When elephants are your best friends….
Q: Doug, I have met you a couple of times in Botswana and from the way you live and handle your elephants I would say you have more with animals than with humans. Is that statement correct and how did you develop your deep love for nature in general and your elephants in particular?
A: Hello Johan! Thanks for this opportunity to share our story with your readers.
Johan, I believe that every child is born with an affinity for the natural world, and my deep love for nature was heightened due to a developmental and speech impediment which I was born with.
For most of my elementary education my peers and teachers were unable to understand the bulk of my speech, so for comfort and companionship, I developed non-verbal skills and gravitated towards animals. Through a series of verbal shaping progressions, I eventually learned to speak so that others could understand me, and in the process, I also learned a lot about communicating with animals.
When I first met Jabu and Thembi in October of 1988, they had been orphaned from a Kruger National Park culling operation and were very traumatized. They were in serious need of nurturing and also needed some specialized care which I was in a position to provide. The bonds grew very quickly, as they typically do with young mammals, and before long we were inseparable.
Q: Unlike other close encounters with wildlife projects do you not allow tourists to ride your elephants, although you could make a handsome living out of that. What is your reasoning behind the very protective way you deal with your elephants?
Answer: We don’t offer commercial riding with our elephants for a variety of reasons.
First of all we feel that people learn much more about elephant life by observing natural behavior. Secondly, we believe that it is psychologically more difficult to create an atmosphere of respect and reverence for these magnificent animals if people are sitting on top of them.
Lastly, we also feel that it would generally detract from their quality of life.
Q: For many years now you have been living with your three elephants and surely you got to know them very well. How would you describe and characterize each single one of them?
A: Jabu is handsome,bold, clever, independent, generous, patient and calm.
Thembi is smart, quick, cute, resourceful, focused and sometimes flighty.
Morula is thoughtful, warm, wise, particular, social, intelligent and funny.
Jabu, Morula and Thembi
Q: Dealing with elephants on a daily basis surely has its ups and downs. What are your biggest ups and what are your most pressing downs?
A: Ups include an incredible feeling of oneness with the herd and their habitat. Being immersed in this mesmerizing wilderness gives us an opportunity to interactively connect with and learn about the diversity of flora and fauna surrounding us. There are always new surprises and challenges and I often enjoy the Adrenalin surge of an unexpected encounter. Some of the trade offs include more limited social interaction with our own species, and I miss festivals, concerts, book stores and museums. The most dreaded drawback, however, is the horrendous hairy caterpillars! They come out during the rainy season and have a toxic irritant on their hairs that can cause an itching insanity.
Q: Since your elephants have a ‘will of their own’ I am sure you had some interesting adventures with your three elephants. Tell us a short story that you will never forget:
A: As many of your readers will know, young bull elephants normally leave the herd that they were born in to prior to puberty. There is a lot of variation with the timing and we are often surprised at how young they leave. When Jabu was about 9 years old , he decided it was time for a walkabout. One morning while I was out in the bush watching the herd feed, I remembered that I had left some eye drops back at camp. We were not very far away from camp and the elephants seemed very content with their crunching, so I quickly headed back to get the eye drops. When I returned, Jabu was gone. The girls didn’t seem to even notice or care that he was gone! At first I was pretty calm, looking all around the immediate area behind bushes and in clumps of trees. Eventually I decided that I would need to take the girls back to camp and solicit some help to track Jabu down. We had an excellent bushman tracker on staff and fortunately we found Jabu’s tracks and followed them for hours, but eventually they got mixed in with other recent tracks and we started loosing light so we had to call the search off. He was gone five weeks! When he finally wandered back to camp, and we saw that he was well, we were overcome with joy!
Q: I see that you are quite active with social media and you worry a lot about our environment in general. What is your biggest fear for the future of our planet and what advice would you like to give the readers of this article?
A: My biggest fear would be widespread ecological collapse due to changing life support parameters. Large scale topographical and biochemical changes in our oceans and atmosphere are well underway and this will impact all life forms. By becoming ecologically literate, re-localizing our economies and trying to tread as lightly as possible on this precious planet, we might save a few species and slow the rate of change.
Q: If you could make three wishes, what would those wishes be?
A: That we could live in understanding and harmony with all life forms.
That we could keep human populations at a sustainable level.
and that we would find fulfillment in activities that promote the well being of the whole planet.
Q: Last but not least, what do your elephants mean to you? Are they more important than your lady partner? I understand if you lie in your answer…..
My wife, Sandi, the elephants and I are family. We have formed these warm bonds of kinship over the past two decades and we will go down this road together.