‘We’re not going to give up’ – family of the Limpopo man killed by an elephant are desperate for answers

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Sheldon Hooper died after an elephant pierced him in the chest. (Photo: Supplied)
Sheldon Hooper died after an elephant pierced him in the chest. (Photo: Supplied)

There’s not a day that goes by without tears.

The pain of losing their son is still so fresh and at times too hard to bear. Which is why Gordon and Cindy Hooper have spent the past six months immersing themselves in a fight for justice.

Sheldon Hooper (27) died in his girlfriend Rebecca Rowles’ arms after he was charged by a female elephant that pierced his chest and leg with her tusk.

He was working as a guide at the Thornybush River Lodge in Limpopo when the incident occurred in August last year.

After his death, the lodge issued a statement saying Sheldon was attacked while doing routine inspections with a colleague.

“He was about 20m from the elephants and somehow one of them came at him fast,” Trevor Jordan, Thornybush Nature Reserve CEO, said shortly after.

Lodge staff believe the elephant was being an overprotective mother. “In all likelihood, Sheldon got close to [her] six-month-old calf.”

But the Hooper family, who live near Hartbeespoort in North West, are disputing these claims and believe they are an attempt by the lodge to shift the blame and cover up.

“The press releases all state that he was out on a routine fence inspection, came across some elephants and got too close to a calf, causing the mother to attack him and kill him,” Gordon says.

“If he was on a routine fence inspection, where were his tools? Where was his voltmeter [to check the electric fence]?”

Sheldon at his 21st birthday party with his brother Jason, dad Gordon and sister Carmen. (Photo: Supplied)

Sheldon was the 11th person to be attacked by this particular elephant in a seven-week period, Gordon claims.

He believes Sheldon’s death could have been avoided had the lodge dealt with the issue more swiftly.

“We are after three things: the truth about how he died, justice and the surety this won’t happen to anyone else.”

Coming to terms with their son’s death has been difficult, especially with the controversy surrounding it.

“When you lose a child, it is more than a loss one grieves. It is actually a trauma,” Gordon says.

“Many years ago, I saw my father lose my sister and I don’t think he ever properly recovered from that.”

He believes his son died because not enough attention was paid to safety. “And when those people say your child is responsible for his own death, that is the absolute bottom.”

Sheldon was with a co-worker when they were confronted by a family of nine elephants. One of the elephants, seemingly spooked by the two men, charged Sheldon, piercing him on the knee and just above the heart.

It left two holes in his chest and caused him to bleed profusely. Using his last strength, Sheldon called his girlfriend Rebecca (22), who was also an employee at the lodge.

He spent his final moments in her arms as medics tried to resuscitate him by administering CPR.

According to a statement by the lodge, the co-worker ran to find help. The lodge also claims Sheldon died within 20 minutes.

But Gordon says records show this wasn't the case. 

“He took 42 minutes to die,” Gordon says. He also doesn’t understand why it took so long to get his son the help he needed.

“Sheldon died about 30m in front of the royal suite, which is the most expensive one on the lodge. He wasn’t out in the bush.”

The family say they have repeatedly tried getting answers from the lodge but the company hasn’t been forthcoming.

“They launched an investigation of their own with an anti-rhino-poaching organisation that lasted three or four months.

“I was given a copy of the findings and was astounded at how inaccurate it was compared to my own investigation.”

Gordon says his investigation digs deeper as he is the only one who had access to Sheldon’s cellphone and emails.

“I had access to his WhatsApp timelines with a multitude of people and I was able to recreate exactly what happened in the seven weeks that led up to his death.”

He also discovered that the lodge had been a long-standing client of the company that conducted the investigation on their behalf.   

“So they commissioned a report with a completely non-objective organisation,” he alleges.

Gordon (63) says he has been in deep consultation with the companies involved.

“I have shared with them my detailed analysis and they know all the facts. I’ve offered them the opportunity to issue a press release that sets the record straight as to what actually caused Sheldon’s death. But they have refused on the grounds that they might be incriminate themselves.”

Desperate to uncover the truth, the family have now enlisted the help of specialist investigator Mike Bolhuis.

“A lot of people have told me to let it go because it won’t bring him back,” Gordon says.

“But imagine I go to his tombstone, as I do every few days, and say to him, ‘Sorry, Shel, I didn’t follow through for you’.

“How would I feel about myself?”

He says people have suggested he and his wife, Cindy (47), are doing this to make money out of it.

“I don’t think they understand how further insulting that is. Can you imagine trading one of your children for money?”

Cindy becomes emotional when she speaks of her son.

“Our family shares an interest in nature and we would often have discussions,” she says. “I miss my Sunday discussions with Sheldon about what he had come across in the bush.”

He and his mother Cindy shared a keen interest in nature. (Photo: Supplied)

Before his death, Sheldon’s aim was to help those less fortunate pursue their dreams of working in conservation.

Now, to honour his legacy, the family have launched the Sheldon Hooper Little 5 Million Foundation that will realise Sheldon’s dream.

“Sheldon believed the safari and conservation industries were in the hands of a few extremely wealthy people at the expense of many poorer South Africans,” Gordon says.

“He spent most of his time speaking to local people on the ground who really knew the bush.”

Sheldon was determined to make a difference in the industry he loved, Cindy adds.

“He was a little person but his thoughts and heart were big.”


According to Trevor Jordan, Thornybush Nature Reserve CEO, it’s true that the lodge has been a client of the company they employed to conduct the investigation. 

But Jordan denies claims the investigation was influenced in any way. 

“I asked the principal of the company to refer me to someone and he pointed me to Albert Ferreira, who is a wildlife crime investigator with many years of experience with the South African Police Services,” Jordan explains. 

“That was it. I wasn’t told whether Albert was contracted to the company or not. He was given to me as somebody independent.” 

Jordan says he purposefully gave Ferreira minimal information about the accident so that the investigation could be conducted without any influence. 

“To say I went to a service provider is insinuating that it was a manipulation of facts. That I deny in the extreme.” 

Jordan says he doesn’t know whether Sheldon was indeed conducting a routine fence inspection at the time of the attack. 

“I do know the manager [of the lodge] told me she hadn’t even seen Sheldon that morning, so he wasn’t instructed to do so and probably did what he was doing on his own accord.” 

He believes what happened was purely an accident.  

“This is an accident that happened in a nature reserve, where from time to time things get dangerous.  

“Sadly [this happened to Sheldon]. We regret this and have very deep sympathy for the family and their loss.”   

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