Zambezi Elephant Trails is home to nine tamed and trained African elephants and is based inside The Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, just a short drive from Livingstone in Zambia. There tourists are offered the unique experience of interacting closely with one of Africa’s most magnificent animals. After a short briefing by staff, guests are encouraged to walk in the bush alongside the elephants, observing them in their natural habitat – unchained and unhindered. Later the elephants are saddled up and a short ride through the bush follows.
After the ride is over the elephants are left to continue grazing and they wander through the bush for the rest of the day, living as wild elephants do, only returning to their stables after they are called by their handlers in the evenings. They are called by name and it is remarkable to see these giant beasts responding, lumbering over to their handlers and obediently going into their stables for the night.
All of the original six adult elephants living at Zambezi Elephant Trails were rescued as orphans in Rhodesia (now called Zimbabwe) between the 1960s and the 1980s. Of the remaining three, two are offspring of the tamed elephants and one is a calf who was found abandoned on a nearby island in the Zambezi River.
One afternoon in 2010 the elephants had crossed over to graze on Sekuti Island, which is directly across from the base on the Zambezi River. When the handlers called them to come in for the night they all entered the water and started swimming back across. It was then that the handlers noticed there was an extra calf with them. He had attached himself to one of the cows in the herd called Mashumbi – they refused to be parted from one another and he followed her straight into the stables! A search on the island found no other elephants there, checks with elephant population researchers revealed that no wild breeding herds had been seen in the area for a couple of months and from this it was deduced that this little guy had been abandoned some time ago and had somehow managed to survive this long on his own. He had been fully accepted by the Zambezi Elephant Trails herd and the Zambian Wildlife Authority agreed to give custody of him to them – he was named Sekuti after the island where he was found. He is still being fed milk supplements (elephants can continue to suckle from their mothers until they are 10 years old) and Sekuti follows the herd wherever it goes, learning good manners through positive reinforcement along the way.
Bop and Danny are the oldest bulls; they were both orphaned during culls in the Mana Pools National Park in the Lower Zambezi area of Zimbabwe. Danny is now about 40 years old and Bop, nearing 60, has recently been retired.
In the 1980s a very severe drought left many elephants – and other wildlife – struggling to exist in the already dry and harsh climate of the Gonarezhou (meaning “Place of the Elephant”) National Park in Zimbabwe. As a consequence of the drought a number of baby elephants were abandoned by their herds. These babies were rescued and taken in by some local farmers, who hand-reared them and cared for them for many years afterwards.
At around that time Clem Coetzee, a renowned Zimbabwean conservationist, had started to develop a method of positive reinforcement training for elephants and the farmers decided to try it out on their foster babies – with great success. Soon they were riding the elephants around on their farms and this later developed into an elephant back safari business.
The other four adult elephants at Zambezi Elephant Trails, now ranging in age from 30 to 38 years old, were part of that group of babies from the Gonarezhou. I was living near the Gonarezhou at the time of the drought, those farmers were people I knew and I visited the farm where the babies were being held before moving to their new foster homes. I can remember the pitiful sight of those babies, I could sense the despair they seemed to be feeling – some aimlessly pacing inside their pen, others crying real tears as they stared listlessly through the bars. That image and that feeling of sadness will never leave me.
Little did I know then that I would meet them again all these years later and to see them now, as happy, well-adjusted adults living in a cohesive family group is an uplifting experience.
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