1 July

We are devastated to have to share this news with you today. Little Phabeni has passed away in our care, following a seven-month battle of ups and downs with his health. We have shared the story of this devastating loss below, with a video put together with care and love, and great respect for the little bull, and the people and elephants who loved him.

By Adine Roode

We were thinking of ways to celebrate Phabeni’s one year in July. Little did we know that he would never reach his first birthday.

For the past seven months, it has been an up-and-down struggle with Phabeni, gaining weight, losing weight, taking bottles, leaving bottles.

For the last week, Phabeni skipped either his 8, 10, 12 or 2 o’clock bottle. Sometimes it was one bottle, sometimes it was two bottles. It was either 10 or 20% of his daily intake that he did not take.

I noticed that his energy levels were not good at all and he was listless. He had puffiness in his face. I contacted Katie Rowe from Reteti for advice, as Phabeni had been on goat milk for just more than a month, and he took to it well, but he did not gain as much weight as I thought he would have, and as he needed. At least he was taking his bottles. I thought it would take some time for him to put on weight as his digestive system needed to adapt to the new milk. I checked with the pediatrician who said it would take quite a bit of time. After about two and a half weeks he started gaining weight, however he never reached 170 kgs.

I asked Dr. Rogers to give him a vitamin booster and vitamin B12 to increase his appetite. Dr. Rogers suggested that we give it intravenously to reduce the stress of darting him, so we put Phabeni on a drip for this. Even though it was mild, he perhaps did not take the sedation too well as his front legs battled to hold his weight so I laid down and he rested on my legs, with his full weight. We gave him 3 bags of fluids plus a good dose of vitamins and minerals. We wrapped up just after 4 pm and he took his 4 pm milk bottle without any problems. At 6 pm he also finished the bottle easily, as well as the 9 o’clock bottle.

Just before 11 pm, I had gone to my home in the reserve, and heard Ruan from Jabulani lodge knocking on my window to tell me that the carers needed me as Phabeni was not doing well. The signal was not great, and they couldn’t get hold of me. I rushed up to the orphanage and saw Phabeni swinging from side to side, unstable on his feet. I sent Dr. Rogers video footage of this and called him just before midnight. He answered immediately and asked if he should come out. I confirmed that I thought it was needed. It felt like ages before he arrived. Time stood still.

Joshua, Godknows, Last, Liverson and Stavros were all at the orphanage not knowing what to do. I couldn’t think of anything Dr Rogers could do but I needed him to come, maybe even just for moral support and to experience what we were experiencing. Stavros and Liverson were with Phabeni and I watched them closely. I realised that Phabeni did not have the energy to even stagger anymore. I suggested that we try his midnight bottle at 11:30 pm, which he didn’t take. However, he did lift his head high in the air with his trunk folded upwards, backward and opened his mouth as if to get milk. He would shake his head as if there was something in his throat he wanted to get rid of. I was scared he might choke on the milk and suggested to Stavros that we quit the milk. I went in and got Phabeni to lie down, he laid down on his chest with his legs straight out and his hind legs folded under him. Dr. Rogers came and suggested we try to give him a bottle again, as he said he must drink. Once again, he wasn’t interested but did lift his head, and staggered around.

I got him to lie down, and he fell asleep. Minutes ticked by, and it sometimes felt as if he couldn’t breathe and as though he was afraid that he couldn’t get air in. I think it might have been anxiety and overwhelm. So I counted with him, we did breathing exercises, breathing in and out, in, out. When he breathed in, I blew into his trunk and as he blew out, I smelled his breath. It was as though I could smell his fear, but we were with him and he would ease his breathing pace. It calmed him. He got up for few more times and staggered around in the nursery, chasing Lammie and Spotty, or sometimes Stavros or myself. We got him to lie down once again with Stavros’ hand on his eyes and lying behind him, cuddling him and making soothing sounds, and me lying on the other side, helping him to breathe when he battled. He screamed a few times. But in the end, he fell asleep.

