elephants. We were usually stuck in the mud for hours at a time. They were very happy to go out," explained Sissler-Bienvenu.

A photo of an elephant being released from a truck.
The elephants only took five minutes to walk out of the transport crate.

The physical transportation of the elephants to Asagny National Park ended here, but their journeys do not. According to Gail A'Brunzo, the IFAW's wildlife-rescue manager, the elephants now have to adjust to their new habitat.

The team placed tracking equipment on the elephants to monitor their behavior over the next few months.

"I personally feel," added Sissler-Bienvenu, "we have completed the impossible."

Follow Angie McPherson on Twitter.

Ed Sillari
Ed Sillari

It's refreshing to see that we continue to find creative ways to save theses special and beautiful animals

Roberta Klein
Roberta Klein

The world is becoming overpopulated with people leaving no more room for wildlife. It is terrible that our beautiful animals have to suffer and many die simply because of man's ignorance.

jacob Cheeran
jacob Cheeran

I have been involved as the Chief Vet in connection with the translocation of two sets of pocketed elephants in Karnataka state of India some 25 years ago. We had kumkies (trained elephants) to help us, There had many a movements of tension and anxiety. The presence of media with videos added to the tension

Elise Headley
Elise Headley

I tear up seeing a drugged animal. Tigers, Bears or Elephants. None of them know what is happening to them. I know it doesn't  harm them, but just imagine it as being involuntarily drugged. That is what happens here. Humans rape these creatures habitats and then drug them so it is ok.. Is it? At least two of the elephants survived, but two die. Elephants are part of a clan and their emotions are affectionate toward each other. I bet the two dead are missed by the elephants more than most people consider. It just made me really sad. At least two are safe now. It is better than nothing I just don't understand human immortality. I agree to leaving the nature and elephants, make solutions for the humans not the animals. They didn't even have anything to do with the problems they got handed. Thats my two cents and one tear. 

Lori Sirianni
Lori Sirianni

Did the government ever consider relocating the humans instead of the elephants? Considering the high risk of death for elephants being translocated, and the unknown factors involved (like whether the captured elephants have family members in the forest who are being left behind, and whether the elephants will be able to adapt to their new location), I don't see this as a win-win solution.  The real problem in Africa's human-elephant conflicts is human overpopulation.  There's just too many people.  And too many people mean large areas of deforestation as the forests are converted to agriculture to feed all those hungry mouths.  What's really needed is human birth control.  Human overpopulation in Africa and all over the world is destroying this planet and its wildlife.  Why does it always have to be the wildlife that pays the price?  Some villages in India have been relocated away from elephant corridors, and African governments should consider doing the same - move the people, not the elephants.  Moving is not life-threatening for humans like it is for elephants.  Africa's elephants are facing extinction in a decade - they're far more vulnerable than people are.  Let the elephants be.

Paul Matich
Paul Matich

more should be done to move threatened species from africa to safer countries where the locals cannot get at them

Taysha Herman
Taysha Herman

Im so glad that there are a few people who would go through all that planning and work for these amazing animals. I feel like the world would be a less brighter place with out beautiful Elephants roaming it.

camilla Le May
camilla Le May

Is it a surprise that they die if you string them up by ropes to their legs with no support for the huge body and head apparently this risks limb fracture and organs being crushed...

Abdul Aziz S. Patel
Abdul Aziz S. Patel

Amazing to see the four wild african forest elephants being transported successfully across the Ivory coast 

Gary Lewin
Gary Lewin

I wish them well in their new habitat, and hope that men will stop disrupting the ecological balance one should find in nature.


Popular Stories

The Future of Food

  • Why Food Matters

    Why Food Matters

    How do we feed nine billion people by 2050, and how do we do so sustainably?

  • Download: Free iPad App

    Download: Free iPad App

    We've made our magazine's best stories about the future of food available in a free iPad app.

See more food news, photos, and videos »