About 300 elephants remain, almost all tuskless – a sort of natural selection by poaching. (In a normal population, 7 percent have no tusks.) Wildlife experts say the tuskless elephants can be more aggressive than their tusked counterparts. So when the South African park system offered to donate big-tusked elephants, Pereira saw it as an opportunity to diversify the local gene pool.
G5 was just what he wanted: More than 40 years old, 10-1/2 feet tall at his shoulders, ankles three feet around. The visible part of G5’s tusks measured four feet. (The part under the skin almost doubles the length.) And he was unarguably mellow – contentedly munching on thorn trees as tourists snapped photos. Young elephants learn behavior from their elders. So, park officials thought, G5 might calm resident herds.
But now, instead of symbolizing the resurgence of Gorongosa, G5 represented one of the toughest questions in conservation today: whether it is possible to manage the relationship between wild animals and the people who live in their traditional habitats, or whether animals will only survive if kept in fenced, closed parks.
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Pereira held the satellite antenna by the open helicopter door the day after he realized G5 was missing, hoping to get a signal from the elephant’s collar. Beneath him, green palms dotted scorched, black earth.
Though warned not to, many people illegally clear brush in the park by fire, which helps poachers steer clear of lions and herd other animals into snares. These fires also burn the elephants’ food. Though villagers often complain about elephants leaving the unfenced park and eating their crops, there is a clear correlation between park fires and elephant movement.
“What do you expect the elephants to do? They need to eat,” explained Pereira.
For a newbie like G5, he said, fires can be terrifying. So as Pereira flew farther and farther away from the park’s boundaries, he was increasingly nervous. Elephants can cover up to 50 miles in a day if they’re really moving.