I fetched a warm blanket for Stavros and a cushion as it was getting chilly and I wrapped another blanket over Phabeni without waking him. By 3 am it was freezing cold and I got up to get the last small crocheted blanket to cover myself. By 5 am I told Stavros I would go and make us some coffee.

Godknows came by to check on us, and when I arrived with the coffee, he came out from Phabeni and said, “Phabeni is still sleeping.” We chatted about the plan for the day, saying that we would not take Phabeni out to the bush with the other elephants. It was during this stage, with a sleeping Phabeni and a cuddled-up Stavros, that Stavros then came out to speak to me and told me that Phabeni was dead. I couldn’t believe it. Godknows and I rushed in to find Phabeni not breathing, just still and warm. It was 5:43 am.

In the distance, the sun was coming up. I had been thinking while making coffee that I was glad this night was over, as it was a long, long night. I had been thinking that Phabeni had survived and pulled through, but I was wondering what the next night might hold for us. During the night, to calm Phabeni, we played classical music. It really helped him to calm down and the three of us just lay listening to the music or maybe Stavros and I were listening to Phabeni breathing, in and out, quite hard, sometimes battling. I fetched my phone to find a message from Dr. Rogers: “Update please,” it said. I sent him a reply: “We just lost him”.

Dr. Rogers joined us at the orphanage to carry out an autopsy. It is a hard process to go through, especially with an animal you have cared for and come to know and love. It was hard on the team, but the results showed acute enteritis. While this could have been caused by something that Phabeni ate, there were multiple challenges that Phabeni was already facing for several weeks. His body was continuing to go through bouts of infection, which we would treat and help clear through antibiotics. The cause of the infection was not removed and so the infection continued to return. If this was due to the broken bone in his hip, caused by the dart used to tranquilise him during his rescue, Phabeni was never strong enough for us to perform the operation to remove the broken bone.

On top of this, he cut his first tusk the week before he passed away, and his second tusk was swollen and red, ready to erupt. I know that during this stage of teething, we have battled every time with the orphan calves and statistics show that most babies are lost during this teething period.

He was certainly fussy regarding taste when it came to milk and food, which did not help matters as he needed a lot more nutrition than what he was taking in. It is hard to tell with elephant calves what the precise cause of death could be, as not much research and experience exists in terms of their species, compared to horses or rhinos, for example. For all we know, Phabeni could have had something wrong with his stomach at the very beginning when he was rescued, and perhaps that could explain why he did not allow us to touch him on certain areas around his stomach, and why he was extra feisty at times.

We gained so much insight through caring for Phabeni and the herd grew immensely having him join their family. It is heartbreaking for all of us on the ground, myself, his carers who were with him day after day, in the orphanage and in the bush with the elephants. It is heartbreaking for our team who work tirelessly to procure milk and medicine, food and other essentials for Phabeni in our head office, and our team working to share his stories, videos, blogs, posts and newsletters with our followers and supporters. It is heartbreaking for our fundraising team who put in so much work to help get Phabeni the care he needed. But we know that it is also deeply tragic and distressing for you too, you who have followed the little bull’s story from day one, found inspiration in his journey, and fallen in love with his spirit, big eyes and floppy little trunk.

Similarly, it will be a big challenge for the herd, for adoptive mother Setombe especially, to accept and come to terms with not seeing Phabeni anymore. Perhaps not understanding what happened to him. During Phabeni’s last night, several of the elephants gathered at the fence. We could see they knew something was wrong. Perhaps they heard Phabeni’s screams. Smelt his fear as he struggled to breathe. Setombe let out her own screams in the homestead and our hearts ached for her.

