In the months to come, we will be introducing you to a pivotal part of our organization… our elephant grooms.
Meet Joshua Dube, a Level 4 groom. This is the highest level obtainable in the hierarchy of performance in terms of work ethic, loyalty and skill relative to working with elephants.
Joshua took a little time to respond to a few of our questions;
How long have you been with the Camp Jabulani herd?
I started working with elephants in 1987. I worked with cattle and horses before being introduced to elephants. I was very ignorant about elephants. I didn’t know anything about them except that they were dangerous and huge, and I’d heard that they even kill people. I was very scared until I actually met them. Although they weren’t being bottle-fed, they were still young. A man named Steven taught me about the elephants, and the first two that I worked with were Jumbo and Ellie. Rory Hensman brought the elephants to his cattle farm in Zimbabwe. He also had polo horses, but thought that perhaps bringing in the elephants would prevent the government from taking the land from him as a white farmer. Jumbo and Ellie ended up at Wild Horizons in Zimbabwe. I moved with the elephants from Zimbabwe the same day they escaped their death. We rode with the elephants in the trucks from Chinoyi to Hoedspruit.
What does your typical day involve?
Our day starts at 6 am when the gates of the stables are opened and the elephants emerge after a safe night in their protected area. Each elephant will take their own brush as they exit the stables and find a spot in the open area. Here they are inspected and brushed off to make they don’t have any thorns, wounds or anything that might bother them.
The elephants that are going on safari will move one by one past a platform to get their saddles. This prevents them from having to adopt a funny or abnormal position during the saddling up, and prevents them from having to lie down. It’s similar to saddling a horse.
The elephants will then go for a short walk so that they don’t get bored while waiting for the guests. After being offered a drink of water, they will return to pick up their guests to go on safari. Not all elephants go on safari. Eight or more of the elephants will then go straight from here to the bush to feed and forage for the day. Safaris are not more than an hour, and after unsaddling the elephants, they will join the others who are already feeding in the bush. Depending on the shift, I will either go with the elephants and guests on a safari, or join the elephants that go straight to the bush for the day’s browsing.
Shifts are about two and half hours from the time that the herd meets up again, and the next group of grooms will then take over. The next shift will then start at 1 pm when elephants go for a swim. There will always be seven grooms with the elephants in the veld – an average of two elephants per handler. During the time we spend in the bush, we need to watch where the elephants go and that they move in the direction selected for feeding for the day. The elephants cannot move and feed in the same area every day as it will eventually damage the area. It’s for this reason that we plan for them to feed in different areas every day.
The elephants will browse till about 4 pm when they return for their last safari of the day. After the safari, the elephants return to the stable where they meet up with the other elephants that do not do safaris.
Going into the stables, they know exactly where their individual areas are. Each stable will have fresh drinking water and piles of branches, lucerne and bana grass, placed by the stable hands in separate areas to prevent the elephants from eating each other’s food.
Stables are locked at 6 pm. Our working day is eight hours long, and we therefore we have shifts to reduce the 12-hour day the elephants need care.
Do you have any favourites in the herd, and why?
The day I met Jabulani at the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre, I just loved the way he was. He taught me so many things. He just loved to perform and interact with people. He walked with people. He played with people. He swam with people – and all because he enjoyed it. He didn’t expect any reward, he really liked being with people. Elephants can be very sociable.
What do you love most about your job?
Learning new things from the elephants every single day.
Your best memory with the elephants?
When BBC came to Camp Jabulani and followed Samopane while he tracked a poacher. He tracked him through water, and found the guy! He has a very good sense of smell.
These are really big animals. How is it that you get them to listen to you?
They have a very good memory and respond to kindness, but are also very kind animals in return. The older and bigger they are, the more and better they understand.
Do you ever feel unsafe?
Agh NO! I am always safe with the elephants.
What is it about Camp Jabulani that makes it unique in the way it takes care of its elephants and the experiences it offers?
The experience is excellent. Camp Jabulani takes very good care of its animals and treats them well. The elephants get food whenever they want. The elephants also have lots of time to feed naturally in the wild. From what I understand, most places do not offer this to their elephants.
Here every elephant is truly loved.