Elephant sanctuary not easily forgotten
Sally Peck visits a unique refuge for orphaned pachyderms in Botswana
One woman brought peanuts all the way from New York.
A French couple, drawn by a documentary they had seen on National Geographic, came bearing a bag of marulas.
The intended recipients were the fruit’s near-namesake – Morula, a 42-year-old African savannah elephant – and her towering 30-year-old sidekick, Jabu.
Within 60 seconds of meeting, Morula and I were shaking hands – or, more precisely, she was tipping my hat for me by plonking her muddy trunk on my straw fedora and bare shoulder.
We instantly felt like family, reminding me of a line in Tim Burton’s recent film, Dumbo, in which a small child says to the flying, orphaned elephant: “We’re all family here!”
Like Dumbo, Morula is an orphan.
Her parents were killed in a Zimbabwean culling programme four decades ago (elephants were blamed for destroying land there and regularly culled until 1997).
Jabu, over more than 3.3m tall and weighing 5.5 tons, lost his herd in a culling operation in the Kruger National Park nearly three decades ago.
For the past 25 years, however, these animals have lived in Botswana with their human protectors – Sandi and Doug Groves, a SA-American couple who call themselves “chief elephant officers” of the Living With Elephants Foundation (withelephants.org), a charity they set up to support the care of these engaging pachyderms, and to educate visitors and locals about the plight of wild animals.
Scientists by training, they have lived longer in the bush with elephants than any other known humans; they spend every day from dawn until dusk wandering the bush with the two elephants.
It is a precarious life: before I arrived hyenas had destroyed the couple’s tent and they were in the process of building a sturdier camp.
Botswana, which has just more than twice the land area of the UK, is home to a third of Africa’s elephant population (about 130,000).
On safari it is easy to spot herds in the distance as they fan out across the Okavango Delta, one of the world’s largest wetland wildernesses. Matriarchs protect calves, herds move on in pursuit of food.
This is the panorama and it is magical; to see an elephant going about its natural business in the wild is breathtaking. Trucks maintain a respectful distance so it was with some trepidation that I stood in the sun, under the watchful gaze of our armed guide, Temo, to meet Morula up close for the first time.
Living With Elephants is offered by Sanctuary Retreats, a luxury safari operator. During the four-hour session, visitors get to interact with Morula and Jabu, walking with them and learning about their behaviours.
“Stay to the elephant’s left,” Sandi told our group of five.
“Leave 5m behind the animal when walking, and go back 10m if there is a problem.”
These seemed sensible precautions but as the human presenters talked us through the various behaviours of wild elephants, keeping their charges attentive with pellets of wheat bran and corn, Morula and Jabu gamely cooperated.
At a soft-voice command, Jabu showed us his teeth, pointed his trunk in the directions specified, and even let us all have a feel of the silky-soft skin of his inner back leg and armpit.
Morula showed us how she lay down to sleep, shaking the ground on ascent and descent.
When the animals and the human visitors were sufficiently acquainted, we took a walk through the bush, each of us having a chance to hold the elephant’s trunk in our outstretched hand.
It was extraordinary to spend a morning with these animals and this couple.
I have visited Nairobi’s David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the most successful orphan elephant rescue and rehabilitation programme in Africa. But to the visitor, that feels like a trip to a zoo: there are lots of people staring at the animals as the keepers trot out different age groups.
Living With Elephants is more like visiting a family home. As we finished our walk and Sandi pointed us towards the site for our picnic, she said: “You walk that way; Morula’s going to join Jabu and her dad walking over.”
In many ways, Botswana is the right place for a conservation story like this; it is the only African country which had had a complete ban on wild animal hunting since 2014.That has now changed. In February the government said it was considering lifting the ban on hunting and culling elephants, and that came in to effect on Wednesday with the government saying populations had become too large.
Also in February it emerged that elephant poaching had increased six-fold in Botswana over the past four years.
While the government disputed the report, both controversies point to a tension between wild animals and humans as each encroaches on the other’s habitat.
Culling and the return of hunting are seen as the only ways to keep animal numbers down.
Doug Groves, too, spoke about the problem of animal-human conflicts and explained how political boundaries could create unnaturally concentrated populations of wild animals, including predators.
If the future of Botswana’s elephant population is uncertain, so is the future for the individuals in the Groves’ care.
Jabu recently had stem-cell treatment for a joint injury sustained a few years ago when he was attacked by a wild elephant; he could not survive on his own.
“In the long run, we will want to get a female friend or two for Morula,” explained Sandi, as we sat chatting under a sausage tree.
“And then we may even think of putting her back in the wild.” Personally, I can’t quite imagine this herd splitting but I will watch its progress with interest.
Meeting Morula and Jabu helped me interpret elephant behaviours – I would love to go back with my children for a unique biology lesson.Sally Peck stayed at Sanctuary Baines’ Camp and Sanctuary Stanley’s Camp (sanctuaryretreats.com), both of which offer the Living With Elephants experience. – © Telegraph Media Group Limited 2019