The first four of the elephants due to be relocated over the next 10 days were shot with tranquilizer darts from a helicopter near Narok town, some 150 kilometres (90 miles) south of Nairobi, a zone notorious for human-wildlife conflict.
Once the giant animals fell asleep, conservationists carefully winched them up by crane onto trucks for the journey to the Maasai Mara, from where they had been cut off by widening settlement, increasing farming and deforestation.
“The greatest challenge to Kenyan wildlife conservation today is Kenya’s population growth,” said Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) director Julius Kipng’etich.
Workers splashed the elephants with water to cool them before giving another injection to wake them up, ready for their 150-kilometre truck journey to the Maasai Mara.
If the operation is a success for the first 50 animals, the KWS plans to move 200 of them in all.
“The area where the elephants are being moved from can no longer hold 200 elephants in view of the increasing habitat loss due to conversion of areas used by elephants into agriculture,” the KWS said in a statement.
In the last decade, elephants have been responsible for more than 50 percent of the 9,299 cases of human-wildlife conflict in the Narok area, according to the wildlife body.
“The future of conservation will be very challenging because it forces us to contain animals in a very small space… which is unfortunate,” Kipng’etich said.
In one homestead near Narok last month, 32-year-old teacher Simon Turana Esho was gored by an elephant while on a night watch at his wheat farm, sustaining an ankle fracture and a groin injury.
He said villagers have resorted to chopping down trees to deprive the elephants of habitat.
“We are clearing all the bushes to minimise the movement of the elephants,” said Esho, sitting on a wooden bench with his improvised crutches by his side.
“It is better to live in a desert that to lose our lives,” he added.
Nearby, Napolos Esho, whose maize harvest was badly damaged by elephants, said locals have no means of preventing the elephant raids, as killing them results in prosecution.
“We have no means of stopping them. We have had problems with elephants for years. We try to chase them from our farms, but if they refuse to go we just let them eat up the crops,” said Napolos.
The elephant relocation could ease problems, but villagers remain sceptical about its long term effect, fearing that the animals will return from Maasai Mara.
The wildlife body said some of the elephants will be fitted with transmitters to monitor movement.
Kenya’s fast-rising population and pressure on resources has caused wildlife habitat loss and an increase in animal attacks on humans.
Wildlife is key to the east African country’s tourism industry, a major exchange earner.