Nothing More Peaceful Than An Elephant Back Safari
by The Southern Times
Today there is nothing more peaceful than a safari with an elephant. In many people's minds, however, the giant creature remains something of a legend. They believe the African elephant - as opposed to the Asian - is still so wild that ordinary people would not dare to ride them.
There, some eleven of the giant beasts take guests on safari through their natural habitat on a private game reserve and become the teachers of conservation-loving humans. As one-time orphans in the bush, they are now a family in the care of indunas, young African guides with whom they develop a harmonious bond.
"They are not only majestic but extremely intelligent," says Elephant Company manager Ian du Preez. "They are led by Tusker, a 24-year-old bull who is treated with great respect by the others. Interestingly enough, he seems to listen to a younger female called Lundi who reprimands him when he gets out of hand. When he first came to us two years ago, he was very nervous but he now works in well with the herd and is a big hit with the clients because of his sheer size."
Tusker has a challenger in the form of Doma, the second biggest bull, and another elephant called Moka is very much admired for his symmetrical pair of long tusks. Then there is Sweetie, a little lady elephant, and Kanesa who lost the tip of her trunk to a lion when she was younger. She has adapted enormously well to feeding herself.
The clown of the family, however, is Jimmy, who was found in a game reserve. He is well-known because he is the naughtiest. If you are out in the bush by yourself, you can expect a friendly charge from him - if there are two people, he wisely stays away. "He's head of the class in training sessions but out in the field he tries his luck," says Ian.
All are superbly trained but in a sense are lucky to be alive, for behind their well-being is a story of rescue from a barren landscape and possibly the hunter's gun.
"Elephants are very much like humans," says Ian. "They all have their little quirks, their temper tantrums, their little ways of doing things. All of them can play ball but please do not confuse this with circus tricks. That is not what we do at the Elephant Company. For us training elephants is a conservation exercise, Most are here as a result of culling operations in the 1980s or orphaned elephants found in the wild.
"Before, anyone could obtain these elephants and take them to their private game ranches. You could buy one and put it on your farm. Then these elephants became juvenile delinquents because they had no formal education. They were simply fed by their handlers but could become aggressive. Now they have a quality of life."
So into a new era where riding elephants is likely to become a mandatory part of one's African schedule. Visitors develop a mysterious bond with the gentle giants and for many it is an unforgettable experience interacting with these beautiful animals.
One such visitor to the Elephant Company, Mike Bramich from Melbourne, on an overland tour that brought him to Victoria Falls, declared: "We do not have elephants in Australia so I wanted to have the experience of riding one while I was in Africa. I was so surprised I could get so close to an elephant.".
The ride itself offers a rhythmical sensation and part of the beauty of the trek is that you are completely in the wilderness, sometimes viewing other game such as kudu or waterbuck, even wild elephants who do not seem to take much notice of their tamer brethren.
Out in front of the elephant-back safari is a guide with a hunting rifle just in case there should be anything hazardous in the path of the lumbering two-ton giants. Especially they are careful of a previously wounded buffalo that is likely to charge or a breeding herd of elephants protecting their young.
There are very few surprises, however, and the trained group of the Elephant Company has so far not encountered any problems. The elephants are literally eating machines, consuming some 230kgs of food a day and up to 200 litres of water.
On the way they tear chunks of velvet bush willow, mopane leaves, elephant grass or lavender croton to eat without pausing in their stride and are rewarded for their good behavior with game cubes, a concentrate of maize-meal and molasses.
The Elephant Company offers two daily safaris - one at breakfast time and the other in the afternoon. There is no better teacher about elephants than the elephants themselves. The guests are invited to get to know the big creatures they have ridden on safari, being able to caress them, feel behind the ears, touch the veins and tongue and examine the molars and really get close up and have a tight-knit relationship with the elephants. All the trips are recorded by video camera and this becomes a special memento to take away.
"When one talks of the African elephants, they are such majestic creatures and everyone's heart goes out to them. People are delighted to have the experience. People say I thought you could not train an African elephant. Because of their intelligence, this is a complete illusion. When I see an induna walking up to an elephant and it starts rumbling, I know they have an inseparable bond," says Ian.
"We use a reward system. We do not chain them or rope them. But for them it's just not food - they will pick up on your voice or body language and they also respond when you are angry with them for any reason.
"People want to know why we are doing this, is it fair to do this. There are different schools of thought. You have certain research people, animal welfare people who just say we should not be using elephants commercially. We recognise their hearts are in the right place but they really do not know what they are going on about. The tourists, on the other hand, have a day in the life of an elephant that offers an African experience to remember."
In the east elephants have had a dominant role in people's lives, affording the opportunity in India to ride high in a howdah in magnificent ceremonies, featuring in tiger shoots in Nepal and working in the logging camps in Burma. But in Africa for centuries the elephant has remained wild and and there was a feeling that elephants and humans could never get together, probably because of the wholesale slaughter of them in Victorian times and not much of a better record in the twentieth century.
Ian says the system used in Africa is vastly different to that used with Asian elephants where the mahoot lives and works with one elephant his whole life. "We feel we have to have a variety of people handling elephants as they sometimes change jobs. We are not logging here, we are actually working with tourists."