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Long walk to freedom as elephants trek to Angola

28 January 2008

A feisty cow leads her herd 180km north, giving hope to conservationists that Botswana's overpopulation problems might ease BY LEON MARSHALL

An elephant cow named Lersatsi could hardly have known how she was serving the wellbeing of her species and benefiting conservation when she recently took her herd on a long walk from Botswana's Okavango Delta into south-eastern Angola.

The journey, from a region of known safety to a landscape where, until not too long ago, animals also experienced the ravages of war has bolstered hopes that Botswana's serious elephant overpopulation problem might start to be relieved by some of the herds migrating into the former killing fields.

The country has an estimated 150 000 elephants and this is putting a severe strain on its habitats. Their destructive habits and the vast quantities of vegetation they consume have laid waste to much of the Chobe Reserve's riverine forests in the north.

The migration should also lend Impetus to the initiative to establish a giant transfrontier conservation area that will link a major portion of southern Angola with Botswana's Okavango, Namibia's Caprivi as well as the Victoria Fails and parks in Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Launched more than a year ago by the ministers of environmental affairs of the five countries, the so- called Kaza (Kavango Zambezi) Transfrontier Conservation Area project will eventually allow animals - and tourists - freedom of movement across boundaries in an area of linked parklands which is estimated eventually to come to a massive 287 132 square kilometres.

As with some herds from Kruger National Park's burgeoning elephant population that have been moving across into Mozambique since the establishment of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, it is hoped that the Botswana elephant migrations might also help to stave off the painful option of culling.

Letsatsi was fitted with a satellite-tracking collar near Vumbra in the northern region of the delta in August last year.

Kelly Laden of the Elephants Without Borders organisation that monitors elephant movements in the area says she was chosen because of her size, her feisty nature and the likelihood of her being the matriarch of the family group of 17, including four young ones. She says it was because of these attributes that she was called Letsatsi, which is the Setswana word for "sun".

The purpose of the tracking was to find out more about the migrations of the delta elephants

Sunday Independent - 27 January 2008Leon Marshall