Elephant Backs and Elephant Dung


Elephants in the wild are led by a matriarch whose sisters and daughters and granddaughters form a family group. Interestingly, she is the oldest elephant, not the smartest, nor the sweetest, nor the wisest, not the most courageous. Apparently, elephant DNA has selected for experience: elephants want a knowledgeable and adept leader.

Here at Camp Jabulani, Tokwe was eleven years old when she was identified as the matriarch. Jabulani’s new blended family had formed uncoerced bonds in an unusual formation for elephants: the males stayed with the larger family group, though they could choose not to do so. Adopted children and natural children grow up together in the care of the extended family. As the elephant keepers in their crisp uniforms got the elephants into a line, Paul introduced us to Jabulani and Tokwe, adoptive son and adoptive mother, in the flesh.

It was a February morning in 2008, and I was about to fulfill a dream to ride on an elephant through the South African dawn. After a thorough orientation to the elephants at Camp Jabulani, the time had come to ride them out into the bush veldt. I climbed up a platform ramp, received instruction on using the stirrup, and keeping my weight balanced I swung a leg over Jabulani’s broad back. Isaac Mathole, one of the men who had accompanied the elephants from Zimbabwe, was already on Jabulani when I landed. I was startled by how rudely I landed, but Jabulani didn’t flinch and Isaac just laughed. Paul adjusted my stirrups, and then Jabulani walked off with me bouncing along on his back, absolutely gobsmacked.

Isaac and I chatted over his shoulder. He told me that he loved his life of working with the elephants, and asked me if we have any wild animals in California, where I’m from. Sure, of course, I said, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, rattlesnakes. As I described the animals of wild California, these seemed similar enough to animals he knew, but bears, what were they like, he asked. I held my neck stiffly and swung my neck and shoulders and head around as a bear does, all in one locked movement. I lifted back my big bear head, showing teeth as if to roar. He asked what sound they make. I told him that they roar. Roar? What is a roar? So I roared like a bear, and the elephants immediately began to stamp and to trumpet in response. Oops. Isaac was laughing heartily as all the keepers moved quickly to soothe the elephants. On Jabulani’s back I learned not to put the bear and the elephant in the same room.

How can anything be as noisy as an a sunrise in the African bush and as deeply calming as a sunrise in the African bush at the same time? That question, it seems to me, is the center of the magic in those moments. Everywhere the world in all its forms was waking. I heard the foot shuffling of zebras and giraffes thick on the grasses, the close munching of leaves. I heard the snorts of warthogs, the birdsong, the “work harder, work harder” of the Cape turtledove, the raucous distant baboon chorus, the chatter of monkeys in the trees. It was as though the first day of life on earth had broken within me and in that timelessness was a deep stillness.

Before this ride on Jabulani, I had spent many hours rolling along dirt tracks through African sunrises, I had walked through the bush, accompanied by an armed tracker, but I had never experienced anything as resplendent as riding through the bush at daybreak on the back of this gorgeous animal. Swaying to the rhythm of his feet as they kicked up dust, stopping when he wanted to munch the vegetation, feeling and adjusting to his motion and his awareness of the world. Early on, as Jabulani was in full stride, I dropped my two-liter water bottle accidentally. Jabulani deftly scooped it up, swinging it over his head and past Isaac, just to my hands. As I reached for it, it receded in the direction it had come from. I heard the crunch of the bottle as Jabulani decided he wanted to drink the water more than he wanted to hand it over. Or maybe the whole thing was his little joke? He tossed the emptied bottle into the air. Like others before me, I found Jabulani irresistible.

Guides with rifles walked at the front and back of the line of elephants, and elephant babies frolicked in less orderly procession nearby. We crossed a streambed where a large gathering of baboons was having a morning bath and grooming session, and soon we came upon a still waterhole. With the morning sun bouncing light blindingly from its surface, our eyes were at first unable to see the telltale bumps of an alligator that, once pointed out to us, we recognized, and that immediately shifted my heart and lungs into high gear. With the sun even a little higher in the sky the day warmed quickly, and too soon we returned from what was for the elephants the morning shift. I dismounted amazed, changed deep within me by that one hour.

The elephant back safaris no longer happen at Camp Jabulani because around the world elephant back rides became something that tourists paid for, and then elephants were abused for human entertainment. Camp Jabulani’s management decided to do the right thing, to send the right message, that it’s never acceptable to capture wild elephants for human entertainment.

My second and final ride at Camp Jabulani felt like the end of an era. But it was also, of course, the beginning of a new era. One of the contemporary projects at Camp Jabulani is a scientific study to compare the Jabulani elephants with the wild Kapama herd, by analyzing the amount of corticosteroids, the stress hormones, in dung samples. Guests can now participate as volunteer scientists, trained to collect dung samples for analysis in the lab. The results show no significant difference in stress between the wild and natural herd and the rescued, blended, and somewhat humanized herd. That finding is really amazing when you consider the historical trauma and social disruption experienced by the blended herd.

Camp Jabulani came into being, as many animal rescue operations do, because one person found one abandoned child and decided to help him. That child was Jabulani for whom the camp is named, and around whom it was formed. My two visits over an extended period of time and under differing conditions of weather, of scientific research, and political organization, allowed me to see how much and how little we know of helping other animals. It showed me in this particular and complex setting what I saw and heard over and over again from people doing the work of helping animals, that “the work” is a work in progress, a work of trial and error, of learning by experimentation and by conversation.

I have been to Camp Jabulani twice, once in innocence, once in loss of innocence. And now I want to go back again, this time to collect some elephant dung for analysis in the lab.