On August 12, 2012, the inaugural World Elephant Day was launched to bring attention to the urgent plight of Asian and African elephants. The elephant is loved, revered and respected by people and cultures around the world, yet we balance on the brink of seeing the last of this magnificent creature.
This year, World Elephant Day asks people to help conserve and protect elephants from the numerous threats they face. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Africa has lost more than 150,000 elephants during the past decade. The escalation of poaching, habitat loss, human-elephant conflict and mistreatment in captivity are just some of the threats to both African and Asian elephants.
The Rory Hensman Conservation & Research Unit (RHCRU) aims to establish an elephant research centre of excellence, which is unbiased and un-swayed by “who funds the project” and by emotional thinking. The intention is to promote the potential benefits to human society, wildlife and conservation efforts.
One of the RHCRU’s priorities is setting up a DNA database of South Africa’s elephant population. This will enable the centre to monitor inbreeding and the predisposition of disease, and to link ivory to specific elephants – which will assist in identifying specific areas as poaching hot spots.
To get the public more interested in these majestic creatures, the centre runs Adventures With Elephants, which started more than 30 years ago in Zimbabwe, when Rory Hensman was tasked with training elephants deemed “unmanageable”. After working with these gentle, intelligent creatures, forging deep relationships and crafting a unique understanding of their nature, Hensman knew that rescuing and training these very special creatures would be his calling. Today, more than 30 elephants have been rescued through Adventures with Elephants, and some have been trained as part of an education initiative – to show their visitors and spectators what magnificent and important animals they are.
There are currently three elephant cows and two bulls at Adventures with Elephants in Bela Bela, as well as two young ones that have recently been added to the family (Zambezi and Bela, who were due to be culled). These elephants share the scenic reserve with kudus, warthogs, meerkats, giraffes, steenboks, and zebras.
At Adventures with Elephants, visitors can interact with the elephants in close, personal encounters. Learn more about their personalities, the way their bodies work, how they behave, and how intelligent they really are. Touching their hardy skin, feeling the little hairs on their bodies, and looking into their eyes is an experience that will never be forgotten.
To celebrate World Elephant Day, a number of guests – including TV producer and presenter Ntokozo Mbuli, who is a RHCRU ambassador, as well as a group of students from Texas in the US – were invited to attend a series of talks delivered by wildlife experts, among them Professor André Ganswindt, Dr Stephen Lee and Professor Desire Dalton.
But one little guest stood out. Ashleigh Strydom is a 13-year-old from Pretoria who has been visited these elephants over 30 times.
Her mom, Ronel Strydom, says she is fascinated by them, which is why they keep coming back.
Ashleigh told City Press: “I came here for the first time when I was six years old. We came here as a family. I was still very scared and didn’t want to go to the elephants, but then I loved meeting them and learning about them. As soon as I saw them, I knew I would love them.”
Ashleigh says all the elephants have their own personalities: “Naledi likes to do things very precisely. Shan always wants food first. Chishuru is the big boss – he is calm, but if something happens, he goes crazy. They all have very strong personalities and their own way of doing things, and it has been wonderful to see Zambezi and Bela growing up.” Her favourite is Chishuru. She said, “He is so big and beautiful. Shan would have been my favourite, but she gets a bit overprotective with Zambezi.”
Because Ashleigh has been to the reserve so many times, and offered the chance to help to train the elephants, so she is allowed to play with them.
“But even though the elephants know me well, I don’t touch them too much because they’re still wild animals. You don’t want to push them too much and then get hurt.”, she added.