Woman's incredible 900km journey with orphaned elephants

·News and Video Producer
·6-min read

Six orphaned elephants have been trucked on a staggering 900km journey as they prepare to be released back into the wild.

Their carer, Roxy Danckwerts spoke to Yahoo News Australia on Thursday night from her home on the outskirts of Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, moments after returning from the “massive” journey.

“I’m shattered,” she said.

“It’s been quite a hectic few days.”

The elephants began their journey in the outskirts of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. Source: Google Earth
The elephants began their journey in the outskirts of Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe. Source: Google Earth

The translocation began at 7am on Sunday morning (local time), with the matriarch sedated so she wouldn’t panic as the herd was split up.

As two vets monitored the operation, the youngsters were darted with a tranquilliser in quick succession.

“We got darts into every single one within one and a half minutes,” Ms Danckwerts said.

“Then they took between five and seven minutes to go down.”

An elephant is lifted with a crane before being placed inside a box for transportation. Source: Lesanne Dunlop
An elephant is lifted with a crane before being placed inside a box for transportation. Source: Lesanne Dunlop / IFAW

Once sedated, heart rate, respiration and temperature were monitored, with three people assigned to each elephant to ensure their vital signs remained stable.

Their legs were then strapped together with thick but soft cloth which was then attached to a lifting hook.

Using cranes, a team of 12 people began transporting the elephants, which each weighing between 400kg and a tonne, into boxes on the moving truck.

Monitoring of the elephants vital signs occurs until they wake up. Source: Lesanne Dunlop / IFAW
Monitoring of the elephants vital signs occurs until they wake up. Source: Lesanne Dunlop / IFAW

“Once they’re woken up, we then put the next one in, and the next one in, and the next one in, until they're all awake inside the truck and they safe,” Ms Danckwerts said.

“Some of them do get a little bit sort of claustrophobic, I suppose, and worried.

“We then sedate them pretty much immediately with a long acting like a tranquilliser, so that they all calm down, and then we stop up every three hours on the journey, just so that they all stay calm.”

Africa's elephants under serious decline

Largely funded by International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), Ms Danckwerts’ elephant nursery works to raise abandoned or orphaned elephants and then release them back into the wild.

The charity’s Neil Greenwood characterised the translocation as an “incredible achievement”.

“Each was rescued as an orphan from life-threatening danger and would surely have died without thousands of hours of dedicated rehabilitation and intense nursing,” he said.

Poaching and habitat loss have lead to an 86 per cent decrease of African forest elephants in just 30 years. Source: Getty
Poaching and habitat loss have lead to an 86 per cent decrease of African forest elephants in just 30 years. Source: Getty

Africa’s two species of elephants are under serious pressure and have been listed by the International Union for Conservation Nature (IUCN).

The forest elephant is now critically endangered after an 86 per cent population loss over 30 years, and the savanna elephant is listed as endangered due to a 60 per cent decline.

The update in March split what was once thought to be a single vulnerable species into two after new genetic sequencing, and observed that ivory poaching and habitat loss were responsible for declines of both forest and savanna elephants.

Elephant unable to stand after getting stuck in mud for days

Drought has been another key issue affecting wildlife, particularly in Zimbabwe which was ravaged in 2018/2019, and is home to Africa's second largest population of elephants. 

The six orphaned elephants that came into care at Ms Danckwerts’ Wild is Life sanctuary had lost their mothers to either death or abandonment as a result of extreme weather.

Two of the calves had been attacked by hyenas, and were in need of medical attention.

Another, named Johnnie Walker because his unusually long legs resembled those of the whiskey brand’s striding man logo, was unable to stand when he was first located.

Drought has resulted in elephants being orphaned, particularly in Zimbabwe's north. Source: Getty
Drought has resulted in elephants being orphaned, particularly in Zimbabwe's north. Source: Getty

“He was stuck in the mud for about two and a half days, and during that time he’d been struggling and struggling to get out,” Ms Danckwerts said.

“He had a severe lactic acid build-up in his muscles and that then caused an awful lot of problems with his kidneys and his internal organs - his body just wouldn’t work.

Johnny Walker’s recovery was slow, but he is now healthy and preparing to become a wild elephant.

'Risky': 19 hour journey across Zimbabwe

“Dangerous” is how Ms Danckwerts describes the 19-hour journey from Harare in the north-east, down to Bulawayo in the south, and then up again and towards the west before finally arriving in a finishing sanctuary at Victoria Falls.

“Half of the journey is in the dark and buffalo and elephants can cross the road, also big trucks, it’s quite risky," Ms Danckwerts said.

“Some roads have got deep potholes, and big culverts on the edge, it can be difficult.

“But we had an outstanding driver, he didn't go above 80 kilometres an hour. So it may make it slow, but at least it's safe.”

Hope as elephants prepare for freedom

Having left their “small” 200 hectare home, the elephants are now adjusting to the 34,000 hectare Panda Masuie Forest Reserve, which connects to national park through a green corridor.

They arrived in the dark and were introduced to the local herd of nine other rescues at sunrise. 

"They were caressing each other with their trunks, and even rubbing faces with each other—it was very special to be able to witness their interactions," Ms Danckwerts said.

An elephant enjoys a drink after arriving closely at his final destination. Source: ImpactWild
An elephant enjoys a drink after arriving closely at his final destination. Source: ImpactWild

Staff at the reserve will now supervise the animals each day, until they either create their own herd or join a wild group.

Ms Danckwerts' sanctuary operates to help elephants have a life of freedom.

This goal is stronger than the bonds she and her elephants formed over the one-and-a-half to three-and-a half years they stayed at her nursery.

The young elephants meet the herd living near Victoria Falls. Source: IFAW / Lesanne Dunlop
The young elephants meet the herd living near Victoria Falls. Source: IFAW / Lesanne Dunlop

This doesn't mean saying goodbye wasn't difficult. 

“I don't really talk to them, I sort of think to them as it were, and just say, 'well done you guys, I'm so proud of you',” Ms Danckwerts.

“I just want to weep now actually - they’ve got a second chance now.

“I just say, 'make new friends and you'll be fine, you'll be fine'. That's what we keep saying is, 'you'll be fine'.”

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