Darted, winched, crated and driven: The remarkable uplifting effort to help protect 500 African elephants

First, catch your elephant.

As the starting point for a hugely ambitious conservation project, it sounds like the easy bit.

The reality, as we discovered, is a little trickier. A lot trickier, in fact.

We're in Malawi, with African Parks, a non-profit organisation that has taken a leading role in the country’s conservation efforts for the past 15 years.

Now they are executing a new plan. It’s deceptively simple.

In two of their parks, there are too many elephants.

They've become victims of their own success in protecting these endangered animals.

To the north, there’s a third reserve, Nkhotakota, where poachers have reduced the population to fewer than a hundred.

Now, behind a shiny new fence and patrolled by dedicated rangers, it will make an ideal elephant sanctuary.

All they need are the elephants. The challenge is one of scale; to move five hundred of these giants 200 miles by road.

It’s never before been attempted in such a short period of time.

  • John on the race to help dozing giants not designed to lying down

The sun isn’t long up when two helicopters take to the air; in one a vet armed with a dart gun.

The second will help corral the animals into a semi-clearing in the dense woodland.

Like herding highly-intelligent cats, I think, through lots of trees - and from a height of 50 feet. It can’t be easy.

Eventually the choppers locate a family group; three females and nine calves, the youngest less than a year old.

The elephants will form part of a new population in a newly restored and protected park. Credit: ITV News

The darts loaded with powerful sedatives hit their targets and within a few minutes the elephants lose consciousness.

The ground crew race to the scene. It turns out, there is no time to lose.

The family group’s leader, a huge 30-year-old female, has fallen face down into a steep-sided ditch.

Lying on her front, it’s hard for her to breath. Worse, one of her calves has collapsed on top of her, a suffocating weight across her mouth and trunk.

The assembled team of vets and experts have no more than a few minutes to save her life.

New efforts to secure the safety of the animals have recently been initiated. Credit: ITV News

What happens next is impressive. First, a rope is attached to the calf. A tug of war begins. Four or five of us pulling with all our might just about win it.

The sleeping baby rolls off its mother.

That still leaves three tonnes of slumbering adult to shift.

More ropes are found and tied round her tusks and feet.

A crane and a car take the strain.

Slowly she turns on to her side and is dragged out of the ditch.

"It was touch and go with that one," says Peter Fearnhead, chief executive of African Parks, who is helping direct operations on the ground.

Prince Harry helped implement the first part of the 500 Elephants project last October. Credit: Kensington Palace

"I really thought we might lose her. We had a minute, a minute 30 to save her."

In little more than an hour, all the elephants have been winched into steel crates and then woken to begin a 12 hour journey to their new home.

Their arrival is a hugely symbolic moment.

Just two years ago, Nkhotakota was a wildlife desert.

The hardened feet of a sedated elephant about to be relocated. Credit: ITV News

An empty forest, the animals hunted to local extinction.

Since African Parks took over buffalo, antelope and warthog have been re-introduced.

In due course, the predators will come; lions and leopards.

Nkhotakota is being returned to the wild.

  • How do you move a three tonne elephant? John explains

"This is very exciting. We are trying to show that it is possible to reverse the damage that has been inflicted on so much of Africa’s wild places," says Peter.

"When there has been so much bad news about the future of elephants - it’s great to deliver a positive story."

Many tonnes of good news in fact. And all delivered safely.

Want to find out more about this project and how you can contribute?

Go to www.african-parks.org or www.500elephants.org