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General, Rewilding

Translocations: a look behind the scenes

For visual storytellers, documenting translocations is at the top of the list. It has pretty much everything you need to create epic content: action, adventure, nail-biting moments and a range of emotions that leave the toughest ranger breathless – all set against a pristine wilderness backdrop.

A film crew follows a capture team heading out early morning. Freezing temperatures and clouds of dust do nothing to dampen their enthusiasm.

Peace Parks Foundation has a network of trusted crews who dedicate much of their time, often at a fraction of their commercial rates, to capture our work on film. These guys and girls are as tough as they are talented, often facing long hours in extreme temperatures with little to no sleep. They are often on standby for weeks at a time before being asked to race to remote locations at a moment’s notice. They prepare as best they can, but planning is nearly impossible because not a single thing ever really goes exactly as planned. Film crews are at the mercy of weather conditions, pending permit approvals, ever-changing translocation schedules, and sometimes even the whim of a herd deciding to graze on the other side of a mountain too far from a capture site.

Crews look on as elephants are darted, waiting for the moment when they run towards the animals to ensure they go down safely. This is a tense moment for all as every second count.

More often than not, there is also very little infrastructure at game capture and release sites. “When on a Peace Parks filming trip, I live by the rule to charge equipment wherever possible, and eat and sleep whenever I can because you never know what will happen next,” says Pieter Uys, a videographer from Gauteng-based production house, Kaimara. In 2018, Pieter filmed the translocation of 25 elephants from Ithala Game Reserve in South Africa to Zinave National Park in Mozambique. It was one of the longest elephant translocations ever undertaken. “We met the translocation crew at 6am, spent the day filming the capture operations, then had a quick shower before hitting to road to catch up to the translocation convoy heading to the release site. The journey took a total of 36 hours over rough terrain. What I remember most clearly about that trip is the faces of people at petrol stations along the way who had never seen an elephant before. They stood as close to the trucks as possible, trying to sneak a peak – it was incredible.”

As trucks pull in to refuel, crowds form as people try to see the animals – in this case, elephants. Many of them have never seen these giants and a mix of fear and excitement hang in the air.

Kevin Sawyer, from Durban-based production company Gone South, says, “one moment that stands out for me is while we were in the Kruger National Park covering the capture of blue wildebeest destined for Mozambique. I was hiding under a thick bush waiting for the animals to run past when the siren of the helicopter suddenly sounded above me and in a matter of seconds a herd of approximately 40 blue wildebeest charged around me kicking up a massive dust cloud and raising my heart rate to new heights.”

Kevin Sawyer and team watch as blue wildebeest run past into the translocation truck, one hand on the camera while the other holds onto the shaking ramp.

Lise-Marie Greeff-Villet, Peace Parks’ Communication Coordinator, says, “we are very fortunate to have access to film crews that are not only experts in their field but truly passionate about conservation and the work of Peace Parks. It doesn’t matter how many times a crew films a wildlife capture or release for us, their awe of the wonder of nature remains very much apparent in their childlike excitement and way in which they will go to any lengths to capture the essence of these animals.”

Pieter Uys films translocation crew members doing last checks before elephants are woken up.

This year, the bulk of Peace Parks’ translocation operations were executed by teams under the leadership of Kester Vickery and Grant Tracy, both big names in wildlife translocation industry. Their extensive experience, collectively over 30 years, is evident in the calm, calculated manner in which their teams operate. Even when they are racing towards a darted elephant, having only seconds to ensure it falls safely, there is a precision with which they move. The crews are large with people of various ages, backgrounds and nationalities, yet they work together seamlessly. Film crews are very reliant on their guidance, which they generously offer to ensure cameramen stay safe while getting what they need.

A reedbuck is restrained before being sedated and loaded for translocation. Here crew members do their best to calm the animal by gently covering her eyes.

“Seeing the translocation guys in action is quite humbling; they are exceptionally good at what they do,” says Lesa van Rooyen, Senior Communication Practitioner at Peace Parks Foundation. “Quite often when working with the raw footage I will hear crew members whispering to animals, trying to calm them down. Talking to a reedbuck, one crew member said, ‘relax my girl, it’s going to be okay’, speaking to a frightened oribi, he also promised, ‘shhh, we’re not going to hurt you, you’re going to a new safe place’ while gently covering the animal’s eyes to help settle her. Witnessing these moments of compassion are incredibly moving, especially when coming from a man who has, by the looks of it, been on the wrong end of a mean thorny bush.”

Although there are many cuts, bruises and torn clothing, no serious injuries were reported by crew members. “I have never felt unsafe or nervous when filming a translocation. It is extremely comforting working with highly trained professional rangers and teams on the ground that have years of experience who I fully trust with my life. If you just relax and trust them, they will keep you safe,” says Kevin.

Capture sites are busy with various members of the translocation crew completing tasks simultaneously. Researchers take measurements, vets monitor breathing and sedation levels, the transport crew brings in trucks and prepare animals for loading, all this while a helicopter flies directly above to look out for potential threats ground crews won’t see. For an experienced cameraman, this is the magic happens.

Visual storytelling can connect people with a world that is far removed from their realities or daily routines, a businessman in London can, for a brief moment, be part of a rhino darting in Africa. Peace Parks Foundation proudly shares these stories to also give donors a glimpse of the impact of their support.

Our sincerest appreciation goes to Gone South, Go Yonder and Kaimara for their support with filming and photography during the 2019 translocation season. We look forward to many more filming adventures through which we will create, inspire and motivate. We also thank the film crew from Gorongosa National Park for their top class contributions to our 2019 translocation visual library. Last, but not at all least, we recognise the translocation crews for excellence in what they do. We could not have asked for better partners on the ground to take care of such precious cargo. The 2020 rewilding season is going to be even more amazing!

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