It will take time to heal from this. But it comes with the territory of trying to rescue, rehabilitate and raise elephant orphans who have lost their natural families. It is part of the journey of elephant conservation, dealing with loss. With hardship. Elephant orphan calves are all extremely fragile and getting them to a safe, strong age where they are hardier takes a lot of luck, trial and error, constant dedication and care. Phabeni was lucky in that he was able to find support from his own species again, and the imprint he leaves on the herd is obvious. He changed Setombe for the better, as the older female opened her heart to a calf who was not her own. Setombe showed immense strength of character and a deep nurturing nature, a fierceness, as she took Phabeni in almost immediately. Even Khanyisa, the youngest in the herd again, bonded with Phabeni, the littlest elephant she had ever met up close. She showed such genuine acceptance and kindness towards Phabeni that truly made us proud and showed that hers is a special heart.

We truly tried everything to help Phabeni over the months when his health battled. We leant on every contact, expert, friend, advisor and supporter that we could to create solutions to the different problems that Phabeni faced. Together, we all gave him the very best chance in life, but it simply was not enough. His little heart will stay with us eternally. Thank you for loving him like we did, for learning from him like we did, and for letting his life matter.

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  1. I cannot begin to explain the heartache I feel…I’m devastated…my heart goes out to you all. I absolutely know you did everything you could…your commitment is unending. I pray setombe will cope with her loss…and the herd eventually come to terms with their loss. I feel bereft, so you guys must feel totally empty. thank you for what you do…you have some amazing success stories walking around every day…thanks to you all. God bless…I love you all xx

    1. Thank you for your heartfelt message. The loss of Phabeni has been deeply painful for all of us and the elephant herd. We will always cherish the memories and the time we had with him.

  2. words can not express the sadness you all must be experiencing you all are in my thoughts as is Phabeni, he certainly has left his mark with all of us humans and elephants

  3. I’m so sorry for you loss. I came to learn of Phabeni from my sister and started to follow his story , hoping and praying he would make it. Such a sad day for all his followers but most by all for his herd and carers who must be devastated.

  4. I have been following this little guy since you first introduced him. I thought he was going to make a turn around and live a long life. Now I set here crying in my coffee over your loss. So sorry for all of you .

  5. I loved little Phabeni.
    I loved him like I did little Khanyisa.
    I loved him like I love all my ellies at HERD.
    And I’m absolutely gutted!
    It will take me some time to recover…

    But I am glad he was given a chance in life.
    And I’m glad it came from the whole team at HERD. He could not have had this kind of selfless and unflinching love, care, and support that he got from you. And I’m absolutely sure little Phabeni is grateful, and will continue to be grateful – from wherever his home now is.

    I cannot thank you, Adine, and your wonderful team enough for what you do, what you have been doing, and what you will continue to do in the days ahead. And we are with you every step of the way.

    My deepest and heartfelt condolences to all of you…

    Take care…

    May the little one’s soul Rest in Peace …
    Om Shanti 🙏

    1. Your message means a great deal to us. The loss of our orphan elephant has left a profound void in our hearts, and it will take time for the HERD community to recover. Thank you for for the love and for standing with us during this difficult time.

  6. I am crying as I wrote this, heartbroken for you, for the carers and the herd.
    Seeking comfort in the love Phabeni was privileged to know.
    I see you strength and love from far away as you all grieve. I am in awe of everything you all do, heartfelt condolences,
    Julie from Canada

  7. Oh SO SO sorry dear Adine. You all tried so hard and gave him so much love . You must be heartbroken. We are also devastated here in Australia. We may have been far away but we have watched and loved this little elephant baby every step of the way. God bless you and your team and thank you so much for all you do for these wonderful creatures.

  8. I am really heartbroken. This came as such as shock. I am deeply sad for Phabeni, for the Jabulani herd and all the carers at HERD and Adine. May his memory be a blessing.

  9. I am a longtime visitor of JS and supporter of HESC and HERD. I am shocked at this very sad news but know how fragile baby ellies are.
    Have you considered laying Phabeni’s bones out for the HERD to smell? When Franke, the original matriarch of the Thula Thula (home of Elephant Whisperer) herd died, her bones were left on the reserve so that the herd could process her death. This might help Setombe to deal with his sudden absence, although there is no guarantee of how all will react.But, as I am sure that you all know, elephants do have a concept of death. I extend my heartfelt sympathies, as I too deeply grieve beloved Phabeni. May he rest in peace.

