Elephants Airlifted to Repopulate War-Torn Park in Angola

Bijal P. Trivedi
for NationalGeographic Today
September 4, 2001
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.

Population Control

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 120,000—about 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.

The solution: "Kissama National Park needs elephants and we've got a surplus," said LaRoux. The Botswana department of wildlife has agreed to donate 300 elephants to Angola.

On Monday a team led by van Hoven captured eight elephants from Mashatu in Botswana. In the early morning, as the elephants made their daily trek down to the river, van Hoven circled the plains in a helicopter looking for small families of animals that could be transferred together.

Getting the animals is no easy task. After choosing two families of elephants, a team takes to the skies in another helicopter to shoot the elephants with tranquilizer darts. "It's a little like cowboys on their horses circling their herd," said van Hoven.

"I have been watching to see that these animals are well treated, and I'm pleased and impressed by the entire capture operation," said Paul Irwin, president of the Humane Society of the United States. "I don't think there is a more humane way to transfer these animals," he added. The Humane Society is the major sponsor of the Kissama Foundation.

Once the tranquilizers take effect, the ground crews take blood and hair samples for analysis, then use cranes to load the animals onto trucks that take them to the air force base. The elephants are moved to containers on a Russian Ilyushin cargo plane and flown to Angola.

"We also outfit some of the large females with radio transmitters so they can be monitored after reaching Kissama," said Kobus du Toit, the head veterinarian and a veteran of other wildlife transfer operations.

By Friday, the team hopes to have moved 20 elephants, 12 zebras, 10 wildebeests, 12 ostriches, and a pair of giraffes.

Tearful Greeting

Last year when the Kissama Foundation transferred 30 elephants to Angola, some of the babies died of exhaustion after walking for long distances with the larger animals.

"We realized that we cannot take babies, and this time we are trying to capture larger animals," said du Toit. "In this first group, we have four adult females, two of which are pregnant, and four bulls," he noted. The animals come from two families, and within each family they all know each other.

The ultimate goal of Operation Noah's Ark is to transfer up to 500 elephants as well as a menagerie of other herbivores to Kissama.

"We already have a ship from the South African Navy, which we plan to anchor along a 120-kilometer (75-mile) coastline of Kissama National Park and have the animals come ashore like the D-Day landing in Normandy," said van Hoven.

Operation Noah's Ark must obtain about half a million dollars (U.S.) if the project is to continue next June.

Noah's Ark is not just about repopulating a wildlife reserve, said van Hoven. "It's about bringing normalcy back to a country which has been mired in a civil war for a quarter century," he said.

One of the milestones of the Kissama Foundation, said von Hoven, was retraining demilitarized Angolan soldiers to serve as park rangers. "The defense force has been doing this for one year and this is a huge success," he said.

"Last year the adults watching us release the elephants cried because these were animals they had not seen since before the war," said van Hoven. "The young people stood with their mouths open because these were animals they had never seen, not even in pictures because many children don't even have books."

• National Geographic Today, 7 pm. ET/PT in the United States, is a daily news magazine available only on the National Geographic Channel. Click here to request it.

© 1996-2008 National Geographic Society. All rights reserved.