Due to habitat encroachment, three African forest elephant families settled in the outskirts of Daloa, Côte d’Ivoire. Tensions mounted between villagers and elephants as the animals damaged crops and destroyed property. Villagers threatened to retaliate and even kill them if necessary. To save the country’s national symbol the Ivorian government intervened, calling on the International Fund for Animal Welfare to help move the elephants to the protected area of Azagny National Park. This short excerpt covers the exciting first day of the mission. I spoke with filmmakers Michael Booth and Brant Backlund about the rescue and tragic second day.
Why was this particular region of Côte d’Ivoire chosen for the elephant rescue?
A small population of wild forest elephants had settled in small pockets of relict forest on the outskirts of Daloa, the third largest city in Côte d’Ivoire. The elephants came into conflict with local farmers as they foraged the cultivated fields. After a few years, the situation became untenable. Villagers were going hungry and clashes with the elephants led to people getting hurt and killed.
The best—and really the only—solution that would keep the endangered elephants alive was to move them to a protected area, in this case to Azagny National Park in the southern coast.
Has the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) performed a rescue of forest elephants in the past?
We carried out a massive translocation of 83 elephants in Malawi in 2009, but on
that rescue we were dealing with savannah elephants. The open savannah proved much easier to operate in because the elephants were easier to spot, dart, track, and load. The dense forest of Côte d’Ivoire was a whole different ball game. As far as we know, this was the first time that an operation like this had been carried out for forest elephants, so this was truly unchartered territory.
What were some of the challenges shooting in this location?
Filming this operation has been one of the most challenging shoots we’ve ever undertaken. The terrain itself was a nightmare. We spent entire days tracking elephants through the thick forest, some of which was completely impassable, so we had to machete-cut our way through. It was hot and humid, and we had to be on full alert all the time, since we were never quite sure when and how the elephants would react.
Can you tell me more about the events that happened on the second day of the capture?
Very early morning on the second day of capture, we located a group of three elephants right next to our central base. We couldn’t believe our luck, and so the team quickly left on foot to anaesthetize the first elephant from the ground.
The elephant was darted and we started following him through the extremely dense vegetation, but by the time we found him, the elephant had fallen into a swamp. The vet intervened immediately. He administered the antidote to wake him up and tried to resuscitate him, all in vain—the elephant drowned.
What was it like to process that event as a team?
Despite all of the precautions taken to prevent death or injury to the elephants, there are inescapable risks in an operation like this. It was absolutely heartbreaking, disappointing, and frustrating for all involved that the elephant died.
One thing was sure, we couldn’t give up on the operation, or all the elephants would be killed. In a desperate situation like this there are no easy answers and the team had to press on. The next day we were out there capturing again—this was the only hope these elephants had to survive.
How are the rescued elephants doing in their new home of Azagny National Park?
The elephants are alive and healthy and being continuously tracked by forest rangers. Unfortunately, cases of human-elephant conflict are on the rise in Côte d’Ivoire and in many other places as natural habitats shrink and become more fragmented. The custom-built equipment and knowledge transfer that resulted in this pioneering rescue effort allows similar operations to take place in the future. That said, actively translocating elephants and other
wildlife to protected areas should be used only as a last resort. It has become painfully obvious that habitat protection measures combined with efforts to stop the poaching and trade of wildlife are more important now than they have ever been.
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