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Rebuilding — one elephant at a time

A surprising thing about elephants is just how stealthy they can be.

“If elephants don’t want to be seen, you won’t be able to find them,” says Ruch resident and recent elephant seeker Chris Beekman.

This is especially true in a place like Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve in central Malawi, which Beekman and I recently visited. The 695-square-mile reserve (about one-quarter the size of Jackson County) is heavily wooded and very hilly, giving elephants all kinds of places to hide. But at least there are elephants there at all.

“Nkhotakota was just a run-down park,” says Sam Kamoto, the manager of the reserve. “There were just a few animals remaining in the protected area. Most of the animals were poached out.”

In August 2015, an international nonprofit conservation organization called African Parks signed a 20-year lease with the Malawi government to take over management of Nkhotakota, bringing funding and support not otherwise available to this small southern Africa nation.

“We were give a clean slate,” Kamoto says. “We started from square one.”

What does it take to completely rebuild a protected area? I was excited to find out. Kamoto and I had worked together 20 years ago when I was a Peace Corps volunteer assigned to a small protected area just outside one of Malawi’s largest cities, Blantyre, so I knew he was familiar with the challenges the government faced with its parks and reserves. If anything, the challenges had grown since then. When I was a Peace Corps volunteer, there were 8 million people living in a country the size of Pennsylvania; now there are 18 million. The pressures of wildlife- and wood-poaching are daunting.

Kamoto loaded me, Beekman and two of Kamoto’s daughters into a Land Cruiser to give us a tour of the reserve and look for elephants. He explained that before they could begin to bring animals back to Nkhotakota, they had to fence it, both to keep poachers out and to keep animals in.

“The idea of fencing is to try to avoid human/wildlife conflicts,” explains Kamoto. “We don’t want the elephants to get out, go into the villages, and destroy people’s crops.” And this is serious fencing, 8 feet high with 7,000 solar-powered volts running through it.

Kamoto and his team have been putting up the fencing in stages, starting with a 47,000-acre sanctuary inside the reserve boundaries.

“So far we’ve done over 200 kilometers (125 miles),” he says. “By the time we have completed the fencing, we’ll be talking about 380 kilometers (236 miles).”

As we bumped along through the reserve, Kamoto pointed out all the other improvements he and his team have put in over the last two years, from a visitors’ center and offices to staff housing, and even the roads we were driving on.

Even though Nkhotakota is a beautiful example of the woodland that used to cover much of Malawi, visitors won’t come to the reserve unless they can see animals there. So one of the most complicated challenges the African Parks team had to face was bringing in wildlife species that used to live there, a process called translocation.

“We went through a massive translocation exercise that saw us moving over 500 elephants,” explains Kamoto. “We moved in other plains game animals too, like zebra, eland, buffalo, waterbuck, impala and sable antelope.”

The process started with identifying the individual animals to be moved from parks farther south in Malawi. With elephants in particular, it is important to move an entire family group together. Otherwise, the elephant social structure breaks down and individual animals can become problematic.

Once the target animals are identified, they are herded into the open with a helicopter and then darted to sedate them. Then the ground team springs into action, making sure the animals haven’t fallen in positions where they will injure themselves, and collecting data on them. The animals are then moved, in the case of elephants using a crane, into special trucks where they are given a drug to counteract the sedative so they will be awake for the next stage of their surprise journey.

All of the nearly 200 miles from Liwonde National Park or more than 300 miles from Majete Wildlife Reserve to Nkhotakota is inspected beforehand to make sure that bridges can handle the weight of multiple elephants and that there are no other hazards that could delay the trip. Then the trucks move out.

After many hours, the trucks arrive in Nkhotakota, and the animals are offloaded into a small release “boma” or enclosure where they stay for at least one hour.

“There are some instances where you may capture two families, so you want to make sure those animals regroup,” says Kamoto, “So that when you release them from the boma they move out as a family.”

The translocation, the largest ever attempted, began in July 2016 with 261 elephants and more than 1,100 game animals moving from Liwonde to Nkhotakota over five weeks. The translocation resumed in June 2017 with 225 more elephants and additional game animals over three weeks. Generally the animals have adapted well to their new home. Calves were born in 2017 to elephants that had been translocated in 2016.

“This is an important moment for conservation in Malawi, as well as for one of the planet’s most endangered species,” said Brighton Kumchedwa, director of Malawi’s Department of National Parks and Wildlife, on the completion of this phase of the translocations. “Together with African Parks, we have taken extraordinary measures to secure a future for Malawi’s elephants, and at the same time are helping people and ecological processes, and increasing tourism in a park, which has positive benefits for local communities.”

The translocations to Nkhotakota are not done yet. Once the prey species have established themselves, Kamoto and his team will bring in predators such as leopards and lions, sometime after 2019.

Kamoto showed us the two accommodation options in the reserve, Bua River Lodge and the luxurious Tongole Wilderness Lodge. Both are along the Bua River, where animals come to drink and cool down from the African heat. Songs from some of Nkhotakota’s 280 bird species filled the air, along with the occasional call of a baboon.

And then we saw the elephants. We came across a small family group feeding near the river, completely unphased by our presence.

“It was such a privilege to be that close to them and to see them feeding,” says Beekman. “They were so graceful, and such a beautiful family.”

— Christine Chumbler lives in Jacksonville.

An elephant family feeds in the forest of Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, Malawi, in southern Africa. More than 500 of the animals were recently moved to the reserve, the largest translocation of elephants ever done. [Photo by Christine Chumbler]