by Dr. Michelle Henley
“What would the
world be, once bereft of wet and of wilderness? Let them be left, o let them be
left, wildness and wet; Long live the weeds and the wilderness yet.” ~ Gerard
Manley Hopkins (Inversnaid 1881)
There is a special
kind of peace to be found in the company of many trees. The purity
of air is an added blessing given by the surrounding oxygen-producing and
sunlight-seeking aspiring trees. I marvel at the diversity of the stem shapes,
trying to follow them with my eyes to the upper crowns where the patterned blue
sky is largely hidden by the chlorophyll puzzle of many leaf shapes. Alessandro
Fusari (the responsible FFS-IGF Foundation Technical Advisor), walks us through
the Miombo Forest of Gilé National Reserve in Mozambique. The grass is tall and
rank, the forest vast and seemingly endless. We have come here to find
elephants to collar.
Alessandro is a
wealth of information about the area and its history. He has known this jewel
for 20 years. Before the magic of the forests envelops us, we turn back in
anticipation of the landing helicopter so the operation can start. We all
realise that this is not going to be an easy task as the dambos
(natural open patches in the woodlands filled with grasses, rushes and sedges)
are few and far between, offering very little opportunities for the helicopter
to land. The dense canopy can easily conceal a herd of wily elephants.
we could not wish for a more experienced team under the meticulous planning of
Alessandro. We have Drs. Thomas Prin (Project Manager for FFS-IGF), Joao
Almeida (Wildlife Veterinarian for Saving the
Survivors) and Ben Muller (Wildlife Veterinarian for Wildlifevets.net).
Our pilot (Peter Perlstein from Wildlife Helicopters Mozambique) comes with 38
years of wildlife flying experience
On the ground we
have Dr Julieta Lichuge as Wildlife Veterinarian and Elias Matsinhe as Head of
Communication and Marketing for ANAC (Administração Nacional das Áreas de Conservação).
Tersio Joaquim David represents the FFS-IGF PhD Candidate who will be working
with the tracking data amongst many other responsibilities. Then there is a
group of nine ladies made up of the Elephants Alive team accompanied by five Blue Sky
Society expedition members under the leadership of Carla
Geyser. We here to help spot elephants, carry equipment, fit collars and
collect data via the five collars kindly donated by FFS-IGF (Foundation François Sommer and the International
Foundation for Wildlife Management) and Blue Sky Society.
“What to do?’’ was a phrase we jovially repeated after
Alessandro as finding the proverbial needle in a haystack could not be closer
to the truth than finding an elephant to dart in a closed canopy of miombo
woodland. Fortuitously, Dr Carlos Lopes Pereira from ANAC had collared four
elephants in 2016 so we had a starting point with one operational collar left
sending out a VHF signal in the sea of bush which stretched for 2,860 km²
Away from the base camps on either side of the Reserve there is
only one main road intersecting the breathtaking, unfragmented landscape spread
below the beating blades of the helicopter. Anka Bedetti (The Elephants Alive
Tracking Project Manager) kept the flying and darting teams on track so that
the first tuskless cow was found relatively easily before reaching the one
remaining collared cow who was due for a replacement collar.
Thereafter it takes 20 hours of flying outside of Gilé into the
neighbouring Community Coutada and even beyond to collar another two cows and a
bull, all of which are tucked away in ever denser forest.
Our time and the budgeted hours come to an end too soon. One collar is left to deploy during a future mission together with two buffalo collars which Thomas hopes to deploy on some reintroduced buffalo herds.
Plumes of fires dotted on the horizon remind us all that there
is still much to do in Gilé. The Reserve needs more rangers, more elephants and
general game. It needs to be on the map as a tourist destination.
The quiet forests and the vast wilderness seem to echo with
potential and if these trees could speak they would surely proudly talk of
Gilé’s former glory when the Reserve was teaming with black rhino, elephants,
and numerous other species including large predators which all hid in the
shadows of these same trees.
ANAC and FFS-IGF have joined hands to start the journey to
ensure that the animals are brought back and protected. The collared sentinels
will lead the way and map the footpaths where we all hope other soft-soles and
sharp hooves will also leave their mark. Gilé National Reserve’s surrounding
Coutada of Mulela will be community-owned, representing a new model where the
people will have ownership of the hope and potential that the Reserve offers as
As we leave the
emerald which is Gilé National Reserve, we cross into the buffer zone and then
fly over the many shambas (farmlands) with their colourful
inhabitants dressed in bright shweshwe prints while standing
in clean-swept yards surrounded by rows of cassava crops. I keep thinking of
those Brachystegia woodlands and the few remaining secretive elephants.
We follow the lazy bends of the Lice River heading southward and back towards Quelimane. As I look back towards Gilé the trees, people and wildlife seem to blur together on the horizon. I close my eyes in an attempt to burn the Reserve’s beauty into my mind and whisper: “Let them be left, wildness and wet until we meet again’’.