Across the Botswana bushveld, a distant elephant approaches, walking at a slow, comfortable pace and making little sound as he crosses the landscape. He’s absolutely magnificent, with impressive white tusks and a long, sweeping trunk. Walking beside him is a woman who, in comparison, looks like a child. When the elephant drops his trunk, she climbs onto it and he whisks her over a small riverine toward us, like a scene out of the The Jungle Book. He gently places her in front of me and a small group of onlookers. The woman introduces the elephant as Jabu; he is one of three semi-habituated elephants who was left orphaned in the wake of one of the culling operations that take place in South Africa. (Culling operations resumed in South Africa in 2008 after the lifting of a 1994 ban, and are used as a "last resort" means of population control, only to be used after non-lethal methods had failed.) His companion is named Sandi Groves, and she is the cofounder of the Living With Elephants Foundation in Botswana.
Sandi and her husband Doug founded Living With Elephants in 1999, in an effort to raise awareness about the dire situation these gentle giants are in and to deepen the relationship between elephants and humans. The foundation is wonderfully unlike the tragic elephant programs that have become commonplace around the world—especially in countries like Thailand—where unaware tourists parade around atop long-suffering elephants. At Living With Elephants, there is no riding, only observing and sometimes patting. The aim is to learn about and bond with these impressive creatures who are fast-approaching endangered status.
Doug and Sandi are custodians of three elephants: Jabu, Marula, and Thembi, all three of whom are orphans rescued from culling and canned hunting operations. But it is not just culling programs that threaten Africa’s elephants; Jabu’s gleaming white tusks are still among the most sought-after items on the black market. “We won’t release them until we know they will not be poached,” says Sandi. Even though Botswana is considered one of the safest African countries for wildlife—and continues to take a stand against ivory trading—elephant poaching numbers in South Africa are up 400 percent this year alone, according to Sky News. These dismal statistics suggest that it’s unlikely that Doug and Sandi’s elephants will be reintroduced to the wild anytime soon.
Instead, the pair is working closely with Sanctuary Retreats and Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy to educate the public about elephants and their plight. Sanctuary Retreats (which was founded by Abercrombie & Kent’s Geoffrey Kent) operates Stanley’s Camp and Baines Camp, two exclusive lodges located on a private concession within the Okavango Delta. The elephants live within a protected area on the Sanctuary Retreats land, but roam in the wild of the Delta during each day. Guests staying at either lodge can participate in the program and join the elephants during their daily wanderings, and the foundation hopes their participation and support will help spread awareness beyond the borders of Botswana. “Our guests are from all over the world and are a crucial force in lobbying and applying pressure toward sound conservation policies and practices,” says Sehenyi Tlotlego, Philanthropy Coordinator at Sanctuary Retreats, Botswana.
But as crucial as it is to gain support from foreigners, it’s even more crucial to gain support from local communities. “In a rural setting, the attitude of most local people towards wildlife is not the best,” says Tlotlego. “There is a fair amount of animosity [toward] wildlife, especially elephants, due to the crop damage they can cause,” he explains. Therefore, the secondary aim of the project is to help influence local attitudes toward wildlife, starting with local youth. The program invites 10 children from nearby villages—youngsters who wouldn’t ordinarily have access to this kind of experience—to spend the night and interact with the elephants. For Tlotlego, the hope is that the number of children who experience this program will increase: “We would like to bring in 20 groups of children every year. Twenty or 30 years down the road, [these] kids will be the decision makers. [We hope to] start influencing the decisions they make toward wildlife conservation and management.”
Despite having grown up in South Africa and seeing numerous elephants in my life, I found bonding with them to be an entirely different experience. Like trekking to see gorillas in Uganda or spending time with orangutans in Borneo, the Living With Elephants project is a unique and poignant experience, especially in light of the alarming poaching statistics. Elephants are smart, emotional creatures and my time with Jabu, Thembi, and Marula was unforgettable. In a country such as Botswana, where income from tourism is one of the major contributors to conservation, there couldn’t be a more significant time to engage in sustainable travel and support unique programs like this. Walking with elephants in the wild is rare, and if we don’t help take an active stance against poaching soon, glimpsing them in the wild will be rare, too.