Over the course of a month, a young bachelor herd of bull elephants have been steadily roaming through Mozambique, Eswatini (Swaziland) and South Africa.

The 11-strong herd embarked on the journey in early April and initially, there was no real sign of just how impressive their ultimate journey would be.

The herd is thought to have been led by ‘Trailblazer’, an elephant who’s original home is Kruger National Park.

Trailblazer on the road near Kruger National Park
Trailblazer on the road near Kruger National Park | Johan JC Strauss

The Journey

After travelling more than 700 kilometres (440 miles) from Mozambique, through eSwatini and Mpumalanga, the bulls found themselves near the southern border of Kruger National Park.

Trailblazer wears a tracking collar fitted by Mozambique Wildlife Alliance, and the non-profit conservation organization Elephants Alive has kept a keen eye on his movements. Thanks to this, the entire journey has been monitored and efforts have been made to ensure the safety of the herd and communities through which they’ve travelled.

Despite the efforts of conservationists, the journey was not without peril. The last stretch to Kruger was said to be the hardest leg, according to Elephants Alive:

‘As a group of young and adventurous bulls, they moved over 500 kilometres across the Mozambique landscape and 128 kilometres across Eswatini in a very directional manner towards South Africa (SA). In SA they pushed hard to head home to the Kruger National Park (KNP). On 7 May they entered SA in the early hours of the morning and travelled a further 100 kilometres north. The last leg of their journey has been the hardest as sadly they were shot at, soon after entering SA.’

Throughout the final leg through South Africa, the group had split up multiple times:

‘This ordeal resulted in them splitting up temporarily, but after regrouping they continued with their northern trajectory. We got word of an injured bull who was desperately trying to keep up with the group. We immediately rallied an expert vet and wildlife pilot to be on standby to treat the bull as dusk started approaching. Again, the group had split into three. A decision was made by the Kruger veterinarian team and the provincial administration (Mpumalanga Tourism and Parks Agency) to have him euthanised.’

Trailblazers - 11 elephants walk across 3 countries to Kruger National Park
Trailblazer and the injured bull walking along a road near Kruger National Park | Johan JC Strauss

Where are they now?

Trailblazer was scene pacing up and down the Kruger National Park’s fence in the early hours of 10 May, and is reportedly the only bull who managed to find the park’s border. At this point, the others had again split up and were spread out over 3 separate properties.

After some deliberation on whether to drop the fence and allow Trailblazer to walk in on his own, officials made the decision to intervene. He was loaded onto a Kruger National Park truck, along with 4 other bulls who were discovered on a nearby property later that day.

Trailblazer being loaded onto the Kruger National Park truck | Elephants Alive

SANParks said the elephants were successfully offloaded near Shingwedzi, in the north of Kruger on the morning of Wednesday 11 May:

“This operation was successfully conducted with the assistance of SANParks Veterinary Wildlife Services (Game Capture) operations team and Ranger Services. This saw the provision of their Fixed Wing and Helicopter for Air Wing Support, Game Capture trucks, Loading Ramps, and all the other necessary resources required to ensure a safe and successful Game Capture operation,”

According to Elephants Alive, the 5 remaining bulls are still out there trying to navigate a tricky conservation landscape.

Trailblazer and the herd feeding on a sugar cane field | Elephants Alive

The non-profit organisation said of the bulls still on the loose:

“there is the fear of elephant-damage, but if left alone these incredibly intelligent animals will find their way to safety – and why should we not be showing the same amount of admiration, compassion and respect towards these bulls as portrayed by those in China?”

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Why?

The exact reason for this migration is unknown, but it is suspected to have something to do with Trailblazer’s links to Kruger National Park.

His chilled-out demeanour is a sure sign that he has lived in an area with a large amount of human activity.

‘Trailblazer has been through more than most elephants would ever face in their lifetime. Why he and his 10 companions have chosen to walk close to 800km ever since he was collared on the 30 March 2022 in Mozambique by our passionate partners The Mozambique Wildlife Alliance, is something we urgently need to understand and has thus become our mission.

When Trailblazer was collared in Mozambique he had moved with another collared elephant (Cumbana) whose tracks showed that he had recently exited the Kruger. The bulls were also not aggressive and appeared used to tourists.

This suggests they are from Kruger but continually watching their tracks over time will let us know for sure. We have a number of collared elephants that are moving between the south of Kruger across Mozambique to either enter South Africa again (in places like Tembe Elephant Park) or to head back into Mozambique via Eswatini. These pathfinders are teaching us daily about the routes that are available to elephants outside of protected areas.’

The path taken by Trailblazer and the herd | Elephants Alive

Conclusion

Whether Trailblazer and the others originate from Kruger National Park or not, a targeted migration like this shares an incredible insight into the unrivalled intelligence and navigational instincts possessed by elephants. While a journey like this is a true marvel of nature, it proves the importance of transfrontier conservation areas.

Writing on the Elephants Alive Facebook page, Michelle Henley said:

‘In a world where we have isolated ourselves from each other and where there is such division over boundaries, we still find elephants that connect us despite our differences in history or habits.

With their tracking devices, we can follow their incredible journeys and in the wake of their movements, new connections are made, and friendships are forged.

With bated breath, we have followed every step of a group of 11 young bulls from Mozambique, across the entire length of Eswatini and now into South Africa. To date, their journey is more than 700km in length. Their courage and the cohesive friendships amongst them have kept us spellbound.

Although they stole sugar cane in Eswatini en route to South Africa, nobody harmed them. Each country has treated them differently and as they are now encircled by communities who directly compete with them for the same resources, can we as a nation grant them the same measure of freedom and dignity as our neighbourly Swazis or Mozambicans?’

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