African elephants are in particular peril from human encroachment, while poachers have slaughtered them in the tens of thousands to meet demand for ivory, mostly in Asia.
So African Parks is relocating what it calls "surplus" elephants from Liwonde and Majete, another park, to Nkhotakota, a third reserve where poachers have virtually wiped out the elephant population.
The Malawi elephant project differs from other wildlife relocations because of its large scale.
Half a dozen African elephants laid strewn on a riverside plain in Malawi, immobilized by darts fired from a helicopter in a massive project to move 500 elephants, by truck and crane, to a sanctuary for the threatened species.
Conservationists flipped the prostrate elephants' large ears over their eyes to block out light, and propped open the tips of their trunks with twigs to ensure unimpeded breathing. Then the multi-ton elephants, hanging upside down from ankle straps, were loaded by crane onto trucks for a road trip of about 185 miles (300 kilometers) to a safer, more spacious area.
African Parks, which manages all three Malawian reserves, is moving the 500 elephants this month and next, and again next year when vehicles can maneuver on the rugged terrain during southern Africa's dry winter. The Dutch PostCode Lottery and the Washington-based Wyss Foundation are key funders of the $1.6 million relocation.
There are some risk and stress in drugging and moving the animals, though South African conservationists and the commercial wildlife industry have refined and shortened the process over the years. Many animals can adapt to a new habitat if it is roughly the same as the old one.
The Malawi relocation is "a win-win for elephants and people" and an example of wildlife management that "will likely become the new norm in many places in Africa," said Bas Huijbregts, African species expert for the WWF conservation group.
African Parks hopes elephants in Malawi can eventually serve as a reservoir to restore other African elephant populations. One estimate says Africa has fewer than 500,000 elephants, down from several million a century ago.
A South Africa-based company, Conservation Solutions, is contributing to the Malawi relocation project. Its leader, Kester Vickery, said the key to successful relocations of what he called a "higher-thinking kind of animal" is to keep tightly knit elephant families together. Unlike many other species, Vickery said, the first thing that a darted mother elephant does on recovering is look for her calf.
Source: Associated Press and agencies