In 2015, !Khamab agreed to provide a new home for seven elephants who were used in elephant-back safaris at the time. These elephants were to be reintegrated back into the wild and !Khamab provided the ideal location for such a ground-breaking project. The reserve had all the right qualities, especially space and suitable habitat, which were critical for the success of the reintegration of these elephants back to the wild.
The translocation operation went well. It took less than 24 hours from the time the first dart was first administered at their former home to offloading them at their new home, !Khamab.
The reintegration process took place under the supervision of Brett Mitchell, now with the Elephant Reintegration Trust (ERT), who cared for these elephants for many years while they were still used in the elephant-back safari operation.
After offloading, the elephants were still under the care of Brett and the elephant handlers. The elephants were taken out of the boma during the day where they could feed in the immediate surroundings of the boma. They were moved into a boma each night for the first week. After about a week, the elephants settled in their new surroundings. Brett and the handlers started to explore the reserve with the elephants, walking them to the various waterholes on the reserve. The waterholes at !Khamab are 8-10km apart, which allowed the elephants to explore and learn a large portion of the reserve.
This continued for a couple of months as the disengagement process was gradually implemented. Initially, the specific waterhole that the elephants would go to during the day was determined by their handlers. But as they settled into their new way of life, they were allowed to decide where they wanted to go after coming out of the boma in the morning. They started visiting different waterholes, which reaffirmed that, as much as they were comfortable having people around, they also wanted the freedom to choose where they spent the day. There were days when they were not seen after leaving the boma at sunrise until they were located via their GPS collars in the late afternoon for their return to the boma.
Once this became a daily occurrence, the time arrived for the next stage of the reintegration process. During this stage, the movement of the elephants would not be influenced by humans and they would not be returned to the boma at night. However, the boma would remain accessible should they wish to return on their own at night if this made them feel comfortable. This was an important step in the reintegration process, as beyond this there would be no further interaction with the elephants unless necessary.
On the chosen day, the boma gates were opened. The elephants could decide where they wanted to go, and off they went! They never returned to the boma again. This was their first day of living as wild elephants!
The final part of the reintegration process was to monitor the elephants. Specifically, checking their behaviour, welfare and movement patterns. All their behaviours needed to be in line with that expected of a wild elephant. Sometimes a few days would go by before the elephants were spotted. Importantly, when they were seen, they did not pay much attention to the presence of humans. They were just going about their lives.
The reintegration of these elephants into !Khamab Kalahari Reserve has been a huge success. The animals have adapted to their new environment. Two females have consequently conceived and bred successfully on the reserve. Two male calves were born in January 2019. This was a sign that they were happy in their new environment. And proof that the project was a success.
Due to their captive past, the adult elephants in the group were raised together. For the most part, they did not have much contact with wild elephants from an early age. They could only be truly reintegrated back to the wild once they had been allowed to interact with other wild elephants and establish natural population structures.
This meant the reintegration project at !Khamab needed a second phase. This was the introduction of additional elephants to the reserve from a wild source. In September of 2020, a small family group of six elephants were introduced from a reserve where they are considered completely wild.
Early indications are that this introduction was a success. After early interactions during the first week after introduction, the two herds went their own way. However, there was regular contact for a few hours before separating again. As the new herd settled into their new environment the contact became more regular. Now, there is a much closer association between the herds. They are seldom more than a couple of hundred metres apart.
The final part of the project will be the introduction of two to three elephant bulls. This will improve the balance of the current social structure of the elephant population at !Khamab.
The reintegration of captured elephants back into the wild is a relatively new concept. This is one of a few successful releases of captive elephants back into the wild, and the understanding of elephant reintegration is slowly accumulating.
!Khamab is proud to have been able to provide a home for these elephants and allow them to become truly wild. The knowledge gained from this project will be invaluable for future reintegration projects elsewhere. At the same time, from a broader biodiversity perspective, this was not only about the reintegration of these elephants. It also allowed the reserve to return elephants as an important component of the ecosystem to an area where they have not roamed for decades.
Phase three of the reintegration project of elephants at !Khamab will be the introduction of more bulls to the reserve. The objective of this final phase is to establish natural population demographics and bull hierarchy on the reserve. Balanced bull hierarchies are important in elephant populations. Undesirable elephant bull behaviours, which are common, can likely be attributed to unbalanced demographics.
Two bulls currently at !Khamab were fitted with satellite collars for the collection of baseline data before the introduction of the new bulls. This will enable us to monitor the effect of the introduction of the new bulls on the social dynamics, bull hierarchies and changes in the use of space and associations between the different social groupings on the reserve.
