By Adine Roode
Phabeni watched as the elephants left the homestead in the morning, feeding easily on grass strands. His abscess has healed nicely, but you can still spot the little hump where it was. Khanyisa was at her spot at the fence while Phabeni was smelling her and eyeing her sweet potatoes. Khanyisa was very unsure of this little grey pumpkin and you can see from her behaviour that she was unsure and uncomfortable around Phabeni, especially as there is no matriarch around to lead and teach Khanyisa, but she has been doing well under the circumstances. Her behaviour is nothing out of the ordinary.
Tigere and I discussed that we will bring Lundi in to join Jabulani, following Phabeni’s previous introduction to the older bull. Tigere led Lundi to the homestead as this was not the normal daily routine and as she was walking in the opposite direction of the herd, I think she knew she would be meeting the new arrival.
Phabeni was in his comfort zone of the morning routine, watching Khanyisa drinking her bottles, and getting a glimpse of the other youngsters when they passed by. Instead of Jabulani stopping by to visit, Phabeni saw the older bull and another elephant walk passed him and so he followed them next to the fence and then to the wall by the homestead. We called Phabeni to the gate, but why should he come to us if he was in earshot of two elephants? It took some convincing from all of us to get him to follow, Joshua behind him, me at the front, luring him with nibbles, then out the wooden orphanage gate, the homestead swing gate and into the homestead.
Lundi was very excited and wanted to embrace Phabeni, but Tigere calmed her down while we escorted the little bull. Instantly, the two elephants’ trunks touched, and smelt the air around them, smelt one another. Lundi’s temporal glands were flowing with excitement while she twirled around in circles – around Phabeni, around us. She was uncertain, had her trunk in her mouth and was perhaps even aggressive as we as humans blocked her way to get to Phabeni. It is tricky in these situations, as we needed to protect Phabeni from potential rejection, even though we were convinced that Lundi would accept them. But I always say, a wild animal stays a wild animal and you always need to be alert, as instinct kicks in and the situation can change in a blink of an eyelid, so we can’t blink. We need to focus.
This sometimes blurs the moment, our intention to protect. Lundi’s instinct to protect. All of us want to protect with the best intentions.
Phabeni wasn’t interested in the new addition at first – this elephant twirling and circling around him, and so he retreated and walked towards us. It took some encouragement from us, but soon he started smelling Lundi’s body, reaching out to her, and then he walked to Jabulani who calmly ate his branches and bana grass. Lundi followed Phabeni and you could feel her tenderness and will to win over Phabeni.
I don’t know really how the penny dropped and what made Phabeni change his mind, but he followed Lundi, and stood next to her while she moved her left front leg forward for him to reach out towards her teat to suckle. He bent his hind legs, lowering his rear to the ground, and lifting his chin high up Lundi.
There were tears of joy rolling down my cheeks and blurring my vision. These are the moments that make our work worthwhile, the long hours, the days in the sun, exposed to wind and rain, freezing cold mornings, but this is our purpose. To link up babies from human-animal conflict situations, and give them another chance, introduce them to mothers who are willing to raise them. What a beautiful heartwarming moment we all shared.
Phabeni suckled and changed position, seemingly frustrated as it was not filling his stomach. The elephants in our herd are not and will not lactate since they are on contraception, as elephants under human care and protection cannot legally breed according to legislation in South Africa. Phabeni will likely still suckle for the comfort, and the cows in our herd will still put their leg forward to let him, as it is their instinct to. Phabeni walked over to Jabulani and reached out to his milk glands, but Jabulani didn’t move a leg and Phabeni made a plan by standing with his one foot on Jabulani’s leg, making himself taller by having a stepping stone (in this case, a stepping leg). It was strange that Phabeni only went to Jabulani to suckle then, as he had never shown any sign of wanting to suckle from this older bull before.
At some stage Lundi was a bit upset and twirling around. At first we didn’t know the reason but then we spotted Lammie and Spotty on the other side of the wall, watching Phabeni meeting his new mom. Unfortunately, as it was upsetting to Lundi, the two sheep were called to nursery area of the orphanage, out of sight. We made a note to close them there for the days to come when we continue with the integration.
The weirdest rain storm then started. It rained on the one side of the homestead and we could see and hear it on the roof, but we were still dry without any drops. Soon the rain started on our side of the homestead and poured down in buckets over the whole homestead. On the other side with the herd, who were out foraging in the bush, Sebakwe got spooked and ran, with Somopane and Tokwe. The three ran towards each other with loud trumpets. It upset Lundi and we decided to take Phabeni back to the orphanage to prevent any negative experience during the integration.
Lundi twirled around and Jabulani also got a bit uptight. Phabeni was standing in the middle and unsure of what to do, who to follow. We battled to hear each other above the sound of the rain on the roof. We tried to lure Lundi with fruit and pellets, but she would come and then reverse to Phabeni, who was not sure where to go, who to follow.
There was a bucket at the gate with sweet potatoes and apples, waiting for Phabeni. With a bit of disorganised chaos, Lundi followed Joshua to the orphanage to walk Phabeni back home. Phabeni could not get past her though and it took some effort before he could enter the orphanage. With all the trumpeting and rumbling, he was upset and wet and cold, pacing up and down the orphanage. As it was sooner than anticipated, his milk bottle wasn’t prepared and while nursery carer, Khensani prepared his bottle, Joshua and I called and finally convinced Phabeni to come to the nursery for warmth and comfort.
Before putting on his blanket, we dried him with a towel. We were concerned that he could get a cold, especially with the stress of integrations, you can never be sure of the impact it can have on such a little elephant. How much are they able to absorb safely? Rather be safe than sorry.
In the distance, we followed the commotion as Jabulani and Lundi joined the rest of the herd. It was clear that they were not upset by the integration of Phabeni but about the rain and the storm, which was a relief as we are working towards a smooth transition for one and all.
Phabeni drank his milk and in the meantime, Herman sped off in the rain with the wheelbarrow to fetch some bedding for the clean nursery. The rain interfered with us, but we needed the rain and were happy with the buckets pouring down.
Lammie and Spotty joined Phabeni and soon, the little elephant took a nap in his clean nursery on his fresh bedding under his new Springbok ‘blankie’.
We are progressing, little by little, and in the end, all went well. We couldn’t be more grateful!