On the 17th April 2017, the ERP 911 Elephant Team were woken up at 04:15 AM by telephone calls, informing us of unimaginable news. 8 of the Dinokeng Game Reserve’s elephants had breached the reserve’s boundaries and were over 16 km’s away from the reserve, heading towards the densely populated towns of Cullinan and Refilwe. The key concern was the wellbeing of the elephants and the lives of unsuspecting people which may have encountered them.
We were however able to locate the elephants immediately utilising the GPS collar which ERP had recently fitted onto the older bull, infamously named ‘Charles’, who was leading the breeding herd of 7 cows and calves on the dangerous spree.
The ERP team responded without delay and were the first people on the scene (within 45 minutes of the initial call) to assess the situation. The reserve’s management team joined us shortly thereafter as the sun was rising, providing much needed light for us to obtain a visual of the elephant herd. At this point, we were only able to see clear clues that the elephant had been in the area. They had snacked on oranges, prickly pears and a few other scrumptious treats which they could not get their trunks on within the reserve, leaving us the remains as a means to follow them.
Within 30 minutes, the team had visuals of the elephant who were still on a very brisk walk to a destination only beknown to themselves. A light aircraft, carrying an ERP team member was called into the area to ensure that we could maintain visuals of the elephants until they could be secured in an area so that a relocation plan could be formulated. This was achieved by surrounding the herd with vehicles at unobtrusive distances and by 08:00 the situation was stabilised and the elephants were secured in a safe, densely bushed area.
Now, that we had them secured….. What NOW? Was the question going through all of our minds. Generally speaking, there are three ways to get elephants back to a reserve which they have broken out of and walked far distances from. One of the options would be to call in a helicopter and guide the elephants back to the reserve, the second would be to dart the herd, lift them onto trucks and take them back to the reserve OR we could ‘walk’ them back by allowing them to walk at their own pace whilst being guided by us and ensuring safe passage for them over busy roads.
It was deemed that the helicopter option would place too much pressure on the elephants and cause them to split from their tightly knit group and the capture of elephants is always considered a last option as the elephants need to be sedated over a long period of time, causing significant stress on the animals. After much consultation with other industry specialists, the ERP team and the reserve management team made a final decision to ‘walk’ the elephants back to the reserve. This was no ordinary task considering the distance and terrain which the elephants needed to cross to eventually get home (16 km of undulating hills).
After staying in their place of safety for a number of hours, the elephants started their walk home at 15:00 in the afternoon, with reserve trackers following them to ensure their safety. The trick with ‘walking’ elephants is the constant need to be one step ahead of them which is difficult when the leading bull can change direction at any given moment and they move really fast. The ERP and Reserve teams had vehicles all along the estimated routing with an objective of ensuring safe passage and limited infrastructure damage to the properties which the elephants crossed. During the operation, it was clear that the elephants had become specialists in walking through fences and no fence was a barrier to them.
The elephants crossed mountains, cleared valleys and went from one property to the next until they arrived at the Moloto Road, a notoriously dangerous and busy road, especially on an Easter Sunday evening like this. The team had however arranged with Provincial Traffic Police to establish temporary road blocks to allow safe passage for the elephant. After tracking the elephant in the dark, utilising vehicles and telemetry equipment, the team managed to identify an area where the elephants were going to cross and the road was blocked off for at least 20 minutes, creating traffic jams on either side of the barriers. The elephants however crossed as planned and disappeared into the darkness, pursing their track home.
We followed the elephants for another 7km to a point where it seemed they would be resting for the night. The walk was paused at 03:30 AM on the 18th April, almost 24 hours after it was started. The elephants did not move, almost as though they were giving us a chance to rest. The rest however did not last for very long and we were back on the road by 05:00 when the elephants started moving again. It first appeared as though they were moving away from the reserve and with a sudden change direction they were back on track to get to the reserve in a few hours.
The team waited in anticipation from 06:00 till 18:00 at the fence of the reserve for the elephants to walk back. As they had done the day before, they found a place of safety and decided to spend the rest of the day there, in an area which we had no visuals on. The ERP drone was dispatched and the location of the elephants was confirmed. It was a long waiting game from both sides but at least the drone provided the team with updates on the status of the herd throughout the day.
Eventually at 18:30, under the cover of darkness, the elephants broke the reserve perimeter fence and entered the safety of the protected area. After a 35 km walk, over a 2-day period, the elephants were safe and there were no human injuries and only limited damage to the properties which they crossed. The operation took three light aeroplane flights, two helicopters on stand-by, ten vehicles, at least 25 people, 3 drones, over 200 hundred phone calls, dozens of coffees and lots of sweat and tears.
The 911 Elephant Team is happy with the outcome of the operation and it has again been proven that elephant can be managed without harsh responses such as helicopter chases and captures. It is clear that the landowners in and around the reserve are also more understanding of the elephant herd now that they have portrayed their intelligence and willpower.
We thank the Dinokeng Reserve Management Team, the Provincial Police Department, the pilots, the landowners within the reserve, the specialist advisors and all of the landowners which were affected by damages from the elephants for their efforts and support in getting these elephants home safely. It was a truly unique 911 Elephant undertaking.
By Dereck Milburn (ERP)