500 African elephants relocated to park hit by poachers

Elephants being relocated to Malawi sanctuary
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Elephants being relocated to Malawi sanctuary

Some 500 African elephants are currently being transported from the riverside plains of Malawi to a special sanctuary for the threatened species.

Shot by tranquilizer darts fired from a helicopter, their sleeping bodies are being shifted by crane and truck during the ambitious $1.6 million project, which is being run by non-profit group African Parks with funding from Dutch PostCode Lottery and the Washington-based Wyss Foundation, the Associated Press reports.

The animals are being taken from Liwonde National Park (a game park in the heart of the southeast African country) and the Majete reserve to the Nkhotakota Wildlife Reserve on the shores of Lake Malawi, where poachers have practically wiped out the elephant population.

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The relocation will take some time. African Parks, which manages all three reserves, will move as many animals as they can this July and August, before returning next year when vehicles can maneuver on the rugged terrain during the region's dry winter.

It's a delicate operation, with conservationists taking care to flip the elephant's ears over their eyes to block out light and propping open the tips of their trunks with twigs to ensure they can breathe properly.

The elephants are then hung upside down from ankle straps and loaded onto trucks for a journey of some 185 miles. At their destination, they're woken up with injections. While there is some degree of risk and stress in this process, conservationists and the commercial wildlife industry have refined and shortened the process over the years, the Associated Press reports.

It might seem laborious, but this man-made migration is increasingly seen as a conservation strategy in Malawi.

"This is very much the way that we'll have to manage things in the future," Craig Reid, manager of Malawi's Liwonde National Park, told the Associated Press.

"It will likely become the new norm in many places in Africa," Bas Huijbregts, African species expert for a WWF conservation group, added.

African Parks is hoping that the elephants in Malawi can eventually serve as a reservoir to restore other African elephant populations. WWF estimates that there are just 470,000 African elephants now, down from some 3.5 million in the early 20th century.

Poachers have slaughtered African elephants in the tens of thousand to meet demand for ivory, mostly in Asia.

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The Associated Press contributed reporting.

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