Giving Earth’s largest land mammal a new home sounded like a good idea . . . until insects tagged along. At best, the hitchhiking bugs are pesky. Sometimes they’re deadly. Folks in Africa are paying a price after helping an elephant herd.
For decades, the elephant population in Malawi national parks dwindled. Poachers were killing the giant beasts. A nonprofit called African Parks helped enact a poaching ban. Soon two parks had more elephants than they could handle. So the group decided to move more than 500 of the behemoths from one wildlife reserve to another.
Moving multi-ton animals isn’t easy. God made elephants huge—and strong. African Parks used tranquilizers, cranes, helicopters, and flatbed trucks to transport the elephants about 186 miles to their new home.
The relocation to Nkhotakota Reserve, Malawi’s largest wildlife park, was meant to be a celebration of hope and renewal. But nearby residents began falling ill with headaches, weakness, and pain. The cause? Tiny parasites spread by a common elephant companion—tsetse (pronounced TET-zee) flies.
Bites from the tsetse can cause sleeping sickness. The World Health Organization says sleeping sickness is “difficult to treat” with drugs. Untreated, it’s usually fatal.
Dr. Janelisa Misaya, an investigator for Malawi College of Medicine, says the country needs to control the tsetse fly population. “One tsetse can actually infect a lot of people,” she says. “We don’t want to take chances.”
Reducing the number of flies that come with animal populations helps fight the disease. So African Parks officials and Malawi government officials are placing pesticide-infused traps to attract the flies.
Chiomba Njati was bitten while farming near Nkhotakota. “I cannot even carry a hoe,” Njati says. He worries about how his family will survive.
Nkhotakota has seen a surge in tsetse fly numbers. The increase began around the time the elephants arrived. African Parks manager David Robertson acknowledges that moving the animals led to the increase in tsetse flies.
“We don’t want to have neighboring communities or tourists to the park having an unpleasant experience or dangerous experience through contact with tsetse flies,” Robertson says. “So we will do our best to manage that.”
Wildlife managers meant well when they moved the elephants. But in their good intentions, they failed to predict the tsetse threat. For Njati and others, the traps and promises to do better may be too late.
This elephant tale is a good reminder. When we carefully consider how our actions affect others, we love “in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:18)—not just in talk.