KZN wildlife experts save gaur in India
Bigger than a buffalo, the gaur or Indian bison is an impressive species. Unfortunately, it’s also under threat and some years ago died out in the Madhya Pradesh province of India. But thanks to a translocation project, spearheaded by game capture specialists from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, the animal’s local extinction has been reversed. By Debbie Cooper
In a groundbreaking exercise, leading South African conservationists, working with a team of Indian counterparts, have successfully reversed a local extinction of the gaur (Indian bison) in the Madhya Pradesh province in northern India. Fifty animals have been moved from Kanha National Park into the secure Bandhavgarh National Park, providing a viable breeding herd to sustainably repopulate the original habitat.
The idea for the project first took root some five years ago when Les Carlisle, Conservation Manager for &Beyond, looked around the park, where &Beyond has tourist concessions, and realised that gaurs could be translocated to repopulate the area. At the time animal translocation – common in South Africa – was not a familiar concept in India, which has seen much regional extinction in recent decades. Seeking to change this, Carlisle enlisted the aid of Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife game capture specialists Dr Dave Cooper and Jeff Cooke, and an Indian delegation was invited to South Africa to witness firsthand the achievements that the provincial conservation body had made in wildlife relocation.
The South African 'dream team' (from left to right): Les Carlisle, Group Conservation Manager at &Beyond; Jeff Cooke, Game Capture Unit Manager for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife; Dr Dave Cooper, Chief Veterinarian for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, together with the mahout (elephant handler).
So began a lengthy process of bureaucratic hurdles and perseverance, driven by determined parties on both sides, including Dr HS Pabla, Director Madhya Pradesh Forestry Department, who found himself up against numerous sceptics amongst his countrymen. After several false starts, January 2011 heralded the first India-South Africa joint operation to effect change in the gaur population. In a milestone capture exercise over a course of two weeks, 19 animals were successfully translocated from Kanha to Bandhavgarh. Cooper and Cooke provided expert training for Indian capture staff with outstanding results. In turn, the South Africans learned to understand the unique conditions of India’s highlands. Instead of vehicles or helicopters, the transport of choice in this habitat is the Asian elephant. Superbly trained and responsive, these working animals instantly won the hearts of the South African team.
The arrival of the world’s first-ever mass translocation of gaurs in the middle of a cold winter’s night in 2011 brought tears to dozens of spectators and role-players.
But the numbers were not yet sufficient to turn the course of nature and in February 2012, the three men returned to India to complete the project. Beyond their highest expectations, the team of Indian specialists trained in the previous round performed an almost perfect repeat procedure and learnt additional mass capture techniques applicable to deer species like chital (spotted deer) and the highly endangered barasingha (swamp deer).
An excerpt from Carlisle’s’ diary reads: “I’m very impressed with how slick the teams have become. Doing a full darting capture in 20 minutes is world class.”
Within days, they reached the final magical tally of 50 required in terms of a successful reversal.
“It was a real high point in our lives,” says Cooper. “Not only have we achieved a notable conservation success, but we forged incredible bonds with international colleagues. It has been an honour to have been part of this incredible journey, to share information and build capacity, in the true spirit of our vocation.”
Carlisle echoed this: “It has been an extraordinary privilege to participate in a pioneering Indian wildlife translocation, planning and execution process. The people involved were totally professional and their determination to make a difference to the future of conservation means that the future of the tiger, the overall indicator of the health of the Madhya Pradesh forests, will surely be improved.”
Indian 4x4s: the team darted gaurs from the backs of elephants.
Ezemvelo Chief Veterinarian Dr Dave Cooper (centre) looks on as the Indian game capture team prepare a gaur for translocation.
Ezemvelo's Game Capture Unit Manager Jeff Cooke (far left) travels with the team and a sedated gaur.
POSTSCRIPT: Among the relocated gaurs was a pregnant female, who has since given birth to a healthy calf. This confirms the success of the entire relocation and proves that the animals are now relaxed and adapting to their new environment without any stress.
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