Wild Horizons Elephant Sanctuary
The Early Years
Wild Horizon's involvement with domesticated elephants began in 1992, when offered an initial herd of 4 elephants in need of a new home. ‘Jock’, ‘Jack’, ‘Jumbo’ and ‘Miz Ellie’ had derived from culling operations in the 1980's. Then the Zimbabwe Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (ZPWMA) as a management tool, to reduce the population of elephants within Zimbabwe's National Parks to an acceptable level, utilized this practice. These 4 elephants, together with many other young animals captured during the culling operations, had been sold to a local Zimbabwean farmer and after spending a few years on this farm had outgrown the property and a new home was needed for them, which would be more suitable than a commercial farm.
As an established safari tourism operator, Wild Horizons was identified as a potential candidate who would have the resources and conservation ethic to provide a home for these animals, and after careful consideration of the alternatives, it was agreed that Wild Horizons would create a facility that would enhance the lives of these elephants as well as ensuring a safe haven for any other orphans in need of care.
This model would allow for elephants that had been habituated to humans to pursue a lifestyle similar to that of wild elephants, whilst playing a vital role in the conservation of their species through education of the public.
The practice of population control (culling) is no longer carried out in Zimbabwe; however the results remain with many juvenile orphaned elephants being distributed within the country at various sanctuaries and private reserves, and many in desperate need of rehabilitation.
The founder members of the Wild Horizons Elephant Herd were moved to Jijima Safari Lodge on the edge of Hwange National Park in 1994, and were introduced to visiting guests as part of their stay. It quickly became apparent however, that a larger and more elephant-oriented facility was required, and with this in mind the Wild Horizons Wildlife Sanctuary was created, close to Victoria Falls. The initial four elephants were walked across country from Hwange National Park to their new home near Victoria Falls, a distance of some 250km, taking them 6 days to accomplish this feat.
Once settled, the level of interest shown by visiting tourists to the Sanctuary was a revelation, and in a very short time the reputation of the Sanctuary as a safe haven for elephants in distress was established.
The Operation Expands
As the Wild Horizons Wildlife Sanctuary developed, more elephants that had suffered the same fate as Miz Ellie, Jock, Jack and Jumbo arrived on the property, as word spread that a facility existed to take them in. Like most wild animals that are domesticated, when young they are appealing to their owners but as they grow most ultimately become difficult to manage and need to end up in a facility that is capable of handling their needs.
In short order the founding members of the herd were joined by Chikwenya, Mana, Michael, Sapi and Sharu and shortly after that Tendai, Lundi, Janet, Emily, Coco, Jake 1&2 and Damiano. They were all orphans from population control measures carried out in Zimbabwe’s National Parks, and all juveniles aged between 8 and 12 years. In addition the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority had by now accepted this facility as the place to send newly orphaned or injured elephants and in a very short time, the Sanctuary was inundated with elephants in need of rescue and assistance.
Unfortunately, even newly born elephants have the potential to injure humans with their boisterous behavior, and in order for staff to be able to handle the elephants in their care, some level of training and mutual trust is required. In addition, a herd of elephants of this size requires considerable resources to maintain and in a very short period it was acknowledged that the operation was not sustainable without some form of income. Bills for elephant feed, veterinary costs, staff and other overheads were mounting rapidly and to cover these expenses, guests were invited to take part in an elephant back safaris with the older members of the group.
At this early stage the knowledge of training and handling of elephants was extremely limited in Zimbabwe and in an effort to ensure only the highest ethical standards were adopted, training methods worldwide were studied to ensure only the most ethical and humane practices were adopted.
These were adapted over time to become the model that Wild Horizons operates by today, with a strict Code Of Conduct that all elephant handlers are required to acknowledge. All training of the elephants to accommodate guests was undertaken using positive reinforcement techniques, which rewards animals with food when specific responses are elicited.
No harsh or inhumane treatment is tolerated and the operation has always been transparent and open to inspection. Staff training is critical and in this Wild Horizons invests heavily, ensuring that staff is equipped with the knowledge they need to work as safely and as ethically as possible with the elephants.
The Ultimate Goal
Since inception, it has always been the desire of Wild Horizons to return as many elephants as possible to the wild, and in this we have had both successes and failures to date. In 2002 after a period of unrest concerning commercial farmland in Zimbabwe, it was decided to move a small herd of 5 elephants to the Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa, where these animals furthered the educational and guest interaction work started in Zimbabwe, catering to guests from surrounding lodges in the Pilanesberg area.
Two calves were subsequently born to the female in this group and in 2015 a decision was taken that this herd was ready for rehabilitation back into a wild state. A suitable reserve was located on the border between South Africa and Botswana, and these 7 elephants were successfully released there. We continue to monitor these daily by satellite communication.
Of the original herd of animals we had been entrusted with, 4 elephant bulls have also been released into Hwange National Park as well as the Matetsi Safari Area within Zimbabwe. A further 5 elephants are on a “soft” release program within our Sanctuary property where they have no further contact with humans and are encouraged to avoid buildings, vehicles and people.
Once satisfied that these animals will not seek out habitation they will be released permanently into the wild. Of the remaining elephants under our care, only 8 are used to educate guests and conduct safaris and the remaining animals are juvenile orphans we have been entrusted with by our Parks Authority, and who follow the rest of the herd in their daily activities.
In addition to our own work with elephants in Zimbabwe, in 2013 Wild Horizons was requested to assist with the resident elephant herd at Abu Camp in Botswana, and for a period of two years worked to adapt the management and handling style from that of more harsh Asian practices to our own more humane and ethical model.
In this short time 2 elephants that were ready for rehabilitation into the wild were released and they have joined successfully with an existing matriarchal group that were also previously part of the Abu herd. All archaic handling practices have been abandoned for a much gentler approach to elephant management and to date the Abu herd seems content and well managed.
While it is recognized that visitors perceptions have changed towards wildlife in domesticity over the 22 years since the program was started, it remains to be said that the need for a facility such as this is crucial for the continued education and rehabilitation work that continues to be done.
There will always be injured or orphaned elephants as a result of human/wildlife conflict and the Wild Horizons Wildlife Sanctuary will continue to play a prominent role in this concern, whilst ultimately striving to ensure all animals within our care eventually return to a wild existence wherever possible.
Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust
In April 2008 Wild Horizons established what is now known as the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust (VFWT) and through this entity funds and manpower are invested to help further the aims of wildlife rehabilitation and rescue.
As part of our social responsibility program and in conjunction with Environment Africa, an NGO involved in environmental and community based projects in the area, the VFWT exposes over 1000 school children from rural schools to the Wild Horizons elephant program annually, in an effort to educate these learners on the value of wildlife. This is a vitally important program and something we are extremely proud to be a part of.