Horndiplomt-(CNN)In the Liwonde Wildlife Reserve in Malawi, the elephant population is struggling to survive.
The growing local human population is edging ever closer to their reserve, sometimes entering it to poach bushmeat or fish, or using the land to grow crops.
On the elephants’ side of the vandalized fence, space and food are becoming scarce. The environment cannot support both the human and elephant worlds, and clashes between the two are not unusual.
“Well over 40 people (have been) killed around Liwonde in the past five years by elephants,” says Andrew Parker, programme director at the conservation NGO African Parks.
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The elephant paradox
Since 1979, African elephants have lost over 50% of their range. In some locations, there are simply too many elephants living into a small space, which leads to environmental destruction and human-wildlife conflict.
The solution? Move the elephants around.
Up to seven meters long and six tons in weight, moving the world’s largest land animal is a hefty operation.
But that hasn’t stopped African Parks from attempting to rehome 500 elephants in Malawi alone.
Their new home will be the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve — where the elephant population has decreased from 1,500 elephants to less than 100 in the last 20 years.
The reserve lies in the Great Rift Valley by Lake Malawi. Although having experienced significant levels of poaching in the past, African Parks — who began managing the reserve last year — say they are committed to restoring its biodiversity through reintroductions and effective management.
The mission is among the largest of its kind in history, says Parker, who is overseeing the operation.
How to move a giant
The first phase kicked off this month and saw 92 elephants driven by huge trucks 450 kilometers north to Nkhotakota.
Before being loaded, the sleeping giants were carefully herded together by helicopters, with care taken not to split-up families, Parker explains.
Then tranquilizer darts were shot from above, putting them to sleep, after which the crew rushed to the animals to ensure they were safely lying on their sides to prevent choking.
“If you don’t know what you’re doing when you sedate them, it can cost lives,” says Parker.
Before they enter their new home, the elephants will be kept in a holding area for a day.
“Just to allow the family group to meet and touch each other again and reconnect,” says Parker.
One elephant per square kilometer
While females elephants tend to live in families, males either roam the land alone or form male groups. Either way, they need a lot of space, and more than one elephant per square kilometer is not sustainable, says Parker.
In the past, the animals were free to roam vast, unspoilt areas. If food ran out in one place, they moved to another using natural migration corridors.
Not any more, Parker explains. The pressure on natural systems is immense,and with the human population of Africa estimated to double by 2050, these pressures can only grow.
Islands in a sea of humanity
“More and more the remaining wildlife is being compressed into islands in a sea of humanity,” Parker says.
“And even those islands aren’t secure, because of increasing demand from South-East Asia and elsewhere for wildlife commodities.”
Poaching is one of the main threats, with an estimated 20,000 African elephants every year being killed illegally for their tusks.
Despite the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) invoking an international ban on trading ivory in 1989, demand is still high, with China being the biggest market.
In the early 20th century an estimated 3-5 million elephants roamed Africa. Now, there are about 470,000.
“What we can say is that if the current challenges to the elephants are not addressed properly, it is going to be difficult for the elephant in the future,” says Lamine Sebogo, WWF African Elephant Programme Coordinator.
“For example in Tanzania, the population has collapsed by some 60% over the past five years, and between 2000 and 2012 central Africa lost 50% of its population. It is very serious.”
Some good news
But it’s not all doom and gloom. In some areas elephants are thriving due to successful population management and conservation techniques.
“In the Mara Serengeti between Kenya and Tanzania there is an increase of elephants. Also in some places in Namibia and Botswana the population is either stable or increasing,” says Sebogo.
Meanwhile in Malawi, the elephants in the care of African Parks are settling into their new home.
The operation is closely managed, according to the organization. The long-acting tranquilizers help reduce stress during transport, but “within 24 hours their cortisol levels, stress levels, are back to normal,” says Parker.
By September next year, 500 elephants from Liwonde and one other reserve in a similar situation will have been rehomed to Nkhotakota, a 19,000-hectare sanctuary.
Pushing back the trend
Partly funded by the Dutch Postcode Lottery and charitable foundations, the project is a huge logistical undertaking. It will cost $1.6 million for the translocation alone, with additional expenses for fencing, patrolling and law enforcement.
The cost of the operation means this approach isn’t a silver bullet for conservation, but Parker for one believes we could see more of this kind of translocation in the future, even across national borders, possibly paving the way for a new, transnational approach to managing elephant populations.
“This is a profound story of hope for Africa’s wildlife, showing that scale and the size of an operation need not be a limitation to pushing back against these really pressing trends.”