A Close Encounter


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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To see more Black and White Close-Ups, visit Cee’s Photography Blog

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Early Morning Elephants


Early this morning we had to drive into town to buy fuel for the wheat harvester. At eight o’clock it was already very hot (but not as hot as mid-day yesterday when we measured 48 degrees celsius in the vehicle!) and the heat haze shimmering on the tar looked like puddles of water. We are not expecting rain for at least another two months and it is going to get hotter and hotter every day until that rain arrives.

Smoke from bush fires hung thick in the air, reducing visibility to a few feet. Then we rounded a corner and became stuck in an unusual traffic jam.

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Don't even think of coming any closer!

Don’t even think of coming any closer!

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Monday Afternoon Elephants


The late start of the bush fires this year has meant that food for the elephants and other wildlife in the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park has lasted longer than normal. The fires started in earnest about two weeks ago, and because it is now so dry most of the grass and many trees have burnt. The sky is constantly hazy,  the smoke burns your eyes and throat and everywhere you look you can see plumes of smoke billowing above the horizon.

The elephants are hungry and on Monday night we had our first incursion of the season. Piet received the call at around 01.30 in the morning and was out until just after sunrise – luckily he and the guards managed to keep the elephants out of the wheat.

Late Monday afternoon we were driving through the park when we came across a herd of around 60 elephants eating in a small patch of bush that has escaped the fires; we think it was the same herd that came to try to sample our wheat that night.

Would you believe there’s an elephant standing right behind this bush? You can just make out its outline:

Masters of disguise

Masters of disguise

 

Appearing like a vision ...

Appearing like a vision …

 

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Not many green leaves on that tree

Not many green leaves on that tree

 

Delicately picking the juiciest leaves

Delicately picking the juiciest leaves

 

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Elephant Alley


We pump our irrigation water from the Zambezi River and the clearing where the pump house is situated also serves as our boat launching site. We are not the only ones who use the narrow, winding and bumpy road that makes its way through the forest to the pump house — we also share it with elephants, who make use of it mostly in the evenings, when they need to drink after a thirsty day in the sun. If we happen to both be on the road at the same time we will stop the vehicle and let them pass before proceeding and it is usually a civilised affair.

Late one afternoon Piet received a call from the pump house attendant; one of the motors was making a strange noise and he had to go there to see what was wrong. Sarel was away on leave at the time so we were dog-sitting his Jack Russell puppy Benji, who jumped onto Piet’s shoulders, delighted at the chance to go for a ride.

About half way to the river Piet heard the unmistakable sound of elephants breaking branches and then saw about 20 elephants lumbering along ahead of him, some on the road and a few scattered among the trees. He stopped and waited for a few minutes until thought the road was clear before slowly continuing, Benji trembling with excitement on his shoulders.

As they rounded the next corner Piet realised not all the elephants had moved on; there was a large cow, young calf in tow, standing on the side of the road and she was not pleased with him being so close to her child. It was too late for him to stop and reverse, so his only option was to dash past her and hope for the best. By this time Benji was beside himself with excitement, growling and whimpering, his sharp little claws digging into Piet’s shoulders. As they drew alongside the cow she thrust her trunk out, almost into the open window, and bellowed.

All hell broke loose: Benji scrambled down to the floor between Piet’s feet, howling and sobbing, the elephant continued bellowing and Piet, unable to work the foot pedals, yelled at Benji to move out of the way as the vehicle skidded forward out of reach.

It was only once he reached the relative safety of the pump house, heart racing and hands shaking that Piet noticed the dreadful stench – Benji had lost control of his bodily functions, down the back of Piet’s neck, along the front of his shirt, on the floor, on the pedals, on the seat! Understandably, the pump attendant kept his distance during the repairs.

It was a long time before we could persuade Benji to go for a ride with us again.

Elephant Alley

Elephant Alley

It’s All in a Day’s (or is it night’s?) Work


I have a farm in Africa.

Well, I don’t but Piet does, although to be quite correct,  he doesn’t have  a farm, he leases it – as does every farmer in this part of the world.

