Falling in love with elephants

2008-07-11 00:00

Elephant-back safaris are no new phenomenon. Wild Horizons has been offering the opportunity to enjoy a safari on the back of an African elephant in Zimbabwe, for 14 years.

On meeting Shane White of Wild Horizons at Durban’s Indaba recently, he explains how their elephant-back safaris began. “In the early eighties, National Parks had a policy that they culled the excess animals. The policy went on height, so the smaller elephants weren’t culled and were sold to zoos all over the world.”

White feels that this was a cruel practice as the young elephants were severely traumatised. “A farmer near Harare bought four of these baby elephants. For him it was just nice to have little elephants wandering around the farm and growing up with his children, but they got to around 12 years old and two metres tall and were no longer little playthings to have around the garden,” says White.

The farmer contacted White and asked him whether they would be interested in using the elephants for a commercial venture. He said, “Look you guys are in the industry, I’ve got these big elephants. I don’t know what to do with them. I don’t have room for them on the farm, I’ve hand-reared them and my children have been riding them — are you interested in taking them?” White’s first reaction was; “Absolutely not. We don’t know anything about elephant-back safaris and we don’t even know if people should be sitting on top of an elephant.” The farmer persuaded the White brothers to meet the elephants, which consisted of three males and a female named Miss Ellie, the matriarch.

“We fell in love with them immediately,” says White, barely stopping for breath, his passion tangible. “You walk up to this elephant and you can open his mouth and feel his tongue and feel behind his ears. You could see they were incredibly happy. The whole training programme had been on a reward basis as opposed to breaking their spirits. And the elephants were very comfortable with human contact. They had basically grown up with it.” From that moment on, White was sold on the idea.

“We agreed to take them on to our property near Hwange. In the meantime, Brett Mitchell, our elephant handler, went across to an elephant training school in Little Rock, Arkansas, where they have more trained African elephants than anywhere else. He went there to learn how to look after and train elephants in a humane way”. At this time, Wild Horizons had to relocate to a 2 023-hectare property about 20 kilometres from Victoria Falls.

“The property we operate on has no fence,” says White. “We ride them in the morning for an hour and an hour in the afternoon. The rest of the time they are free range. We have an elephant called Damiamo which goes on sabbatical every single year.” On one occasion he went away and joined a wild herd, but three months later he came back.

The first elephant to skip the property was Miss Ellie, the original matriarch. “My brother (who actually started the business) and I went out and searched for her for days,” says White. “We neighbour a National Park. In the middle of the day we found her. She had joined a wild herd and was having a mud bath.” They were confronted with a difficult decision. Was it fair to take Miss Ellie back when she looked so happy? “We thought: ‘No we can’t, what right do we have? If this is where she wants to be, we’ll leave her here.’ It was emotional for us because we love them. Two days later she came back. She had wandered back to the camp herself.”

As the operation gained credibility, people from around the country approached Wild Horizons, asking them to take in orphaned elephants and the herd has subsequently grown to 20. “We absolutely do not condone in any way whatsoever, people going out and capturing elephants, and using them for commercial purposes,” says White emphatically.

The elephants have formed three herds, based on personality preferences, and have begun to breed successfully. “We’ve had four babies born,” boasts White. They are Izibulo, Tembi, Mapfumo and Lulu. “The youngest baby is three weeks old. We had another baby born about a month-and-a-half ago. We also have little Chizi, an orphan that we’ve had for about 16 months.

Gavin Best and his wife Shay care for the elephants at the sanctuary. “Substituting the mother’s milk has always been a major problem with hand-rearing baby elephants,” says Best [online]. “However, through contact with various people like Daphne Sheldrick in Kenya and local vets in Zimbabwe, a milk formula was worked out and has proved very successful.” Elephants are intolerant of cow’s fat, but they need fat content in their milk. White describes the magic mix. “It’s all handmade — we get skimmed powdered milk, add all the vitamins to it, and add coconut which provides the fat. It’s a big task — we almost have a little laboratory just making elephant milk. It’s really interesting hand-rearing the babies,” adds White. “You feed them for two years. Rastas, our first baby that we hand-reared, drank about 24 000 litres of milk.”

The other essential ingredient in a baby elephant’s survival is bonding with the existing herd. “Elephants have a very close bond with family members and once they’ve lost that, they suffer from stress,” says White. Best describes this bonding: “The introduction of orphans to our females is truly a remarkable event. The outpouring of emotions from the females presumably gives the orphans the realisation that they are once again part of a herd; it gives the babies the will to fight on.”

“We’ve actually become a recognised elephant sanctuary,” says White. “We would like to be able to release them into the wild, but it is not that simple.” White explains that although the elephants could fend for themselves, they have no fear of humans, which could have disastrous consequences if they were to wander into a village, for example.

“We’re in the process of establishing a trust fund,” says White, called the Wild Horizons Wildlife Sanctuary and Orphanage Trust. “It’s not easy in Zim, so we’re trying to get outside funding through the Wildlife Trust and that will actually give us scope to expand the sanctuary.” White is brimming with ideas. “We can do more — not only with the elephants but in other areas like the anti-poaching around the country.” The operation is moving closer to Victoria Falls, onto a piece of land that was leased from Victoria Falls National Park. There they plan to start both a cheetah breeding programme and a rhino breeding programme.

White concludes: “Anybody coming to Victoria Falls can do their tours and transfers with us. They can do an elephant-back safari, a rafting trip and they can do the high wire, so it really is a one-stop-shop, but that is the commercial aspect of it. The sanctuary and the trust are the non-commercial, non-profit side. If you are going to be involved in the safari business you have to have a passion for wildlife. It is very much from the heart.”

• The stories of Chizi and Rastas can be read online at www.wildhorizonssanctuary.org or visit www.wildhorizons.co.za for more information.

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