Kaden Kartsone: Close-up of an elephant

Elephant emotions - a family affair

Tuesday 1st November 2011 – My last day at Phinda Wildlife Research Project.

After a late night due to a rangers leaving party, JR and I, had to wake up at 3:30 am for a hectic day of elephant capture! We had spent the past three days monitoring and following “One tusks” herd of 12 elephants, but today we could not pick them up. They had completely disappeared.

The weather was perfect for the capture and we had less than 3 hours to find the herd before the 6:00 am meeting time with the capture team. Time raced by without a single trace…not even a trace of elephant poo!

Our time was up and we still could not locate them. We called Simon Naylor, the Phinda reserve manager to tell him the news. Eventually, the helicopter pilot took the telemetry radio up into the air to search for the herd.

It turned out that they were hiding out in the only place we had not looked. JR and I had covered every square inch except a patch of burnt bush where elephants are never seen! We drove back to the site still very sleepy and already feeling somewhat peckish. Once at the rendezvous point JR, the vet, and the pilot took to the air for the actual darting, which is done from the helicopter.

I joined the ground team and awaited a radio call to tell us to head into the bush where the fallen elephant family would be found. We were all pretty nervous especially after being told about the previous year's capture that went awry, with a vehicle being tipped over by an irate, not so sedated, elephant. We were all hoping for a smooth run. The darted and immobilised elephant group had been given away for free to a nearby reserve in an attempt to keep Phinda’s elephant population down.

As we drove closer our excitement grew. We came into a clearing and before us were eight elephants all lying in a near-perfect circle. It was such a strange yet emotional sight. These huge animals lay unconscious at our feet as the team raced around them. One baby elephant lying near its mother still had its eyes open and its heart was racing. I could feel its warm breath and its blood pumping through the massive veins in its ears, and I placed my hands on its warm and surprisingly soft skin.

The whole herd was winched up one by one, hanging upside down, onto huge flatbed trucks to be transported back to the holding crates. The loading procedure took a long time. Once in the individual crates, the elephants began to wake. They were understandably terrified and cried loudly, not a trumpet but a cry that cut right through me.

Before long the trucks started up and I watched them heading off into the distance to a new home. What an incredible experience, one that I know will stay with me for the rest of my life. I was a volunteer at Phinda for three weeks and still cannot believe that I witnessed this and many other amazing events.

Thank goodness they did the capture today, my last day, and not tomorrow! I am one very lucky person.

Oliver Cutter, Volunteer at Phinda Wildlife Research Project