It is a 560Ha farm, split into two sections; one large one and one small. The larger section, which we have named Sitikela Farm (sitikela means roller – a beautiful, colourful bird which occurs in this area – in Lozi),  sits proudly on top of ancient sand dunes, blown in from the Kalahari Desert over millennia and boasts panoramic views of the mighty Zambezi River.  In some places you can even see on the horizon the mist rising high and  billowing cloud-like from the Mosi oa Tunya (or Smoke That Thunders), more commonly known as  the Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

This picture was taken some years ago - now this magnificant view is marred by an ugly cellphone tower. Photo credit: Piet

This picture was taken some years ago – now this magnificent view is marred by an ugly cellphone tower.
Photo credit: Piet

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The second, smaller section is about 7km away, situated on the banks of the Zambezi River.

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Tikkie inspecting the farm boundary

Tikkie inspecting the farm boundary

During the winter months we grow wheat and seed-maize (corn).   The seed from the maize we grow is sold to other farmers and ultimately their produce is ground into ‘mealie-meal’, the staple food for the indigenous people around here. We truck the wheat off to millers about 400km away where they turn it into flour.

It so happens that also in the winter months it does not rain, the bush dries, the grass dies and the locals start burning what’s left. This leaves very little food for the many large herds of elephants (and other game in the area) to eat – and so they all come to our farm!

If you were an elephant, which would you prefer?

If you were an elephant, which would you prefer?

We employ a number of Security/Elephant Guards who work in pairs and who are armed with a stash of fire-crackers. In theory, their job is to patrol along the edges of the fields at night, listening for elephants. As soon as they hear elephants approaching they are supposed to throw a few crackers to scare them off and then radio ‘control’ who alerts Piet, either via radio or telephone, so that he can go and back them up with more fire-crackers and the added pressure of a vehicle.

In practice what they often do, unfortunately, is sleep, while the elephants take their fill.

No-one is more tired than a security guard!

No-one is more tired than a security guard!

It was very frustrating (and expensive!) for Piet to wake up after a full night’s ‘elephant-free’ sleep, only to discover half the crop eaten, and the other half trampled flat by elephants. So he devised a system for keeping everyone awake and alert – this works very well. Every 15 minutes control calls each station on the radio, asking for their sit rep (or situation report). If all is quiet they reply by saying November Tango Romeo (Nothing To Report). This standardisation of reply avoids the confusion of multiple answers, such as “Ah, it is just cool” or  “It is  just OK” or even  “ What is the football score?”. If there are elephants near the response is supposed to be ‘Echo India Lima’ – Elephants In Lands – but all protocol is usually forgotten in the excitement and one evening we were amused to hear frantic shouting over the radio:

“November tang romeo! November tango romeo! But tell the bwana to come fast! The elephants, they are many!”.

In addition to the guards we also have 20 Km of electric fencing around the borders of the lands.

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But we found that this did not really deter them. Elephants are very intelligent creatures and sometimes they push a foot against one of the poles, the fence falls flat, they step daintily between the wires and voilà! Pudding time! Other times they are not as delicate or thoughtful; Piet has witnessed teenage bulls pushing their younger and smaller siblings or cousins through the fence – those unfortunate babies squealing in anticipation of the pain, even before they reach the fence!

So another plan had to be devised. We have now connected the wires on the fence to an alarm which is activated if the circuit is broken. We at least then know there has been a breach and can scramble into action.

Last year we were visited by a man who had heard of our plight. He said he has devised a method of keeping elephants out of villagers’ crops in Kenya using  flashing strobe lights attached to poles. By all accounts this system works but only when there is a light every 10m – that would mean at least 2000 lights for us and the cash layout would just be too great for an operation our size.

Sometimes we are lucky. If the wind is blowing in the right direction all it takes is the sound of the vehicle starting up in our yard for the elephants to hurriedly leave. But other times not so lucky; many nights Piet gets his first call-out before the sun has set and only returns home after sunrise the next day. He then has to carry on his business of farming, maybe catching a few minutes sleep in the late afternoon before the next incursion. On some occasions we have had over 100 elephants on the farm. It’s almost as if it’s a planned military exercise – they split up into groups, dashing out of one field as the vehicle approaches, into the bush and then into the next field. You can imagine them laughing and thumbing their trunks at these futile attempts to keep them away from the food. At times like these  he will often call in one of the drivers to assist with a tractor. Or he will enlist the help of friends who have popped in for dinner – however we have found visitors are scarce during the Elephant Season!

