I like walking in our reserve. I walk to see how the green thorn and marula trees are faring, which fruits have dropped, to smell the rain waiting to fall, and hear distant trumpets of wild herds. I like having my feet on the earth, pacing over dirt paths roamed by lions and leopards. I grew up alongside these animals and under this sky and find that I’m better able to think when I’m close to them. This is also how I connect to the elephants, by sharing the ground they walk on. It was on these many bush walks that I began plotting the start of HERD.
We had been caring for and supporting the original elephants rescued from Zimbabwe, the young ones born to them, and the orphans integrated into the herd. But there was an increasing need for a place to rehabilitate new orphans close to this blended family. Many orphans displaced, wounded and traumatised by human-elephant conflict don’t make it, but for those who do, we wanted our doors to be open to them, our hands free to heal the wrongs of other humans. We wanted the rescued herd to give them a second chance at life with their own species.
The planning began. The dream grew and grew, until August 2019, when we stood back and looked out over the bricks, cement, wood and tools that helped form the skeleton of the HERD orphanage. I had dreams beyond the building, but seeing the nurseries taking shape and the garden starting to thrive, with the bigger herd in the homestead, curiously eyeing us, it started to feel very real.
Many hands helped to build the orphanage – the first dedicated elephant orphanage in South Africa – and many more hands helped to raise the funds for us to carry it all off. Through our 1000 Hearts Campaign, people around the world saw our vision and donated to the establishment of our new home for calves in need.
Since then, we have weathered lightning, disease, loss, a pandemic. We have been lifted up with triumphs, camaraderie, survival, healing, and the greatest show of human compassion.
The year before the orphanage opened, we were tackling a 4 tonne problem that we had never tackled before. Fishan had injured himself so severely that his leg was fractured and he could not walk on it without dire pain. Where many in the field would choose to rather euthanise an elephant with a broken leg, we chose as a team to save his life. To give him another chance. He had come so far, like many members in his herd. This was exactly what we would come to stand for at HERD. Every elephant matters, we tell people. And every elephant needs a herd.
Today, Fishan is happily back with his herd, walking, swimming, foraging, mud bathing and bonding with the elephants who have become his life support, his family. While our hearts broke to lose orphans, Mopane and Fenya, their little lives taught us so much in terms of elephant research and understanding, but more deeply: we saw members of our team mourn for them. Our new carers who had once never seen an elephant before now wept for the loss of a friend they had come to love. The elephants had found their way into the hearts of thousands.
Khanyisa arrived in 2020. The challenges kept coming. And I kept walking… I walked with my son and Lammie as we took Khanyisa on outings to the dam in the early days. I walked to collect marula fruit and branches for Meisiekind. I walked to meet up with Dr Rogers and his veterinary team when we needed their help with a blood transfusion or an emergency drip. I walked to feed Khanyisa milk bottles on her days with the herd. I walked to the dam with my German Shepherd, Nandi. I walked home with the carers at sunset. I walked and talked with Tigere, sometimes with the camera filming us. I walked with the elephants, following Tokwe and Fishan at the back or Khanyisa in the centre as she darted about the giant feet around her. I walked alone to clear my head. And while I walked, I plotted.
I planned how we would tackle the next challenge – a new dam, a new milk formula, new local suppliers, how to get our carers through COVID when jobs were threatened. I walked and walked and walked and never thought to walk away. Because even when I was walking by myself, I was never truly alone. I had you, I had our team, I had friends I’d made through HERD, and I had the elephants.
We say in South Africa, ‘n boer maak ‘n plan. A farmer makes a plan. And it’s this sentiment that saw us through the three years, from 2019 to 2022, but it’s also the friendship and support that enabled our plans to manifest.
This August we marvel at the 1000 Hearts boards set up alongside the orphanage – watching over Khanyisa, Lammie and Nungu and the 15 elephants in the homestead. Without every donor and supporter who carried us from the beginning to where we are today, we would not have survived the pandemic’s effect on the ecosystem of HERD.
This ecosystem has grown to encompass the most remarkable and inspiring herd whose stories have been spread far and wide, as well as restoration and community initiatives helping to heal not only the elephant species, but the land and people connected to them.
I want to thank you for walking with me, with us. For braving the wild uncertainty to create new paths together. Wherever you are in the world, remember to take a step outside once in a while and let your feet carry you to something great and life-changing.
With love and gratitude,
P.S Hit the trails and celebrate HERD’s third anniversary and Trails for Trunks this August, the month the world casts a light on elephants, with World Elephant Day.