‘Oom’ (uncle) Paul Coetsee – an elephant master until his retirement – recently visited Camp Jabulani, where he shared a few of his fond memories with us. He was very happy to see how healthy and happy the elephants were.
When one thinks Elephant Master, one thinks of a tall, muscular man, wearing a khaki uniform and a tan. Someone who could probably wrestle an elephant, if need be…
Sitting next to Paul Coetsee, one could tell by his hands and legs that he has lived his life to the full – with scars telling stories from many moons ago. Paul Coetsee was born on the 13th of February 1935 in Fort Victoria (now known as Masvingo), in what was then known as Rhodesia (Zimbabwe today). Having grown up in the bush, he started as an Elephant Master at the world-renowned Camp Jabulani in 2001. Paul is a very gentle man and talks with the greatest fondness when speaking about the elephants.
At the age of 78 years, Paul has many stories to tell. We are back at Camp Jabulani for the morning where we had privilege of sitting and talking to Paul. Paul had come to see the elephants after not having seen them for two years. Jabulani was elated to see him, and immediately wrapped his trunk around him and gave him a hug!
Paul told us a bit of history about a few of the elephants…
Limpopo (now a large, 7-year old elephant) was the first elephant born into a trained herd in South Africa in 2006. She entered this world with bright blue eyes, and ginger hair (can you imagine an elephant with ginger hair?), and was so tiny that she was unable to reach her mother Tokwe‘s teats! So Paul had to milk her mother in order to be able to feed the little elephant.
From a young age, Paul could see that little Limpopo was an intelligent elephant. Within the first two months, Limpopo would kneel down and put her trunk up just as her mother had been taught. Limpopo showed leadership qualities and was definitely the leader of the calves born within the herd.
A year later Klaserie was born to Setombe. Limpopo, being curious, quickly took a liking to Klaserie. Klaserie has a completely different character to Limpopo, and took a while to get used to people. She also wasn’t as keen on being pampered as much as the older calf was. Paul laughs as he recalls how the first walk with Klaserie went. Klaserie and Limpopo had been following the herd, wandering off every now and again. Out of curiosity, they were smelling around an aardvark hole when two warthogs jumped out and gave them both a fright! Both young elephants gave a squeal, and Tokwe simply broke away from the herd, gave them both a good ‘slap’ and put them back in line. The two little elephants were rather subdued for the rest of the walk, and didn’t dare to wander off again.
Paul recounts the special story about the rescue of Kumbura. Kumbura had been alone next to the Limpopo River on the border of Botwana and South Africa for three months before he was rescued. He was thought to be around 18-24 months old, and it was believed that his mother had been poached on the South African side. Arrangements were made, and a guard was placed near the calf to allow him to be tracked. When Paul and the vet arrived, they found little Kumbura in a dry river bed. As it was getting dark, they didn’t have much time to work, and Paul urged the vet to dart Kumbura. As the vet hesitated, the young elephant charged them! Paul had one hand on the little elephant and the other on the spotlight, and after the charge, Kumbura ran away. Asking the vet why he had taken so long, he admitted that he had never loaded a dart as he first wanted to see how big the elephant was!
After three days of searching for Kumbura, Paul and the vet gave up and left. A month later, Paul was called with the news that the young elephant had been spotted. He immediately returned to the area, and manned the rescue operation by himself, bringing Kumbura back to Camp Jabulani, where he was placed in the stables. The rest of the herd had been out on their walk when he arrived. On their return – about 300 metres from the stables – the elephants started rumbling and trumpeting, communicating with little Kumbura. Lundi and her calf at the time were placed in the stable next to Kumbura, and Lundi immediately put her trunk through and smelt and touched the newcomer, giving off a small rumble. As the days went by, Limpopo and Klaserie bullied Kumbura. Kumbura, however, took a liking to Sebakwe, and Sebakwe immediately took to ‘mothering’ him. Every time Kumbura was bullied, he immediately ran off and took shelter with Sebakwe!.
Many people said and believed that due to the stress that Kumbura had endured, he wouldn’t survive a week. But the feisty little elephant is fit and healthy today, and very much part of the trained herd. ‘Kumbura’, meaning ‘remembrance’, was rescued on the anniversary of Mr. Roode’s death, and was named in his memory.
Paul recounted how the handlers played the most important role in an elephant’s life. They spent most of the day with them, and formed bonds with them that no other human being would be able to understand.
Being an Elephant Master isn’t all just sunshine and roses. It takes hard work and dedication, something Paul Coetsee knows plenty about. Paul is a man with a big heart, and an indescribable love for elephants!