Chasing elephants is an exhausting and dangerous job. But it has to be done if the bills are to be paid. And unless the villagers can be persuaded to not set fire to everything in winter, it is something that we are going to be doing forever.

An Elephant Never Forgets – Post Script


Two days after our close encounter we were again driving home through the park when we noticed a lot of dust blowing into the road up ahead. It was late afternoon, the sun was very low in the sky and visibility was not great, so we slowed right down; if a herd of elephants was about to cross we didn’t want to run straight into them. As we drew closer and were engulfed in the dust cloud we saw that it was indeed a large herd of elephants moving through the bush on our right hand side.

We were alongside the herd when suddenly, from the opposite side, a tiny baby elephant came rushing out of the bush – directly into the path of our vehicle. Thank goodness for Piet’s quick reactions (and for ABS brakes)! We screeched to a halt not more than two metres before hitting the elephant – who was now squealing with fright, his bum tucked in, his trunk straight out, his little legs a blur as he made the final dash to his Mum and the rest of his family.

In the moments before we gathered our wits and drove off we could hear his Mum reassuring him with her low, rumbling murmurs.

Thankfully we were in a different vehicle, not the elephant-chasing one. The elephants didn’t recognise us and we were left to carry on our journey home unscathed.

An Elephant Never Forgets


Last Tuesday we were driving through the park on our way home from town when we noticed a mini-bus parked on the side of the road. This usually means there is something worth looking at, so we slowed down to see what they had stopped for and pulled up behind them.  Every head in the bus was turned to the right, necks craning as they tried to get a better look at something there in the bush. We followed the direction of their gaze, struggling at first to see what it was – and then suddenly there they were! Lumbering slowly into view came an elephant cow with her very small calf and an older sibling also in tow.

She kept her calf tucked away, mostly out of sight

Big brother

We sat watching and hoping for the opportunity for some decent photos when she suddenly lifted her head and looked directly into Piet’s eyes.  She uttered a low, rumbling sound, shook her head and started moving directly towards our truck.

Here comes trouble!

It was around about now that I became distracted and forgot to take any more pictures!

At this point Piet engaged gears and quickly pulled out into the road. By the time we had passed the mini-bus the elephant was on the road, running after us and screaming; her ears pinned back and her trunk down. She too overtook the mini-bus, its stunned occupants gaping after us, open-mouthed.  She appeared intent on catching only us and it was only after we had retreated some distance that she turned around and loped off, back into the bush to join her two children.

The elephants in our park are not normally aggressive but I have a theory about why this cow took umbrage.  I reckon that she belongs to one of the many herds that regularly raid our crops in the winter months. The vehicle we were traveling in is the same one Piet uses for his nightly chasing-the-elephants-out-of-our-crops escapades. She most likely recognised the sound of the vehicle and probably also the smell of Piet, associating those two things with being harassed and deprived of our juicy, tasty maize (corn) and wheat when there’s not much else around to eat. She remembered her frustration and here was the perfect opportunity for her to show us just how annoyed he had made her so many times in the past.

Indeed, an elephant never forgets!

Any Time Now


 

I can’t believe it’s been eight weeks since I wrote my first blog and the elephants still haven’t come.

Usually by this time of year we are walking zombies, surviving (sort of) on less than three hours sleep a night. Night after night, week after week staying up most of the night chasing elephants out of the crops.

The fires have almost been non-existent this year and I had started to hope that perhaps times were changing. That the locals had been persuaded by some clever NGO people that lighting fires was a bad thing.

Then on Sunday this:

The first fire of the season

The first fire of the season

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So I’m guessing it won’t be long now. In the mean time we’re sleeping as much as we can!

 

 

And so the Wait Begins


It’s that time of year again.

The nights are getting cooler, the grass is dying off and small plumes of acrid-smelling smoke slowly make their way up to the blue, cloudless sky.  The burning season has begun.

Soon there will be nothing left in the bush for the elephants to eat and they will begin their annual onslaught on our green, juicy crops and so our sleepless nights will commence.

Two days ago a local villager on his way to church was attacked by an elephant. Perhaps God was watching over him; a tusk was thrust through his chest and yet he has survived. The elephant did not, shot by local game scouts as retribution for the villager and his family.

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