How ‘Operation Noah’s Ark’ Saved This African Park

Why you should care

Because this is an animal airlift story that ends well.

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University of Pretoria wildlife researcher Wouter van Hoven found himself in a tricky situation in 2001 amid the Angola wilderness. A Russian Ilyushin II-76 plane had just landed with precious cargo: two giant crates holding giraffes that had been airlifted from South Africa.

The problem? The flatbed trucks van Hoven had requested for the crates to be directly lowered onto had not yet arrived. When they finally did arrive an hour later, van Hoven then had to figure out how to lift the crates onto them. The workers ignored his request for a forklift, choosing instead to hoist the crates with hooks — even though van Hoven warned them the crates would fall apart. Sure enough, the lids ripped off during the loading. Luckily, no animals were hurt by this. But “you ended up having a giraffe with its head sticking out, and any time a tree passed by, it would take a bite out of the leaves,” says van Hoven, now able to laugh about the ordeal. 

The controversy around it was that most of the species being shipped in were not native to the whole park.

Will Travers, president of the conservationist Born Free Foundation

Their destination was the Kissama National Park, just 43 miles south of the Angolan capital of Luanda. Once teeming with wildlife, the park’s entire animal population was wiped out by the country’s brutal civil war, which lasted nearly three decades and killed half a million people. In the 1990s, Angolan officials frustrated by the decimation reached out to van Hoven for help in repopulating the park with many of the same types of animals that once roamed there. This led to one of the most ambitious relocation projects in modern history — a journey codenamed ”Operation Noah’s Ark” — that transported about 100 animals and seven different species some 2,000 miles.

The project’s roots can be traced back to 1994 when the Angolan military contacted van Hoven with the unusual request. As children, brothers Army Gen. Luís Faceira and Special Forces Gen. António Faceira had seen elephants, buffalo, antelopes and other majestic creatures roaming among the baobab trees and mangroves dotting the coastal savanna. They wanted their park restored. When van Hoven arrived at the brothers’ invitation to inspect the ecosystem, he found a strong habitat but no wildlife. “It was pretty clear that it was a miserable situation,” he says.

The wildlife expert agreed to create a plan to repopulate the park, under one condition: that the animals would be protected from mismanagement, illness and poachers. He decided to create a foundation to raise funds for the effort. “You couldn’t really justify taking funds from the government for a wildlife project when there were people dying from hunger,” van Hoven says. On a whim, he called up the CEO of Shell Oil in Angola, which was drilling off the African coast at the time. The oil company became his first benefactor; his second was the U.S. Humane Society. The two contributed the bulk of the foundation’s $1 million project budget.

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A drugged elephant is loaded onto a truck at the Madikwe Game Reserve prior to being flown to Kissama National Park near Luanda, Angola, on Sept. 8, 2000.


Donations also played a key role: The planes were free, on loan to the Angolan military from Russia, as were the 35 elephants that would eventually be relocated from Botswana. Funds went toward purchasing some of the other animals from South Africa — everything from ostriches to kudu, wildebeests and zebras — building shipping containers and installing an electric fence that cornered off about 50,000 acres of land along the Cuanza River. What stood out, van Hoven says, was that almost every similar animal transfer had been done by land. That wasn’t an option in this case, though, because the trip would have taken five to six days across the African desert on poor roads … and because landmines still dotted much of the Angolan landscape. 


The project drew headlines and raised eyebrows. “The controversy around it was that most of the species being shipped in were not native to the whole park,” which can lead to disease and habitat destruction, says Will Travers, president of the conservationist Born Free Foundation. 

The relocations took place in 2001 and 2002, and amazingly not one of the animals died in transport. The Angolan president attended the ribbon-cutting, and the environment minister and hundreds of others gathered to watch the first animals released into the park as news photographers snapped photos and television crews rolled. “In a country in civil war, the media is overwhelmed with death and misery. Here we were, bringing animals into this country,” van Hoven says, describing the local excitement. “It was a bit chaotic. The giraffes just ran right through the crowd, but nobody was hurt.” 

What’s more, in the intervening 16 years, not a single animal has been lost to poaching. The elephant population, in fact, has quadrupled. Van Hoven credits the remarkable achievement to security and education. Before the animals arrived, his crew trained Special Forces soldiers as conservationists. “We had them swap the sword for the plowshare, and it worked very well,” he says, a lasting legacy that remains in place today at the park, now one of Angola’s top holiday destinations.

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