To fit the satellite collars, we had to dart the bulls. While they were immobilised we trimmed their toenails. Elephants’ toenails continue to grow throughout their lives. They get worn down as they walk through their environment and when digging for roots, tubers and other underground food sources.
Both bulls had toenails that had grown out longer than normal. We suspect the sandy soils with few rocks at !Khamab doesn’t wear them down as much as in other areas of the country. This phenomenon has also been observed in other species on the reserve where hooves grow out longer than normal. Although long toenails are unlikely to cause problems, there is a small chance that infection could set in if they get torn off, so we decided to trim them.
Contraception has become standard practice in the management of elephant populations on fenced reserves, with close to 1 200 elephant cows already contracepted in South Africa. It is a viable alternative to culling and helps keep the density of elephants in conservation areas under control. Unfortunately, many reserves only implement contraception when their populations are already at, or close to, a density too high for the available habitat. Although contraception stops further breeding, it does not reduce numbers in the short and medium-term. But even in these situations, it halts population growth and keeps densities at manageable levels.
Despite the founder elephant population on !Khamab being small, with an additional breeding herd that was introduced in 2020 as part of the elephant reintegration project, the elephant management plan of the reserve makes provision for the early implementation of contraception in the population. This is so that elephant numbers can increase at a lower rate than what is the case in natural populations where elephant numbers can double every 10 years. In this way !Khamab does not have to contracept all the breeding age females, as is often the norm. This allows for the limited breeding of selected individuals to continue. Calves are an integral part of the dynamics of this very social species, and !Khamab believes having calves in the population is good for the well-being of the elephant population on the reserve.
Humane Society International/Africa has been researching and implementing immunocontraception, a form of non-invasive, non-lethal, non-hormonal, reversible, cost-effective and highly effective elephant population control. Immunocontraception of elephant populations uses the female elephant’s own immune response to block egg penetration fertilisation by sperm. The technique is reversible, allowing managers to fine tune population growth, and has no physical or behavioural side effects.
Today, over 1 200 female elephants living in 40 parks and reserves across South Africa are treated. With each untreated female capable of producing 8-10 calves in her lifetime, the cruel culling of thousands of elephants over the past 30 years has been prevented.
The methodology has a solid scientific backing with more than 25 years of peer-reviewed research, and is regarded as the choice method of population control in South Africa’s Norms and Standards for the Management of Elephants. The method is highly adaptable and flexible for a range of circumstances and management objectives. It reduces elephant population densities at a local scale in the long-term without removing elephants from the system. Most importantly, it protects against genetic degradation and maintains older elephants in their critical roles as social repositories of knowledge.
!Khamab intends to continue with a scientific and responsible contraception programme in the long term on the reserve to ensure that elephant densities do not reach levels where severe impacts on habitats can occur.
!Khamab’s cheetah population was established from cheetahs that occurred naturally in the area before the reserve was established. When the boundary fence was erected, cheetahs were fenced inside the reserve where they were protected from persecution. !Khamab’s well-maintained, electrified boundary fence prevented further cheetah movement into or out of the reserve. Thus, although the fence significantly contributed to their conservation, genetic flow in the population was prevented. It was therefore time to introduce some new genes to ensure the genetic integrity of the cheetah population at !Khamab.
With the assistance of the Endangered Wildlife Trust, a coalition of four brothers were sourced from the Eastern Cape through Ashia Cheetah Conservation’s release and reintroduction program. Ashia also sponsored the translocation and the four satellite collars that were fitted to monitor them post-release.
They were released into a temporary holding boma at !Khamab to allow them to settle and get used to their new surroundings. Their satellite collars were fitted in the boma before their release in June 2021. They have since successfully adapted to their new environment and have explored almost the entire reserve before settling in the south-eastern part. However, it is still early days and they have not yet established a territory, so further exploring is very possible.
Wild dog translocation to Gorongosa
!Khamab donated a pack of 15 wild dogs for reintroduction to Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park in October 2019. This was the second introduction of wild dogs to this park after the first reintroduction in April 2018, after an absence of at least 30 years.
The successful reintroduction of wild dogs to Gorongosa is a massive milestone. Not only for conservation in the park itself but also for wild dogs across southern Africa. It added a massive new range of wild dogs in the sub-region, and the successful conservation of the species in Gorongosa will result in a significant increase in numbers in southern Africa.
The pack was captured at !Khamab and kept in a holding boma for almost six weeks so that all permits, veterinary clearance, and travel arrangements could be arranged and issued. Our partner in the wild dog metapopulation, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, facilitated the project and ensured the translocation ran smoothly.
On 29 October 2019, the big day arrived. All 15 dogs were captured in the boma and loaded on a plane arranged by The Bateleurs (www.bateleurs.co.za), a non-profit, for their long trip to Mozambique. The flight stopped to clear South African customs at Polokwane, before the two-and-a-half-hour flight to Gorongosa National Park.
