DALOA — The Ivory Coast was on the verge of losing its last forest elephants. It is a risk with some bitter irony, as elephants are the emblem of the nation.

So a rescue operation like those already carried out in Zambia and Malawi, but unprecedented in West Africa, was launched at the end of July: the transfer of several of the pachyderms — five tons each — from the outskirts of Daloa, in the center of the county, 400 kilometers further south to the Azagny National Park.

Originally, the herd that was transferred had been living peacefully in the Marahoué National Park, near Daloa. But, little by little, this natural habitat has become devastated by farming as well as fraudulent wood exploitation and unrestrained poaching.

Indeed, the Ivory Coast is — like parts of central Africa — a prime hunting ground for international ivory trafficking, which has become an important source of revenue for armed groups. The chaos that followed the post-electoral crisis in 2011 between the supporters of Laurent Gbagbo and Alassane Ouattara accelerated the movement, allowing a mass arrival of planters. This led to the disappearance of the Marahoué Park: 80% of its surface has now been overtaken by agriculture.

Source: Marahoué National Park

The elephants, pushed out of the park, found refuge in a forest outside the city of Daloa. Living alongside the hamlets’ inhabitants turned out to be complicated, and led to the deaths of at least three people.

“At first, we were curious. It was the first time we saw any,” resident Oscar Sery recalls of the elephant migration there. “But they soon were destroying everything, and we had nothing left to eat. They went from being sacred animals to being our enemies.”

Lke many villagers, Sery says he thought about shooting the giant intruders, but no one actually did. “We know elephants are protected and we love them. They are the symbol of our country. Thankfully, people came to take them away.”

Today, the Ivorian government estimates there are fewer than 900 elephants on its territory — forest and bush elephants combined. Scientists say even those numbers may be higher than reality.

Aware that every specimen is precious, Abidjan asked the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to find a solution for Daloa’s pachyderms. The NGO concluded that the Azagny National Park, more than 500 kilometers to the south, was the only park able to offer suitable living conditions for the elephants.

A risky relocation

The transfer began on Jan. 20. “Forest elephants live in an ecosystem with very dense vegetation,” explains Céline Sissler-Bienvenu, head of IFAW France and its affiliates in French-speaking Africa. “They are very discreet and silent, so you can easily find yourself facing one out of nowhere, which is very dangerous.”

Photo: IFAW

The NGO called upon a dozen people, including several specialists from South Africa, to actually carry out this rescue-transfer operation. “Forest elephants are currently the most endangered species, because of poaching and the destruction of their habitat. These are the last ones in West Africa,” says Sissler-Bienvenu.

The IFAW donors invested more than 180,000 euros — the Ivory Coast about twice that — to help finance this very delicate operation.

How did it actually work? Once the animal was located by the trackers, the different teams set off to follow it by pickup and on foot, or when the vegetation allowed, by helicopter: The veterinarian only had a few seconds to shoot the animal with an anesthetic dart.

It then took up to eight minutes for the sedative to kick in, during which the elephant kept on moving but could fall anywhere. One of them, who fell into a muddy river, died despite the efforts of the specialists. “We gave him the antidote, but he had already drowned,” recalled one of the team members. “We did everything we could, but keeping a safe distance is essential because it can charge at anyone closer than 20 meters.” Another male elephant died of a heart attack after it was hit by a dart. In total, four elephants were safely captured over a period of eight days.

On Jan. 22, a large male was lifted onto the trailer of a truck with a crane. The villagers who gathered around the sleeping animal pulled out a few of his hairs, or took photos. “These are for my children so they believe me when I tell them we used to live with elephants,” says tracker Elton Lago, who snapped some photos.

Lago has mixed feelings about the departing herd. “A part of me is happy because they destroyed our plantations, but I will miss them, especially Plaisir,” the farmer smiles with nostalgia. “I gave him a name after we started giving him bananas and oranges. He played with us. We adopted him.”

The next step was for a truck to transport each of the animals to a specially designated area on the side of a concrete road, where the trailer was lowered to let the giant animal slide into its wake-up cage. After waking, each elephant went into another cage on a second truck, which then set off for Azagany National Park. There, 12 other elephants were waiting to welcome the relocated herd.

“We want to show that the Ivory Coast has the ability to preserve an endangered species,” says captain Joëlle Mailly, who heads the protection of fauna at the Ivorian ministry of water and forests. “Their safety will be perfectly ensured. We have para-commando units specially trained and equipped for this.”

Yes, even in their new location, the greatest danger will still be human poachers