Thursday, June 20, 2013

Elephant Safari Livingstone

Animals and humans will create controversy until Kingdom come.  That’s just life.  When the idea of riding elephants for a safari was presented, I did a lot of research before deciding to do this.  Those that know us well know that elephants, giraffes, and dogs have sweet spots in our hearts.  At the same time, we don’t want to do anything that interferes with the natural order of the wildlife.  My research lead me to discover that there was a herd of elephants in Zimbabwe that were rescued orphans that resulted from a culling a few decades ago.  The local farmers were complaining about the destruction the elephants were causing, so the government allowed the culling to take place.  Unfortunately, several babies were left alive without mamas to teach them what to do.  A few farmers decided to create an elephant sanctuary for many of these orphans.  To keep the other farmers happy, they had to be followed by humans constantly to keep them out of other farms.  Eventually this turned into a real bond between humans and elephants, and on the Zimbabwean side, they decided to cater to the tourists by offering safaris atop elephants.  As the herd grew and the tourist numbers grew, the decision was made to 12 years ago to bring six of these elephants across the river to Zambia to make it easier for tourists to learn about the elephants and ride them.  Several of the handlers came too, and a place was made for them at Thornberry Lodge within the Mosi-oa-tunya National Park.  There are herds of wild elephants here too, along with dozens of other species.  The elephants are allowed to wander during the day, and they are penned at night.  The handlers sleep nearby and pretty much wait on them hand and hoof.  Some of the elephants even have gotten mixed together with the wild herds.  Eight years ago this happened, and one of the females refused to separate out from the wild herd.  Ten months later, she showed back up to the orphan herd pregnant.  Wild child!  What that taught the handlers is that the herd is family and they will come back home.  I think that’s pretty cool.  The herd is now up to 9.  The oldest guy is over 55 years old and retired from safaris.  The wild bred baby has been born, along with a captive bred baby.  About 3 years ago, the herd came back one evening with an orphaned baby in tow.  They adopted him themselves and brought him home.  The handlers looked across the whole park for a dead mom, sick mom, something, but never figured out what happened to the mom.  The elephants started being trained at 4 and ridden by tourists at age 7. 
My research also led me to discover that there was a herd of elephants here in Livingstone doing the same thing as those at Thornberry, but they were pulled from the wild.  I’m not ok with this.  Maybe my thoughts are simply justifying a means to an end, but I see a real difference between helping a herd survive and creating a new herd for sole human gain.  

A Canadian zookeeper with a background in elephants works at Thornberry and oversees the elephants’ care.  Her name is Clover King, and she is amazing!  Clover visited with Isaac and me for quite a while after our safari, telling us a bit more about what they do and gushing about Houston’s awesome elephant research program.  Why, yes, we know!  It was awesome to hear it from the field though.  Clover married a Zambian and they now have a 7 year old who had a leopard visit her school today.  Yeah, Zambian private school kid reality is a little different from any American kid reality.  Sheesh.  Clover also made sure we had her contact info so that if we come back with youth we can do an elephant interaction for free.  Um, yes please!

Our handler’s name was Eliah, and our elephant was a 35 year old bull name Marula.  Marula is also a tree in southern Africa.  The fruits naturally ferment, and the South Africans make a beer from it.  The elephants also eat them, and if the fruits have been sitting on the ground, the elephants can get drunk from them.  Oops.

Eliah worked on the farm that began the orphan elephant program in Zimbabwe.  He ended up being assigned to muck out their stable and fell in love with them.  Over time, he learned how to be a handler and has been with them ever since.  He moved to Zambia when this herd split 12 years ago.  His wife, two children, and the two children of his deceased sister still live in Zimbabwe.  Eliah goes to visit every 25 days for a week.  Basically they work three weeks on, one week off.  The elephants enjoy routine, and this helps them maintain that.  It’s hard Eliah, but he loves his job.  We talked about how Mugabe has ruined the nation of Zimbabwe with fear and corruption.  A new presidential election is supposed to be held next month, but no one wants to go vote.  Last time, Mugabe lost the election but refused to leave office so no one sees the point.  The economy went belly up years ago and runs solely on the US Dollar.  Street vendors sell Zimbabwean money as souvenirs now.  It’s completely worthless.

It was a cold morning to ride Marula, but we were so excited to be experiencing riding an elephant in a game park that we didn’t care.  The elephants walk in a straight line, but they don’t have a pecking order, so they move around in the line a lot.  Because it was so early, we didn’t see many other animals out, but we did see bushbuck, impala, hippos, hornbills (Zazu from Lion King), and vervet monkeys.  During the summer months, the elephants walk into the Zambezi River with their riders, but it’s too cold now for the elephants to want to do much more than just drink.  The riverside is beautiful though.

After our ride, we were able to spend quite a bit of time feeding the elephants and just talking to them.  They knelt down so we could be eye to eye with them, which was amazing.  Marula cares mostly about his stomach, and he ate a lot.  When we ran out of treats, my jeans and shoes sounded just fine to him.  Oh, he was amazing!  I love how most of the ride his ears would flicker right over my calves.  Then they’d just rest there.  God is so good in His creation!  I hope Heaven is just like this!

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