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Hordes of Zebras, Elephants Moved to Restock Kenya Park

Alexis Okeowo in Nairobi, Kenya
for National Geographic News
August 17, 2007
 
Kenya has begun a great migration of 2,000 animals to a popular game park devastated by crime and poaching, wildlife officials have announced.

In the 1970s Meru National Park, located in central Kenya, was "overrun" by bandits and poachers, leading to a drastic loss of wildlife, the officials said.

Now the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) is wrapping up a campaign begun in 2001 to repopulate the wildlife of the 1,930-square-mile (5,000-square-kilometer) park.

"We want to make Meru National Park an exclusive park for high-end tourists where they can experience total wilderness," KWS spokesperson Paul Udoto said.

A variety of animals, including zebras and elephants, are being taken from better stocked reserves, where they will be rounded up and loaded into crates.

"The animals are being moved from two ranches and a national park because we realized those areas are overstocked," Utodo said.

The six-week-long relocation is the final push in the effort to restore Meru, which may be best known as the setting for the book and 1966 film Born Free, about an orphaned lion cub.

"We want to reclaim that historical significance," Udoto said.

Great Migration

The relocation of hundreds of impalas and zebras has been underway for the past two weeks, Udoto said.

Elephants will be transported next month, he added.

The animals are being taken in several shifts for the 250-mile (400-kilometer) drive.

"We move them by road; we put them in special transportation crates," said Francis Gakuya, director of veterinary services for KWS and head of logistics for the relocation.

Each shift requires four trucks. The number of animals each vehicle can hold depends on the species being moved. One crate can hold 10 zebras or 25 impalas, for example.

So far, 517 animals have been moved without incident, Gakuya said.

"We haven't come across any problems yet," he said, adding that his team takes "a lot of precautions."

At least one veterinarian rides on each truck in case the animals become restless. Gakuya said that when more than one male of a species is in a crate, particularly if they are impalas or zebras, they tend to fight, in which case, tranquilizers are used.

"You just calm them and move them," he said.

Conservation Efforts

Apart from the influx of new wildlife, Meru National Park has undergone extensive renovations, such as new roads and airstrips and a bolstered ranger force.

But the animals are necessary to restore the park's ecosystem, said Josphat Ngonyo, director of the Kenya-based nonprofit African Network for Animal Welfare.

"Moving animals from where they're many to where they're less is a solution we'd propose," he said.

The reintroduction may also help offset the ecological imbalance of the park, which currently has a disproportionate number of carnivores compared to herbivores.

The relocation is not the first in Kenya. Species such as elephants have been moved long distances for conservation purposes in the past, Ngonyo pointed out.

He acknowledged that such moves usually come with challenges. Some animals may die in the process, for example, and local communities that live near the affected areas may not be involved in decision-making.

But in order to finally restore Meru, Ngonyo said, the drive is a "wise use of resources."

Once all animals have been moved, KWS officials said that it will work to ensure that Meru National Park will not be harmed by bandits and poachers again.

"If any poachers come in, we will be ready for them. That is why we are confident of moving these animals in a single go," Udoto said.

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