Story by Barbara
My story – and love – of elephants started many, many years ago as, being privileged enough to live in and have visited some wild places in Africa, I have often been exposed to them in the wild, but never in a captive environment.
Unbeknown to me, that story was about to change.
2014 had been a year of incredible highs and some debilitating lows which brought me the recognition that my soul was crying out for time with wild animals, where I felt a deep healing of my wounds would be inevitable – my lifelong dream has always been to work in a wildlife rehabilitation centre – I find, a lot of the time, animals so much more entertaining, accommodating, compassionate and thoughtful than humans!!!
The place that immediately popped out at me, when I was searching the Internet for volunteer progammes, was Imire, near Wedza in Zimbabwe, as they work with both rhinos and elephant – the two (for me at least) most iconic, beautiful creatures and, sadly, two of the most endangered species. Plus I used to live in Zimbabwe, so it’s a home from home for me.
There I met my “Magnificent Four”, Mac (the lead bull elephant), Toto (another bull), Mandevu (the only cow elephant) and Kutanga (the 5 year old bull elephant, son to Mac and Mandevu) and fell – quite simply – madly in love. Mac is the hugest, gentlest, most calming, considerate influence on the herd, while Toto is his perfect gentlemanly partner, being his brotherly backup all the time. Mandevu is a little lady (she was raised on a bottle so looks really petite next to Mac and Toto – and far too small to be a Mum !) It was interesting observing these four as a herd – they are penned at night, but wander the 11000 acres of Imire during the day – as, in the wild, where a herd is always matriarch and female driven, this is a completely different set up. Mac is very attentive to Kutanga and really plays his fatherly role, while Toto takes the place of the aunt/godmother, always being there, helping Mac and Mandevu to look after young Kutanga. Mandevu is just a wonderful mum, as all cow elephants are.
Anyway, on the day I met these four, Kutanga had a hugely swollen right foot and was walking with great difficulty, it was absolutely heartbreaking to watch the little guy try and keep up with rest of the herd. Ever attentive, Mac would go and break branches from the trees for him and drop them next to him so that Kutanga could eat without having to walk too far. Toto spent some time watching over Kutanga, while Mac and Mandevu went off to eat or swim and then one of them would come back to be with Kutanga, and Toto would take his turn to go and enjoy whatever it was they were doing.
Eventually, a vet was consulted and after much back and forth between the reserve and the vet, it was decided that Kutanga would need to remain enclosed to rest the foot and to take a course of antibiotics as it appeared that he had wrenched his ankle and an infection had set in. Kutanga had, by this stage, been put in a pen alone with his Mum, Mandevu, because the walk back to the pen, where Mac and Toto spend their nights was too far for Kutanga. Being penned all day and night, we – as the volunteers- were tasked with cutting his browse every morning and evening. Over the next few weeks, Kutanga and I just seemed to connect on a level that I had only experienced with Mac right in the beginning. Don’t get me wrong, I adore every single one of them, but there just seemed to be more of a “connection” with Mac and Kutanga.
In the early stages of Kutanga’s treatment, the handlers were really battling to get him to take his antibiotics, whether they were stuffed in a banana or apple, he simply was not interested. They had to get 80 of these pills down him each day, so you can imagine the difficulty !! I was standing with him on the second day of his treatment – he was leaning up against the pen, as he often did, to take the weight off his sore foot – and went across to say my usual hellos and give him a stroke. While I was rubbing his cheek the handler brought across the banana stuffed with five or six of his antibiotics. Kutanga lifted the banana from the handler’s hand, put it in his mouth for a second and spat the entire thing out ! When the handler walked away to try again with the next lot of pills, I gently told Kutanga that he really had to take these pills as they would help to make his foot better – I was talking softly, looking into his eye, that was concentrating on me as I spoke, and kept rubbing his cheek while he relaxed. The next banana that the handler brought, Kutanga swallowed straight down and looked down at me as though to say “You see, I did it !” From then on it was a breeze – until we ran out of bananas and other fruit ! – and each time he swallowed the fruit I would praise him warmly and kept rubbing his body and head, telling him what a clever boy he was and how proud I was of him.
What happened next, after they had used up all the fruit, has forever changed my life and, at the time, reduced me to floods of tears. He lifted his beautiful big head and rested it against mine, wrapping his trunk around the back of me in what can only be described as an elephant hug. I wept buckets, as never have I felt such compassion, love and gentleness – and I really didn’t expect that thank you from this magnificent, sentient being – he turned my soul inside out, words cannot describe the feeling. We stood like that for a while and it will live with me forever – my heart aches to see him and I have promised him I will ! The picture with this article is that memorable moment with my beautiful Kutanga.
A fellow volunteer friend and I are busy raising funds to build these Magnificent Four a new boma and I cannot wait to visit them again and to be able to give them the boma they deserve. We have a long way to go in our fund raising efforts, but I have made my promises to these Four and whatever happens, I will honour that promise !