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Success and Tragedy: IFAW’s Project to Relocate Elephants in Côte d’Ivoire

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) recently completed an ambitious project: translocating six forest elephants in Côte d’Ivoire. The elephants—all males—were transferred from small patches of forest just outside the town of Daloa, to Azagny National Park, a 46,000-acre park 250 miles away. The move was considered exceedingly risky: possibly the first-ever forest elephant...

Picture of an elephant being loaded onto a transportation truck
IFAW loads an elephant onto a transportation truck. (Photograph by IFAW/M. Booth)

The International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) recently completed an ambitious project: translocating six forest elephants in Côte d’Ivoire.

The elephants—all males—were transferred from small patches of forest just outside the town of Daloa, to Azagny National Park, a 46,000-acre park 250 miles away. The move was considered exceedingly risky: possibly the first-ever forest elephant translocation in West Africa. (Related: “Elephants Moved Across Africa in Risky Operation.”)

Unfortunately, two elephants died during the process.

According to Gail A’Brunzo, Wildlife Rescue Manager at IFAW’s international headquarters in Yarmouth Port, Massachusetts, the relocation project was launched when the Côte d’Ivoire government approached the organization in April 2012. Since the year before, a group of elephants that had been living in Marahoué National Park were now confined to a few acres of fragmented forest on the edge of Daloa.

They’d been forced there because of ongoing civil unrest and increasing human presence near the park, and the proximity of people and elephants was becoming unmanageable in the town. (Related: “Urban Wildlife Corridors Could Save Africa’s Free-Roaming Elephants.”)

“The elephants went into the pockets of forest in daytime,” explained A’Brunzo (who has been consistently in touch with IFAW’s Côte d’Ivoire team via text and email), “but they would come out to feed in the agricultural fields in the morning and evening. Essentially, the crops were the elephants’ only diet.”

A’Brunzo said that “because elephants are protected by law in Côte d’Ivoire, the villagers were afraid to go after them for fear of government reprisal. And these are poor villagers to start with, so when their crops were destroyed, they had nothing.”

According to IFAW, the Daloa elephants had killed three teenagers; one of the elephants, meanwhile, had bullet scars on its ears.

Understanding that if the elephants weren’t relocated, they’d be killed, IFAW agreed to relocate them, A’Brunzo said. (Related: “Elephant Declines Vastly Underestimated.”)

Originally, Côte d’Ivoire authorities believed there were eight elephants around Daloa. IFAW conducted a second assessment in 2012, identifying between nine and twelve animals, including a mother and calf. But as the project got started this month, the team could find only six elephants.

Picture of an elephant being turned over
An elephant is turned over by the IFAW team. (Photograph by IFAW/M. Booth)

Moving the Elephants: A Mixed Blessing

The first elephant was tranquilized and captured on January 20. The six-ton, 30-year-old male was then trucked and a day later successfully released in Azagny National Park, which has an existing population of 50 to 65 male and female elephants.

A day later the second elephant, approximately 18 years old, was tranquilized: “They darted the animal,” A’Brunzo said, “and he ran away into a swamp and landed face first. The whole team ran after him, administered a reversal agent, but it was too late.”

With any wild animal, after it’s darted, She says, “you try to mitigate where they go, but in the case of the elephant he is going to go where he wants to go.”

When asked if the IFAW team shouldn’t have administered a tranquilizer so near a swamp, A’Brunzo said, “The team was an expert wildlife team. And in spite of the collective education, experience, and knowing what works and doesn’t—and using wits—there are some things that you just can’t control.”

On January 22, the IFAW team captured an 18-year-old male and successfully transferred him to Azagny National Park a day later.

The capture of the fourth male also proved fatal.

Celine Sissler-Bienvenu, IFAW Director for France and Francophone Africa, wrote a typically heartfelt blog from Côte d’Ivoire about the elephant’s death: “After 30 minutes of flight, the anesthetic dart finds its mark, a big elephant bull that we had seen trying to cross a road close to our transport vehicles. The grader opened a path all the way to the sleeping elephant and both air and ground team reassembled next to him. While under our team’s supervision, the elephant went into cardiac arrest under anesthesia. Our veterinarian quickly injected the antidote, but there was no reaction. For more than 15 minutes we tried to resuscitate the elephant, all in vain…We are confronting the shock and sadness wrought from the death of an animal we had been laboring to rescue.”

Picture of a tranquilized elephant waking up
A sub-adult wakes up after being tranquilized. (Photograph by IFAW/M. Booth)

A Good Track Record

IFAW has successfully relocated elephants before. In 2009 the organization relocated as many as 83 savanna elephants in Malawi without incident.

Like those in Daloa, the elephants in Malawi were caught in the web of human-elephant conflict. At the time of the move, Jason Bell, IFAW’s Southern Africa Director, wrote on the organization’s website: “The relocation of these elephants is a real victory for animal welfare, and proof that it’s not necessary to solve issues of human-wildlife conflict down the barrel of a gun.”

In Daloa, the last two bulls were captured together on January 24—a sub-adult 14 years old and an adult of about 30. They were successfully released into Azagny National Park the next day.

IFAW says that most of its team has left the area, but some members are staying in Côte d’Ivoire to be sure that protection measures in the park are robust enough for the new elephants.

IFAW’s partner in the relocation, Conservation Solutions, Inc., will monitor the elephants, some of which were collared with GPS devices. Foot trackers in the park will also observe the elephants’ movements.

As for the other elephants originally identified in the Daloa area, “Some might have migrated out,” A’Brunzo said, “or maybe they were hiding out, but the tracker couldn’t find them.”

When asked how well the relocated elephants will adjust to the loss of the two males who died during the move, A’Brunzo said, “It remains to be seen.”

Into a Safer Future

On her final blog post from Côte d’Ivoire, Sissler-Bienvenu wrote about the last two male elephants that were to be relocated: “We know that despite the long trek that awaits them, the cage doors will open to an un-spoilt forest that will become their own and will offer them the serenity and security they so deserve. We said our goodbyes to them with a particularly poignant feeling having realized that we had achieved our goal: the goal of saving the forest elephants of Daloa.”

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Meet the Author

Christina Russo
Christina Russo is a freelance journalist. For nearly 15 years, she has worked as a producer for a number of public radio programs, including NPR/WBUR’s "On Point" with Tom Ashbrook. Christina also freelances for Yale Environment 360, where her written work focuses mainly on wildlife conservation issues. She is the co-producer, with WBUR, of the nationally syndicated documentary on American zoos, From Cages to Conservation. She has written numerous articles about animals, including a story about caring for donkeys in Ethiopia; a veterinarian saving horses in Sonoma County, CA; an elephant sanctuary in northern Thailand; and the work of pre-eminent whale biologist Roger Payne for her hometown newspaper, The Gloucester Daily Times.