August 26, 2005

400 Elephants Moved from Overcrowded Reserve

SHIMBA HILLS, Kenya -- Kenya began moving 400 elephants from an overcrowded reserve on its Indian Ocean coast on Thursday in an unprecedented transportation intended to protect the environment and reduce conflict with local people.

The state Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) said the $3.2 million, eight-month operation from the Shimba Hills reserve would be the world's biggest translocation of live animals.

Kenya has 28,000 elephants, many of which are coming into increasing conflict with peasant farmers who have settled on land the animals treat as their territory.

At the Shimba Hills, 600 elephants occupy space deemed adequate for only 200. They frequently break fences and other property, and destroy local habitat including rare plants.

"This relocation is planned to ease pressure on the habitat, enhance biodiversity conservation and reduce the human-elephant conflict cases that have risen dramatically in recent years," said Patrick Omondi, a top KWS scientist.

KWS plans to transport one elephant family -- up to seven animals -- on specially strengthened trucks every day. The first animals were to be tranquilized before starting the journey.

A mature elephant weighs between two to four tonnes.

The beasts were to be trucked from the Shimba Hills reserve 30 km (20 miles) southwest of the Indian Ocean port of Mombasa to Tsavo East national park, Kenya's biggest national park, 350 km (220 miles) inland, KWS said.

Poachers annihilated the elephant population in Tsavo East in the 1970s and 1980s, so KWS hopes the re-introduction of 400 animals will boost tourism there.

KWS spokesman Edward Indakwa said in a statement the operation was "the single largest translocation of animals undertaken since Noah's Ark."

KWS has taken measures to ensure the relocated elephants do not cause conflict in their new neighborhood.

"We have dug five water holes to discourage elephants from wandering into community farms and erected a 41 km (66-mile) electric fence along the most vulnerable spots on the park boundary," KWS director Julius Kipngetich said.

Six of the female elephant family heads had been collared with radios to track their movements through Global Positioning System (GPS) data.

And 83 new rangers had been recruited at Tsavo East. "If the poachers come, they will find us ready," Kipngetich added.