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13 elephants to be flown for 7,000Kms from Kent to Kenya

By Caroline Chebet | Apr 4th 2022 | 4 min read

Tourism CS Najib Balala (centre) witnesses the naming of elephants at the Amboseli National Park. [Peterson Githaiga, Standard]

Kenya will receive 13 elephants from a zoo in Kent, the United Kingdom. The herd that will be flown 7,000km in a Boeing 777 will be released to the wilderness at Mwaluganje Community Wildlife Conservancy, which is part of the Shimba Hills ecosystem.

If achieved, this will be the first of its kind project in the world, according to wildlife conservation experts. The animals were raised at the Howletts Wild Animal Park in Kent, UK.

The project is being undertaken by a UK-based nonprofit organisation Aspinall Foundation, in partnership with Kenya Wildlife Service and David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

In a Gazette notice dated March 25, the National Environmental and Management Authority (Nema) wants Kenyans to give views, written or oral, on the environmental and social impact of such a project.

Nema said the comments from the public would inform their decision-making regarding the project.

Eight of the elephants are female. The oldest in the herd is 34.1 years old while the youngest is 1.2.

The 13 elephants were born in captivity in Europe and are descended from founders originating from Tanzania, Zimbabwe and South Africa.

According to the ESIA, the project is unique and a first of its kind, where captive elephants from Europe are returned to Africa for re-wilding.

The herd has been kept as a family in the UK, hence the need to re-wild the group together to maintain the family bonds in accordance with the social structures of elephants. 

KWS rangers moving a captured elephant in a translocation exercise at Chemeron Farm in Rongai, Nakuru County, 2017. [Harun Wathari, Standard]

Being complex, a team of highly skilled professionals has been carefully selected to drive the project. “These include specialised vets; elephant capture specialists, logistics experts, load plan specialists and re-wilding specialists,” the ESIA says.

It says Kenya was chosen as a candidate for the re-wilding project as a result of its experienced partners in the conservation industry, especially in captive elephant reintegration with wild population and management. “In addition, Kenya has good expertise in elephant management,” it notes.

The herd, its youngest three calves named Nguvu, Oku and Nusu, lives in an 8-acre enclosure at the zoo. It is said to be one of the most successful breeding herds in Europe.  

“Although they are receiving the best care possible, the Aspinall Foundation believes these animals belong in the wild and no elephant belongs in captivity,” the foundation said.

The Foundation added that: “We at The Aspinall Foundation are quite literally taking on our largest ever conservation challenge - flying 13 elephants - weighing 25 tonnes - more than 7,000km across the globe to return individuals from this iconic species to their ancestral homelands.”

It is expected that the re-wilding project will stimulate a positive effect in the zoo industry by discouraging the trade in live elephants globally. It is also expected to strengthen commitments in the zoo industry to return animals back to the wild, wherever possible as well as improve the welfare of elephants from zoos.

In the translocation process, the elephants will first be trained to walk into the crates. Each crate has been designed for a specific elephant. Combined, they weigh 25 tonnes.

They will then be loaded onto trucks and transported to Stanstead Airport in the UK before they are loaded onto the plane.

The flight from the UK begins and ends at Mombasa Airport where they will be offloaded. The elephants will then be transported from the Mombasa Airport to Mwaluganje Elephant Sanctuary.

Orphaned elephant re-introduced to the wild at Sera Community Sanctuary. [File, Standard]

At Mwaluganje, they will be released into a 1ha management enclosure within a 20ha release boma, where diet transition will happen before they are finally released to the wild. The anticipated impacts of the translocation process include contracting diseases and disease epidemic during translocation.

However, the ESIA report said the challenge would be solved through screening of the animals for diseases before translocation and regular post translocation before being released into the wild.

To avoid deaths ESIA says disease monitoring, surveillance and rapid response plan, and implementation of prescribed tsetse control and eradication programme would be key.

Rehabilitation of the 150km fence around Shimba Hills’ Mwaluganje and installation of sensors along the fence as well as a monitoring system is expected to forestall human-wildlife conflicts.

Some of the 13 elephants will be fitted with satellite collars for effective post-release tracking and monitoring.

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