500 African Elephants Are Moving to a New Home

The continent’s largest translocation will transfer the pachyderms from overcrowded wildlife parks to a new preserve.
Elephants in Liwonde National Park in Malawi. (Photo: Mike Dexter)
Feb 4, 2016· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Construction has begun on a New York City–size sanctuary that will provide Africa’s elephants with a rare safe haven.

The 42,000-acre preserve is being built within Malawi’s Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve, which is managed by the nonprofit organization African Parks.

Once the fence surrounding the sanctuary is complete, African Parks will begin to relocate about 500 elephants from Majete Wildlife Reserve and Liwonde National Park. Those parks, both also located in Malawi and managed by African Parks, currently face overpopulation of their elephants. Moving the elephants will relieve environmental pressures on the two parks while giving the translocated herds room to grow and expand.

African Parks officials said this will be the largest elephant translocation to take place in Africa. They hope the elephants will thrive in the new location and that their population will expand to as many as 800 elephants within five years.

Other species expected to be relocated to the new sanctuary include zebras, buffalo, impalas, and waterbucks.

Exactly how the elephants will be transported has not yet been determined. The parks where they currently live are about 250 to 300 miles south of Nkhotakota.

The relocation is necessary because the Nkhotakota reserve has lost the vast majority of its wildlife owing to years of indiscriminate poaching and a lack of law enforcement. The 6,950-square-mile park used to hold more than 1,000 elephants. Today it has fewer than 100.

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Ensuring the safety of the translocated elephants will require more than just walls. Cynthia Walley, communications manager for African Parks, said the organization will spend April and May hiring and training about 35 rangers to protect the new sanctuary. She said this “boots on the ground” approach is a key aspect of African Parks’ successful policies, which have helped reduce poaching in most of the other parks it manages.

Ultimately the reserve will be transformed into a tourist destination that will provide both support for the animals and economic opportunities for the people living in the area.

The first wave of funding for the translocation comes from the Dutch Postcode Lottery, a charity lottery in the Netherlands that last week announced a nearly $2.9 million donation to African Parks. Funds from the award will also support economic development outside Liwonde and Nkhotakota “through the creation of employment, educational and social services, and tourism opportunities,” according to African Parks.

“The funding will also greatly assist with the reduction in human-wildlife conflict, which has proven to be at unprecedented levels compared to other parks in Africa, and will enable African Parks to make a real, positive and lasting difference to the region on many levels,” African Parks chief executive Peter Fearnhead said in a press release.

Walley said the Dutch Postcode funds “will not completely cover the initiative,” but additional funding sources have not yet been announced.

The fence around the sanctuary is expected to be completed by June. After that, the work to relocate the elephants and repopulate Nkhotakota will begin in earnest.