Customs officials met the flight as it landed at the dusty Gorongosa airstrip – expediting the import process – before rushing the animals into their new holding boma. Gorongosa’s rangers helped the dogs wake up from their 10-hour journey. In minutes, the pack were on their feet and greeting one another in their new home. These African wild dogs are the pioneers that will restore Gorongosa’s wild dog population and set a blueprint for future restoration projects. This species is still considered endangered, but success stories such as this bring hope for their preservation.
The two wild dog packs that were released have done exceptionally well. By the end of 2020, the wild dog population had grown to almost 100 individuals. The wild dog population did so well that it allowed the first-ever internal translocation of wild dogs internally in Mozambique. The translocation saw some male wild dogs being moved to Karingani Game Reserve to join them with some local female wild dogs.
Over the years, !Khamab has also donated wild dogs to other game reserves in the Kwazulu-Natal and Limpopo provinces of South Africa.
Wild dogs are one of the world’s most at-risk carnivores and are listed as endangered by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). In light of this, !Khamab is proud of the role it has played in the re-establishment of almost half of the wild dog population in Mozambique, fulfilling its role of conserving endangered species, which was the aim when the reserve was established.
The conservation of genetic diversity is critical in the management of animal populations on fenced reserves. Mabula Game Reserve needed new genetics in their lion population and was looking for young males to introduce into their population.
!Khamab had the ideal group of three young male lions at the right age available for relocation, and they were subsequently donated to Mabula. This allowed their Kalahari genetics to live on and contribute to the conservation of the wider lion population of South Africa. As these three brothers were pushed from one of the !Khamab prides by the adult pride males, they needed a new home where they could have an opportunity to become dominant pride males.
It is normal for young males to be pushed from the pride in wild lion populations. Adult males do not tolerate young males anywhere near the prides. In open systems such young males will move away to look for females not associated with any prides. Or, they will attempt to take over a pride if they have grown enough to challenge existing pride males.
Sadly, in fenced reserves such young males often don’t have the opportunity to move away in search of their own pride. They are subsequently pushed into remote corners of the reserve away from other lions. Here they are often injured or killed by adult males, or never get the opportunity to become pride males. A reserve with a sound lion management approach will recognise this and look for new homes for such young males. This is all about helping them to get access to other lions as they would have done on their own were it not for fences and broken landscapes with a human presence preventing them from doing so.
The three males were captured on the southern border fence of !Khamab and kept in a boma for about three weeks, before being translocated in style to Mabula Game Reserve. The Bateleurs kindly donated a flight to transport the lions from !Khamab to Mabula. This is so much less stressful for the sleeping animals, who had to endure a short two-hour flight in an airconditioned plane rather than a 12-hour trip by road in an enclosed, bumpy and noisy crate.
The success of !Khamab’s lion population has put us in a position to contribute to lion conservation efforts elsewhere. The introduction of Lapalala’s first lions at the end of 2018 was a historic moment in their long conservation history. !Khamab was happy to donate the four lions (one male and three females), to this well-known conservation project. The lions were captured from two different prides at !Khamab and were kept together in a boma for about a month before their 12-hour road trip to their new home in the Waterberg.
These beautiful Kalahari lions made such an impression that when the time arrived to introduce a second pride to Lapalala, !Khamab was first on the wanted list. So, a second, unrelated group consisting of a male and three females, was translocated to Lapalala in April 2019.
Lapalala is well known for its conservation contribution in the Waterberg over the years. Being able to contribute to the establishment of a brand new lion population in the Waterberg is testament to the success of !Khamab’s conservation efforts. It is a privilege to not only contribute to conservation projects elsewhere, but also make a difference in the conservation of lions as a species across South Africa.
In 2018, a project was established in the Coutada 11 block in the Marromeu complex in eastern Mozambique to reintroduce lions to the ecosystem. This area forms part of the larger Gorongosa National Park where successful anti-poaching efforts over many years allowed animal populations decimated during the Mozambican civil war to recover to levels where predators could be reintroduced.
This led to the establishment of the 24 Lions project. Led by the Cabela Family Foundation and Zambese Delta Safaris, it aimed to establish 24 lions at once in the park. These lions were sourced from several reserves in South Africa, one of which was !Khamab, that donated the lions to this incredible conservation project. One of the new prides in the reserve is now called the Khamab North Pride.
!Khamab is proud that our lion conservation effort on the reserve was so successful that it enabled us to contribute to the conservation of lions elsewhere in Africa. Visit www.24lions.org to read more about this conservation effort.