If you have been following this blog, you will know that I recently returned from a trip to Kruger National Park in South Africa (click here for a video blog on wildlife at the lodge where we stayed). The main aim of the trip was to go on game drives in the National Park and see as much wildlife as possible – my ideal holiday. However, we were not only catering to my wishes – my parents and brother were with us on the trip, and there were a few other things they wanted to do. Some, such as trips to Three Rondavels and Bourke’s Luck Potholes (fairly spectacular geological features) I was happy to fall in with.
One trip, to walk in the nature reserve in Blyde River Canyon, I was actively enthusiastic about – Blyde River Canyon is one of the few nesting sites of the very rare Taita falcon. Needless to say, we did not see the Taita falcon, and my Dad had a significant loss of temper when he realised how far down the canyon we had walked, and, inevitably therefore, how much canyon we had to walk back up.
Nevertheless, the rest of us enjoyed the walk, and I got a shot of this awesome leaf-mimicking butterfly, so I was happy!
But there was one trip about which I was dubious, to say the least – a visit to an elephant sanctuary promising ‘interactive experiences’ with the elephants. Instantly, all the worst things I have heard and read about these sanctuaries came to mind – elephants ‘rescued’ (read illegally captured) from the wild, kept in cramped and inadequate cages and made to perform tricks for groups of tourists completely ignorant of the welfare implications of keeping such intelligent creatures in such a way. I really wasn’t sure I wanted to go, but the others were keen, and I thought, “Well, at least I get some more information on it, and I can always leave if I’m not happy”.
We arrived at the sanctuary, and we were the only people there. We were told that we were lucky as there were no previous bookings, and that the numbers for each elephant experience were strictly limited. My heart lifted an infinitesimal amount – at least they weren’t exposing elephants to large, noisy groups of people. The surroundings were pleasant, with planted flowerbeds and more wild areas of shrubs and trees, and I whiled away the 15 minute wait playing with two cats that were clearly pampered pets. The vet in me is automatically inclined to be well-disposed towards a place or person with a well-cared for pet, and I began to hope that a place that looked after their cats would give at least the same standard of care to their elephants.
I was pleasantly surprised when the ‘elephant experience’ began with a good 20 minutes of informative presentations on the anatomy, physiology and husbandry of elephants, including a tour of the overnight enclosures and information on where the elephants had come from. The sanctuary only had two elephants in residence, as they could not give the necessary attention and space to any more. The two males they have currently are Kasper, who is about 20 years old, and Kitso, who is 10 (African elephants can live to 70 years in the wild, so although they tend to have shorter lifespans in captivity, they are both still quite young). Kitso was rescued when his mother was killed as part of a culling programme, at a time when elephants in the Kruger were severely overpopulated, and were starting to irreversibly damage the habitat and die from starvation. At the time, it was thought that as a 4 year old calf, Kitso would be able to survive independently of his mother, but elephants have a matriarchal society which supports and teaches calves until they are at least 8 years old. Kitso did not have enough knowledge to survive on his own, and so he was rescued and brought back to the sanctuary.
Kasper was taken as a calf, along with two others, to Namibia by a family who thought it would be nice to have baby elephants playing on their front lawn and roaming the grounds. As usually happens in these situations, they had not planned ahead for adult elephants, and so when the elephants reached sexual maturity and started to become aggressive, the family couldn’t cope and decided to have them put down. Kasper was rescued and brought back to Kruger, where he had been born.
So much for the provenance of the elephants; I was happy that they had been genuinely rescued, not just captured as calves for the tourist trade. I was also impressed with the overnight enclosures – spacious enough, solid and well built to prevent injury or escape, with fresh water in self-filling troughs, plenty of food and bedding, and planned so that the elephants could have contact or solitude, as they chose. Already I was feeling a lot better about the sanctuary and the welfare of the elephants, but I was still unsure about the ‘interactive experiences’. My final doubts evaporated when the elephants finally appeared, walked down a track completely unrestrained by their keeper-trainers. The trainers spoke to them authoritatively, but with huge amounts of love and respect evident in their voices. The only tools used for training were a short plastic rod, used to indicate to the elephant what he should do (for example, running the rod down the leg told the elephant to lift his foot), and a bag of elephant nuts, used to reward the elephant at the completion of each task.
All the tasks were centred around a clinical examination of the elephant (something my zookeeper friends will understand!) – lifting the feet to remove thorns, opening the mouth to check the teeth, kneeling to inspect the ears – although I’m not sure what relevance the ‘elephant’s kiss’ had – I think they do it just for the expression on the tourists’ faces!
Whilst in an ideal world, these elephants would have been in the wild, in the circumstances this sanctuary was probably the best place for them, and if they hadn’t been rescued then death was the only alternative. They were given mental stimulation from the training and interaction with the trainers, companionship from the trainers and each other, plenty of good food, and exercise from their walks and rides which took place four times daily, and from foraging expeditions on the sanctuary’s land. The long term aim is to release these elephants into a purpose-made nature reserve, where they will still interact with trainers, but will have much more space to roam. This will then allow the sanctuary to rescue and rehabilitate two more elephants.
I began my visit to the Elephant Sanctuary prepared to be angry and upset by the exploitation of animals for the money of tourists. What I saw there changed my mind. If all wildlife rescue sanctuaries were like this one, then perhaps I could overcome my prejudice altogether.