  10. phabeni stole my heart with his ways. now it’s really heartbreaking to know his demise. may this little angel always be happy wherever he is. all of you at HERD did your best. take care of yourself.

  11. Dear Adine and all at Herd

    We are so sad about the loss of Phabeni. He was such a feisty character and so endearing. No little elephant could have had more care and love than has been given by all at Herd.

    We have followed his progress almost daily and he has given us much joy which is remembered at this time of sadness.

    Sending our sympathy to you all and thanks to you for all you do
    Jackie and family

  12. To all who loved and cared for Phabeni I offer my condolences.I am heartbroken as well. Remember that God takes care of all of his creatures – great & small, human & animal. I do have 1 question. I believe elephants have always wanted to touch and basically pay respects to their peers. is there some reason this did not happen at the minimum for Setombe?

  13. This is incredibly sad news. You must all be devastated.. I’m so sorry for your loss. Poor little Phabeni, fighting so hard to live. I hope he’s finally found rest and peace. My love to you all.

  14. I am so very sorry to hear this news about our little warrior Phabeni. He stole my heart from day one! He and Setombe were such a joy to watch and my heart goes out to her and Khanyisa. Little Phabeni will be missed by all of us, including his elephant family. I love him so much 💕🐘!

  15. My deepest condolences to everyone at HERD. I am sure you are aware also how devastated we are also. Please clarify if you give the baby elephants colostrum in their milk? I read all the comments you folks wrote from Sheldrake about the high baby elephant mortality rate when tusking. Gosh. I know you folks tried your very best. Somewhere somehow there MUST be an answer as to how to keep these precious babies
    alive and to survive tusking (have I phrased it correctly?). The colostrum angle looks promising but maybe you and Sheldrake already add that stuff to the baby elephants’ milk anyway. Or maybe you don’t. 🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏🙏💔🙋‍♀️🇺🇸

  16. I am so sad that Phabeni died. I thought being excepted by the tribe would give him a good chance to live. I am especially sorry for all of you. It was especially obvious that you loved him.

  17. I am so sorry for all of you and the herd. Anyone that has had animals knows the heartache of losing one. My prayers to all of you. Beautiful little Phabeni, you are in my prayers.

  18. I am so sorry to all of you who did everything you could’ve for Phabeni. His precious little life touched so many around the world and brought so much love and joy to people with HIS herd at his side. I feel so sad for Setombe, and wonder how she will recover from losing him. Seeing how truly sensitive and deeply connected ellies are, especially when they lose one of their own. They will morn his absence, even if you decide not to allow them to see his remains. They will still know he’s gone. Just really glad they have each other through such a sad and tragic time.

  19. Your videos, blogs and Facebook updates were mravelous– heartwarming and full of love. i felt very involved with Phabeni, the herd, other animals sharing his area and all who cared for him. It’s hearbreaking to know he didn’t live longer. I appreciate all your communication and will continue to admire HERD and those who care for the elephants and rhinos..

  20. I am so saddened by Phabeni leaving us. I have watched him from day one grow. My sad wishes to all of you, but that little guy will be with all of you forever.

  21. I’m sitting here crying I can only imagine how you and the caregivers are feeling. thank you for trying to help him all this time everyone there is wonderful

  22. I just can’t stop crying wow this is so very sad. My heart goes out to everyone at HERD humans and animals.

  23. God Bless each and every one of you who loved and cared for little Phabeni. I have loved watching the videos about him and how he interacted with the herd. I hope he is with his real Momma in Heaven now and that he will RIP. Indeed, July 1 was a very sad day.
    Sending love and hugs to each of you as you are very special loving caretakers.

  24. Phabeni was loved deeply and will be forever missed. Rest in peace sweet boy. 🙏🐘❤️

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