Written by: Andrew Rae
I kneel in the dust beside the fallen behemoth, as if seeking absolution in a cathedral… the cathedral in this case is a forlorn and brittle circle of desiccated mopane bush in the Limpopo Valley. The capture team descend on the sleeping giant and begin their ministrations with quiet precision, while chainsaws carve a track for the flatbed truck.
This prone elephant bull stirs my recollection of another time in another park when these magnificent, sentient creatures were killed to control their impact on the landscape. I remember the smell of cordite and blood mingling in the warm Lowveld air as carcasses were loaded and a chopper arced overhead with a clatter of blades like some glistening angel of death.
This time will be very different as the bull I kneel beside forms part of a small herd of seven elephant set aside for relocation to Mapesu – a private nature reserve established by The Shared Universe Foundation to protect and expand the rangeland of these mighty denizens of the African wilderness.
It is a monumental undertaking, requiring an army of well-trained personnel and specialised vehicles and equipment. Trucks and capture containment are first positioned close to where the elephants are ahead of the capture. This takes hours of ponderous manoeuvring before things are finally set and ready. The chopper chases and corrals the herd as a wildlife vet fires darts dosed with a powerful opiate known as M99. The animals mill around the first of the fallen, the matriarch, and are easily dispatched close by. The young adult bull succumbs a few hundred metres further away. Bush is carved open and flatbed lorries with huge hydraulic cranes attached are moved into position alongside the slumbering pachyderms.
A radio and GPS tracking collar is attached to the lead cow, while I hold my hand near the opening to her trunk monitoring her deep and laborious breathing. Like titanic, wrinkle-covered bellows, her flanks rise and fall in a rhythm as old as the dust coating her, and tears blur my vision as a deep melancholy overwhelms me… she exhales and her tepid breath stirs the hair on my forearm. It is a moment with an ancient creature of the veld that I will never forget.
It is truly momentous releasing wildlife back into areas they once occupied historically. It is the act of completing something monumental, something grand. It is finishing a complex tapestry that for more than a century has been but an anaemic, unfinished version of the original. It is placing that which has been missing back where it belongs.
The long container truck came lumbering over the ridge – a clanking, dust-shrouded juggernaut. A crowd of us gather on the fence-line behind a shade cloth barrier while photographers clamber on top of the truck to capture images of the occasion. The sun begins a fiery descent into the heat haze along the western horizon and shadows lengthen and light softens into that pre-dusk glow that so many before me have tried to describe. The scene is set, the elephants are finally here.
Steel barriers slide open and we all hold our breath. Nothing stirs on the tepid Limpopo breeze except for the distant, languid call of a hornbill. The container stands open like some dark, cavernous maw, and then it happens – a three to four year old male elephant calf saunters out into the open and down the concrete ramp – ears flared and trunk aloft, testing the air. This followed by an adult cow and her female calf, and then the collared matriarch with her new female calf and another sub-adult cow and finally the young adult bull. They gather together, tenuous, guarded, unsure of how to proceed.
I watch as camera shutters fire staccato bursts and a video drone buzzes overhead. I watch them, these new arrivals back in this valley after more than a century of absence and I feel inexplicably alive. I rejoice. I revel in this sensation of completion, of hope for a species that still defies our understanding; this giant so intelligent, so incredibly representative of this wondrous continent. I think of our entwined history together… humankind and elephants, and how full of conflict and carnage it has been. I ponder how elephants must perceive us as we expand our population and consume like ravenous insects – insatiable, uncaring, deadly.
I also perceive hope. Having been privy to the culling in the nineties and now the infinite hunger for ivory in Asia that is decimating the great lumbering herds of East and West Africa and reducing the continent’s population by more than 100,000 in less than a decade.
I have hope because I stood today peering through a steel hatch and I saw an elephant arise. An animal that was prone and lifeless rose up; vital, majestic and beautiful, and I was awe struck.
Something is different now on Mapesu Private Nature Reserve. There are large circular tracks in the dust, each of them etched with a labyrinth of delicate wrinkles. Mopane trees are scarred and splintered in certain places and reddish brown balls of dung lie scattered on lonely game paths everywhere.
There are elephants here once again.