My favourite of Africa’s Big Five, elephants have always evoked both fascination and fear. Over the years I’ve progressed from watching them during game drives to encountering them on walking safaris a cautious distance away. But I’m actually walking alongside one, stroking his milky white tusks and feeling his hot fuggy breath on my skin, and it feels utterly surreal.
I’m deep in the bush in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Jabu (as his friends call him) and his two pachyderm pals Thembi and Morula live here on a private concession belonging to Sanctuary Retreats, a luxury travel company focusing on responsible tourism.
Jabu and Thembi, reared by American zoologist Doug Grove and his wife Sandi from the age of two, were orphaned 25 years ago after their herd was culled in South Africa. Morula joined them six years later as a traumatised teenager from Zimbabwe, saved from being sold for hunting.
The Groves’ charity, Living with Elephants, teaches local children to understand elephant behaviour and to overcome their cultural fear of them, helping to alleviate human wildlife conflict and teach them the importance of wildlife and the environment. To fund this, visitors pay to spend a morning up close and personal with their elephants, learning about their characters, their family lives and rituals, and their role in Africa’s grand Circle of Life.
What strikes me most is just how individual their personalities are. Doug and Sandi give us an insight into each one. Thembi is “so highly strung, a simple thing like a butterfly can freak her out” and she can be “tricky” but “clever and resourceful.” True to form, she demonstrates how smart and dextrous she is by first removing my cap with her trunk and putting it on her own head. Then she gives a whole repertoire of elephant noises from deep, contented rumbles to piercing screams, as I stand on tiptoe feeling the different vibrations emanating from the top of her trunk.
Morula “has a great need for love, she’s very tactile and clingy to everyone.” She lies with her head resting on a termite mound while I sit next to her, studying the huge, squidgy pads under her feet. Then she walks by my side for 15 minutes, the tip of her trunk lying softly in my hand, and nudges me gently as I start to walk away, as if she’s asking me to stay.
And the gorgeous Jabu? “He’s big but he’s cuddly, and very calming,” Sandi tells me. He joins us for a buffet lunch under a massive fig tree, sneaking up behind me and kissing me on my cheek with his trunk. His kiss is sloppy and wet and his breath decidedly smelly, but I’m smitten, completely and irrevocably.