DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — After being tranquilized and loaded onto trucks with cranes, elephants that have been squeezed out of their traditional habitat in Ivory Coast are being relocated by conservationists in what is reportedly the first such operation attempted in Africa's forests.
Ivory Coast is so enamored of elephants that its national soccer team is nicknamed after them. A tusker is prominently displayed on the national coat of arms. The country is even named after the ivory trade, underscoring how the giant mammals once proliferated in the West African nation.
Ivory Coast has not conducted a recent census to determine how many forest elephants are left in the country, but conservationists estimate there only are a few hundred. In Central Africa, their populations have been devastated by poaching in recent years.
The elephants being relocated were forced out of the Marahoue National Park by human migration possibly related to the West African country's 2010-11 postelection violence, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. This week, the group began tranquilizing elephants outside the western town of Daloa, then locking them in a crate for the 10-hour drive to Assagny National Park on the country's southern coast.
The dozen or so elephants targeted for relocation moved near Daloa two years ago and began wreaking havoc, destroying crops and killing two people including a small boy who accidentally stumbled upon elephant calves, prompting their mother to attack, IFAW said.
One calf is among those to be tranquilized and moved, the organization said. People gathered around in the red-dirt village of Daloa on Monday to watch the spectacle of an elephant being loaded onto the back of a large red truck.
Forest elephants are smaller than the savannah elephants found in Africa's eastern and southern regions. They have more oval-shaped ears and straighter tusks, and occupy dense forests stretching from Central African Republic to Liberia.
Elephants are widely cherished as Ivory Coast's national animal, and the government contacted the animal welfare organization for help to solve the problem without hunting the elephants down and contributing to the ongoing decline of forest elephant populations throughout the region, said Celine Sissler-Bienvenu, IFAW's director for Francophone Africa.
"This relocation solves a major conservation problem by contributing to the safety and well-being of both the animals and humans," Sissler-Bienvenu said.
Similar projects have been undertaken for savannah elephants in southern Africa, but until this week relocation had not been attempted for the forest elephants of West and Central Africa, the Washington D.C.-based organization said.
Lack of visibility in the forests increases the risks as elephants become harder to find and approach safely, Sissler-Bienvenu said.
IFAW said relocating the 12 or so elephants around Daloa would take about a week and cost $250,000.