Operation Noah’s Ark: the largest animal relocation in history

To some, Noah’s Ark is a story from the bible. To others, a failed WWII plan. For a group of conservationists, it was a daring conservation dream put into practice.
Written by Melanie du Toit
24 May 2021

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A feat of biblical proportions, the success of Operation Noah’s Ark resulted in the largest animal transplant in history and restored Angola’s war-ravaged and empty Kissama National Park to its (near) natural state.

Luanda Angola Map

The Angolan Civil War took a heavy toll on this Southern African nation. By the time it came to an uneasy end in 2002, over 500,000 people had died and more than a million had lost their homes in the 25-year-long conflict.

Aside from the human lives lost and infrastructural damage wrought, the war also impacted the country’s wildlife, with all of Angola’s national parks ceasing to function, fueled by a poaching problem that rendered the animal population virtually nonexistent.

Saving Kissama

Flanked by the Atlantic Ocean and the Cuanza and Longa rivers, Kissama’s fertile expanse encompasses 12,000km² (or 3 million acres), with its savannah grassland, meadows, and 120km of coastline providing a diverse habitat for wildlife. 

In its heyday, it boasted an abundance of large game, and it was once used as a hunting reserve. The park’s inhabitants included 4,000-strong elephant herds, more than 5,000 forest buffalo, and ample Giant Sable – now considered Critically Endangered according to the IUCN.

Known as the national symbol of Angola, the Giant Sable takes pride of place on local stamps and passports, with experts suggesting that one of the reasons it survived the civil war is because of its symbolic importance to locals. 

Also read: Explore Angola’s Vibrant Luana – and Venture Beyond the Capital – when Travel resumes

Some years before the civil war came to an end in 2002, two brothers – who both happened to be Angolan military officials – reached out to Professor Wouter van Hoven, a wildlife researcher for the University of Pretoria.

They were born near present-day Kissama National Park, and recall countless large game, from elephants to giraffe, populating the coastal savannah that they called home when they were children. As adults, they saw none, and so they sought help to restore Kissama’s ecosystem to what it once was.

On a site visit, Wouter found that while the park’s habitat was strong, it was completely empty. Wouter agreed to help, on the condition that the park, and its new inhabitants, would be protected from poachers, mismanagement, and other potential threats.

Angolan officials agreed and the Kissama Foundation was created to raise the funds needed to buy and relocate the animals, manage the park, and restore its infrastructure. 

Giant-sable-seen-in-the-museum-of-natural-history-in-America
Giant Sable as seen in America’s Natural History Museum in NYC

Operation Noah’s Ark

While Operation Noah’s Ark’s origins are rooted in 1996, the project began in earnest in 2000. Transportation couldn’t take place via Angola’s roads, though – something that set the project apart from other animal relocation initiatives.

The civil war had damaged much of the country’s infrastructure – including the road network – which would make the 70km-journey from the capital to the park almost a week long. Not only would this prove difficult with live cargo, but another civil war legacy lay hidden beneath the surface: landmines. 

Instead, wildlife was relocated to Kissama National Park by air and sea. Giant Ilyushin-76 cargo planes flew elephants into the park, eight at a time, from Madikwe Game Reserve in South Africa and Tuli Game Reserve in Botswana. Both reserves were experiencing an overpopulation problem with too many elephants and not enough space and vegetation. 

Source | Roi Dimor

Initially, the elephants were released in a 10,000-hectare fenced-in area, patrolled by rangers. Settling in quickly, two calves were born in the enclosure before the elephants were released into the wider park. In September 2000, a small herd of zebra was released into the park, later followed by ostriches, wildebeest and giraffe. 

In late 2001, the existing wildlife population received a boost with the introduction of a dozen zebra and ostriches, 16 elephants, four giraffes and 14 wildebeest. By 2018, the elephant population had quadrupled and not a single poaching case had been reported.

Wildebeest are now flourishing in the park. Source | National Parks Org

Visiting Kissama today

Aside from its diverse habitat, one of the reasons Kissama was chosen to be the first of Angola’s national parks to be restored is because of its proximity to the capital. Just 70km south of Luanda, it’s the country’s most accessible park and, to date, it’s the only functioning one. Visitors can make day trips to the park (about a 90-minute drive from Luanda), camp in the park overnight, or stay at lodges nearby. 

Eco Tur Angola Tour
Paul Wesson started the company Eco Tur and offers regular safari trips to Kissama (day or weekend packages) in specialised game viewing vehicles | Source: Melanie van Zyl

In the two decades since the relocation of wildlife into the park, Kissama’s animal population has slowly started to flourish. Aside from the wildlife introduced into the park above, on safari here you’ll have the opportunity to spot crocodile, gazelle, monkey species, and the more elusive dwarf buffalo and seasonally nesting sea turtles.

A visit here won’t bring the abundance of sightings common in Kruger and the Serengeti, and so first-time safari-goers should be warned. Instead, your visit will mean so much more, as you’ll be bearing witness – and contributing to – the restoration of a landscape to its natural state. Operation Noah’s Ark is a tale of hope made possible by the kindness of strangers, human ingenuity, and a fervent belief in the importance of conservation

This destination is one for the eager explorers, seasoned safari-goers and the conscious conservationists. Ready to start planning your trip to Kissama? Get in touch and we’ll help you plan.

Book your next trip with us

South Africa Namibia Morocco Kenya Ethiopia Madagascar Rwanda Mozambique

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