South Africa: A Conservation Thrill

National Geographic Traveller published this article on its website on June 26, 2018. To read the article there, click here.

The helicopter vibrates wildly as I scan South Africa’s Phinda Private Game Reserve for elephants. I spot a bull dashing through a cluster of trees, but when I alert the pilot and conservationist sitting in front of me, they tell me he’s not one of the elephants we’re looking for. We’re trying to locate a herd, and one female in particular; the battery in her radio collar is about to run out, so the conservationists need to replace it as soon as possible.

We locate the behemoths, ant-like from our vantage point. They’ve moved further north than anticipated and are hunkered down in Phinda’s sand forest, partially concealed by the canopy. This, I imagine, is intentional. Elephants are intelligent and have good memories; they associate helicopters with darting and, worse, poaching. The conservationists now have an approximate location for the herd, which will make tomorrow’s darting considerably easier.

Two decades ago, conservationists could only have dreamed about seeing elephants in this southeasterly stretch of South Africa. Like many regions in KwaZulu-Natal, Maputaland had lost much of its wildlife due to large-scale farming. The founders of Phinda named the 70,730-acre reserve after the Zulu word meaning ‘the return’ before restoring and restocking the landscape. They’ve been so successful, they’re now regularly translocating animals to other regions, rebuilding their biodiversity.

The next morning begins painfully early. The conservation team — including reserve manager Simon Naylor and resident ecologist Craig Sholto-Douglas —wants to dart the female before the midday sunrise, so I awake at 3:45am, throw on clothes, and am collected from andBeyond Phinda Vlei Lodge at 4am. We drive in silence towards a veld (open grassland), where the pilot and veterinarian soon join us. We huddle together making final plans for the mission. Meanwhile, two giraffes amble towards us, a bright pink sun rising behind them, but the tranquil moment evaporates when the pilot, veterinarian, and Craig climb into the helicopter. As its blades swirl, Simon comes running back to the vehicles, explaining that we’re going to drive in the helicopter’s direction to ensure we’re close to the female when she goes down. A darted elephant that falls on its sternum could die, so we may have to change her position.

We drive and wait and drive and wait, while the helicopter scans the vicinity; casting shadows from above. Two lions mate on the road, mere feet from the first car, but I’m in the back of the second and can’t see a thing.

Suddenly, the first car takes off at pace, and we’re off again, driving like a bat out of hell across Phinda’s sand forest.

The air is eerily quiet when we finally stop. I later learn that the helicopter couldn’t land in the dense bush where the elephant succumbed to anaesthesia, forcing Craig and the vet to jump out of the chopper as it hovered two metres above the ground.

We leap out of the Land Rovers and run through thorny bushes, armed rangers fanning out around us. They’ll keep an eye out for angry members of the herd intent on keeping their missing member safe, and I trust they’ll look for roving lions and leopards, too.

Finally, I see the elephant. She’s safely resting on her left side, the dart still embedded in her coarse skin. The vet monitors her vital signs and takes blood samples while Craig and Simon thread the new collar under her neck before sawing off the old one.

I mull over the significance of this moment. It’s gratifying to witness conservation in action, and I know this elephant will benefit from today’s work, but I feel sad, too. My species may be helping endangered animals, but we humans are the reason they’re at risk in the first place. And for what? Mantelpiece ornaments?

I’m ushered away when the collaring is complete. Back at the car I spot the elephant get to her feet. Simon and Craig have just rejoined us as she emits a slow, guttural rumble — a call to her herd.