I have always been fascinated by Africa and its wildlife. As a child, my grandmother who grew up in Kenya used to tell stories about elephants roaming through the village and lions roaring at night. These stories are what influenced my career choice as a veterinary surgeon.
While I was still studying, I made my first trip to Africa. Zimbabwe was the first country I visited in 1994; and spent two weeks at the vet school in Harare and another four weeks hitching around the country.
Having been qualified as a vet for six years I had some experience with small farm animals, small animals and emergency work. I decided to take a break in 2001, and arranged to visit South Africa through the African Conservation Experience with the intention of getting ‘behind the scenes’ and experience conservation work and life in the bush. I signed up to spend three months at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre (HESC) and also did a week-long residential introductory ranger course at Moholoholo Widlife Rehabilitation Centre with Brian Jones.
Having acquired as much knowledge as I did about the African bush during the ranger course, I was very inspired. I got involved as much as I could around HESC, including preparing meat for the animals in the butchery, helping to fight bush fires and cutting new tracks through the Kapama reserve. There were a couple of times that resident vet, Dr Peter Rogers, invited me out on visits where my veterinary skills could be utilised. On one trip, I helped with darting a group of captured cape buffalo so they could be tagged, aged and sampled for disease before being re-located.
At one point, I insisted on helping out with the guided tours around the centre. I was given some information about the cheetah’s breeding cycle and the keys to a safari truck and spent many days taking tourists around the various sections of the centre, and teaching them about African wildlife and the work done at HESC. I particularly enjoyed this and it showed me just how much I had learned in such a short space of time.
In between all this I met Jabulani and his handler, Flippie Botha. Jabulani was approximately 41/2 years old, and had been at HESC for nearly four years. Initially our time was spent as a group with the other ‘students’ walking in the bush alongside Jabulani. Over a short period of time I became good friends with Flippie and spent more time with him and Jabulani. On one occasion Flippie came to find me and whisked me off in his battered old pick-up truck.
On the way into Kapama he told me he was worried that Jabulani had diarrhea. In the wild, a young elephant with this problem would usually take healthy dung from an adult elephant and eat it in order to restore the normal gut bacteria that are essential for good function. Flippie told me we needed to locate the wild herd in Kapama and come back with fresh, healthy dung for Jabulani. We spotted an area where the herd had recently crossed a dirt track, and parked our vehicle. Flippie and I set off on foot following the trail through a dried-up riverbed. Now, elephants are not the most difficult creatures to track, but it was nevertheless great for me to be able to use some of the skills I had learned with Brian Jones at Moholoholo. We followed the trail knowing we were getting closer as the dung balls became progressively moister and finally warm, and the discarded branches were still oozing sap from where the elephant molars had stripped the bark. Once located, we hid downwind while the herd moved off, before jumping out to collect two dung balls each that we had just witnessed being produced. They don’t come fresher than that! We returned to the vehicle and made our way back to the centre where Jabulani was presented with our gift. To my amazement he immediately broke up two balls of dung with his trunk and ate them. We repeated the adventure the next day, and within 48 hours Jabulani was back to himself.
While out walking in Kapama with Jabulani we would often end up at a dam for a swim. Jabulani loved getting in the water up to his ears, and it was a surreal experience swimming with a young elephant. On one occasion, I was out with Flippie and Jabulani, and we stopped at a muddy pool right next to the fence of the main Klaserie to Hoedspruit road. Jabulani was keen for a mud bath so we helped him. He rolled in the mud and we scooped up huge piles of it to cover his body as much as we could. After this we found a dry sandy depression and covered his muddy hide with sand. Every so often a car would drive past on the highway, and we would see brake lights flash as the driver did a double-take at what he was seeing.
I’d like to think I developed a bit of a bond with Jabulani during my time at HESC. Each morning our greeting involved him reaching out his trunk so that I could take it and blow gently into the end. His sense of smell was so strong that he could identify individuals by their breath. The recognition was obvious and confirmed whenever he was introduced to someone new, especially if they were a little nervous. I could see mischief in his eyes when he would advance a little, and then nudge them gently with his trunk to see if they would squeal before being told to stop by a watching Flippie.
During these three months, there were often quiet times and I would usually go to the large enclosure where Jabulani roamed free during the day and call out to him. After a few minutes, I would then hear the bushes crackling as he made his way over to me. I will never forget sitting quietly on a rock with Jabulani standing at my shoulder with his trunk draped gently around my neck just enjoying the sounds and smells of the bush.
For the final week of my stay my parents flew out from the UK so that I could show them around the area I had come to know so well. They had never been to Africa before. I was able to introduce them to Jabulani and show them around HESC. They also got to witness me at work behind the scenes.
Eventually, the time came for me to return to the UK. My last stop before leaving was to visit Jabulani (and Flippie) one last time to say goodbye. Jabulani didn’t seem too sad as he had just taken delivery of some juicy alfalfa hay.
Once back in the UK I realised I had to get on with my veterinary career and set about doing so. Through the wonder of the internet I was able to keep in touch with events at HESC, and learned about the arrival of the Zimbabwean elephants and the development of Camp Jabulani.
In September 2016 my family and I decided to visit South Africa. I had a longing to see Jabulani again, as I had read all about the development of Camp Jabulani. I wondered what it would be like to come face-to-face with an elephant I came to know 15 years ago. Everyone I spoke to told me that elephants have phenomenal memories and that Jabulani was bound to remember me.
We stayed at Camp Jabulani’s Zindoga Villa after having spent three nights at Khula’s cottage at HESC. We were all blown away by the welcome we received upon arrival at Camp Jabulani, and the luxury and quality of the surroundings. Once we had pinched ourselves, dropped off our bags and had a delicious lunch provided by our superstar chef, Alex, it was time to see Jabulani for the first time.
It took my breath away to see how big Jabulani had become; and how the naughty, clumsy young elephant I knew had grown into a magnificent, mature and responsible elephant. As we went through the education piece, I watched Jabulani concentrating on every command given by his groom and marveled at how something so huge and powerful, could be trained to willingly be so gentle and patient.
We then went on our evening elephant back safari, with Ali and I taking the lead on my old pal Jabulani. I enjoyed grilling our groom and watching how Jabulani took the lead so naturally while the other elephants fell into line behind him, apart from little Mambo who ranged far and wide exploring his surroundings (very much like a young elephant I used to know). Everyone at Camp Jabulani was curious to see if he would recognise me, but it was difficult to tell as Jabulani had been preoccupied with his responsibilities as the leader and figurehead of a luxury safari lodge.
I felt very privileged one afternoon when Ruan, Christo and Tigere arranged a one-on-one encounter by the waterhole for Jabulani and I. Everyone held back as Jabulani was led over to me. It was great to finally get so close with no other distractions, and of course a whole bag of elephant biscuits over my shoulder.
Did he recognise me? I’d like to think so… There was an easy relaxed body language between the two of us. I was relaxed because, having spent so much time around him, I knew he would not hurt me and hoped he recognised me as someone he could trust (and who had biscuits). Tigere, his head groom, who knows him as well as anyone thought there were signs of recognition. I will forever be grateful for that brief period of time with my old friend and I hope to keep in touch and return to Camp Jabulani whenever possible. Thank You.