Elephants are an incredibly important part of the African ecosystem, but too many of them in a small area turns into a problem. Moving Giants is providing a solution by taking 200 elephants on a 1000 mile journey.
The Moving Giants elephant-translocation project is a tale of two countries -South Africa and Mozambique. In the first one, there are more too many elephants in a small space, but in the second there is plenty of space and no animals, so these elephants could find a better way to live and develop, and therefore improve the ecosystem. The mammoth task of moving elephants between these two places is being documented and is available for all to watch. Learn about the team that is Moving Giants in Africa.
Part 1. Too many elephants in South Africa
How can there be too many elephants if forty thousand African elephants die each year? That was the conundrum faced a few years ago by the Venetia Limpopo Reserve in South Africa, located in the area of the first Great African Kingdoms, a place with archaeological sites that date back thousands of years and that contain evidence of stone tools made by the ancestors of modern humans.
After the discovery of a vast cache of kimberlite in 1980, the De Beers Co. bought and fenced a large area that had been mainly used for farming and animal grazing for over 130 years. Although located in a fertile zone, the decades of overgrazing had rendered it almost useless for any wildlife and looked more like a large farm: over 32 thousand hectares of depleted soil.
After the establishment of the reserve, and thanks to generous donations from conservationists, it soon grew into a healthy ecosystem home to three of the "Big Five" animals of the African continent: lions, elephants, and leopards (the other two being rhinos and buffalo), besides countless other species that thrived in their newly-recovered environment.
Over the course of the next 25 years, elephants, being the largest of the three, soon took a preponderance in the reserve and as their numbers grew, so did the space and resources they used. For a park this size, the ideal number of elephants should be about 60, but the Limpopo reserve had 275. Once more, the precarious balance of this small pocket of wildlife was threatened. Other species were suffering from lack of food and space. A concerted effort began to look for a solution to the problem of what to do with over 200 extra elephants that had been negatively impacting the surrounding ecosystem.
Part 2. The war in Mozambique
For over 15 years, from 1977 to 1992, Mozambique suffered one of the bloodiest civil wars of the continent, one that took the lives of over one million people, although the real number is impossible to know due to the length of the conflict and how violent it was.
Aside from the human loss, as in any conflict, the circumstances led to to the destruction of vast expanses of wildlife territory, and the constant gun fights also claimed the lives of countless creatures. The country lost over 75% of its elephant population and some areas lost up to 90% of its wildlife. The devastating results of this war can be felt even now, more than 20 years later, and Mozambique's ecosystems have not been able to recover. Some wildlife specialists worry that the damage is too bad to leave it to its own resources.
Photo by: @travelvibes68
One of the national parks that was worst hit by the war was Zinave National Park, which lost almost all of its animals. Almost none survived the 15 years of war. Bernard van Lente, manager at the Peace Parks Foundation (an organization devoted to restoring African parks to its former glory), gives some context about it:
Zinave National Park was created in the '60s and then unfortunately, a civil war broke out in the '70s. With war, the law of the land generally deteriorates so nobody was looking after the park. Because of internal displacement, people moved into the park and animals were pushed out. This resulted in elephants not being in the park for the past 50 years. Elephants are one of the key species of any ecosystem. They change the system by creating disturbance, and disturbance stimulates diversity. And this is absolutely essential for the proper function of all the other components of the system. So without elephants, our whole ecosystem is not functioning the way it should be.
The importance of elephants cannot be overstated: their large bodies open pathways through the thick vegetation for other -smaller- species, such as the antelope, while also creating clearings, so smaller plants can grow, which in turn attract birds and small predators. As in every ecosystem, the most important part is biodiversity.
What the relatively small Venetia Limpopo reserve was suffering from was precisely too much of this "disturbance" that Van Lente mentions. Zinave, on the other hand, is massive: over 400,000 hectares and not one single wild animal left after the war. 200 elephants will have plenty of space to repopulate, attract other species, and revive this ecosystem. Once the population has reached a point where it is again too large for the park -which might happen in 50 or 100 years- the process can be repeated and use this population to repopulate other areas.
Part 3. Moving Giants
One park is in peril because its too-healthy population of elephants is impeding other species from thriving. Another park, one thousand miles away across the African continent, desperately needs a healthy elephant population to create the conditions necessary for other species to thrive.
The solution, perhaps evident, is to take the elephants from one to the other, but how do you move 200 animals that weigh 4 tons each?
Enter Moving Giants, a three-year initiative that is the largest elephant "re-wilding" effort ever attempted: from South Africa to Mozambique, 200 elephants will travel more than 1,000 miles to their new home in the Zinave Reserve. The move has already started, with 48 elephants moved from Venetia Limpopo to Zinave National Park in Mozambique. By 2019, the rest of 150+ elephants will make the journey to other conservation areas in Mozambique where wildlife diversity was wiped out during the civil war.
The instigator of this initiative, Kester Vickery, co-founder of Conservation Solutions, has decided to move entire breeding herds of elephants together to avoid separating families and causing them emotional distress. One other offshoot of this whole team effort is the training of teams of armed park rangers to protect the elephants in transit and when they arrive to their new homes.
Of the 25 rangers, six are women, and two more will join the team. This has been an incredibly empowering experience not only for the women rangers, but also for the rest of the women in the area, since they are becoming role models for younger girls who are learning that women also can be environmental heroes.
Do not miss the chance to learn about these amazingly smart animals and the incredible people behind this initiative. You can also check their incredibly cute Instagram @movinggiants
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