8 July 2024

Several days have passed since Phabeni died. Even having been alongside him on his last night and into the morning, and having seen the end approaching, it does not feel real. In the moment, I need to do whatever it takes. I need to be there for Phabeni, for Stavros, for Liverson, for the other things calling my attention. I cannot think about the pain in my own heart. I cannot think about how it hurts to hold onto hope so furiously and then have to let it go. I cannot let go until the very last minute because I’ve seen orphan calves come back from the brink of death and pull through. We gave Phabeni painkillers and did our best to ease him in the last moments but there is no avoiding suffering. It is part of life.  

For the first few days after he died, adrenaline kept me going. But the loss of Phabeni hit us all hard, as the loss of anyone does. We stayed awake beside the little bull, and listened to his breathing. It was all we could hear. Until we could not hear it anymore. Owen was not prepared for the autopsy even though he tried to be there for it, perhaps to offer us support. But it is a brutal thing to go through. Especially considering how close we had become to Phabeni over the months he was with us. We had come to love him. Stavros, Herman, Khensani, Reply, Joshua, Liverson… these men and women were a family to Phabeni. They celebrated when Setombe took him in, they cried with me seeing how the females in the herd allowed him to comfort suckle from them. We were devoted to him every day, with every trying milk feeding, every nap under the reeds, every race to meet his herd, every night beside his sheep.

At first, I thought… what now? What do we do with ourselves now? But I remembered quickly, the herd. We still need to be there for the herd. In a way, they rescued us in this moment of tragedy. Every day we have 23 carers seeing to the health, wellbeing and safety of the herd, in the bush and in the homestead. They may no longer be calves, but their needs are plentiful. Fishan’s leg, Fishan and Tokwe’s colic, Mambo’s sparring wounds, Klaserie’s floppy ear, Pisa’s abscess, Somopane’s cracked skin, Sebakwe’s broken tusk, the maladies come and go, but the herd always needs us. To be needed is a beautiful thing. It guides you, it rewards you, but it can also break your heart.

The odds of survival for elephant orphan calves is low. A report by BBC sharing the loss of an orphan at Sheldrick Wildlife Trust when Dame Daphne Sheldrick was still alive, shared that as many calves that survive, die. There is simply so much against them each step of the way for the first two years of their lives. It is a far easier task to raise rhino orphan calves, since they are able to thrive on a standard milk formula that suits all and does not need to be changed. My time raising rhino orphans was certainly hard work, but not nearly as challenging as caring for these gentle giant babies.

Watching Daphne in the video interview with BBC as she got emotional over the loss of a baby in their care, I can’t help but find comfort in seeing especially a woman in conservation letting her raw and real feelings show. Even the carers show their hearts’ truths. So often in conservation, cold facts and statistics lead. But there is a very real human and animal heart to the stories of the work we do, in the loss and triumph. We battled with Khanyisa over the years, but were able to pull her through. Similarly with Jabulani, Timisa and Kumbura, these little fighters thrived enough to walk alongside the other orphans from Zimbabwe. But the odds claim many.

I know that thousands of people around the world ached with us over the loss of Phabeni. But I’d like to share with you the beautiful words left in a comment by @kat-kess on YouTube: Don’t turn away from the broken places. “The wound is the place where the light enters you.” – Rumi. In a world riven with darkness, Phabeni was light. Where there is hatred, he was love; where there is cruelty he was kindness, affection, joy. Little Phabeni in your short life, you allowed us to see and be all that is Good in this world. Thank you for that rare gift.

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  1. Thank you all so very much for all the excellent work you all do for the baby elephants. I’m sure Phabeni is looking down from heaven, with his Mother, on you all with great love and affection. ❤❤🐘🐘🙏🙏

    1. Adine, thank you for sharing your beautiful letter with us and the video from Sheldrick wildlife trust. I’m so grateful to have had the opportunity to watching baby Phabeni learn to trust and love his beautiful Humans and elephant family. Thank you so much for sharing him with us. The adorable little bull will always be loved and remembered. ❤️🐘🙏

  2. Me n my sister was so upset when we hear the bad news we still can’t believe he is gone but he will not be forgotten i even name one of my pet the same name n we will allways love the heard n will continue giving u guys the love n help u all need God bless

  3. Phabeni was the light and his loss is surreal. He will be missed but never forgotten. Adine I am extremely sorry for your loss and along with all the carers all I can send is love and to remember Phabeni. 🐘🐘❤️❤️

  4. Phabeni het n seer plekkie kom toemaak, n gapende moederhart, nadat my enigste seun onverwags dood is in motorongeluk. My man na hart aanval..dit is iets gewees wat my, n katte liefhebber, se hart snare geraak het. Die Balsem van Gilead het God onse pragtige Bulletjie Phabeni gebruik om my seer weg te neem. Dit het my so geseẽn om Phabeni te Sien.. Die stoei wanneer melk bottels gedronk was, Lammie en Spottie met Nandi ook om Phabeni. Dit het nuwe betekenis in my dag gebring. Ek gaan hom baie mis en stuur Stywe drukkies vir Almal. Julle het alles mens lik gedoen met soveel liefde

  5. Thank you for once again sharing with all of us. We may not be there physically, but we feel everything you do. You all do a great work! If not for all of you, the elephant might no longer exist, or it would be in more danger then it already is. This is the third baby I have watched you all with, and it doesn’t get easier. God bless you all for what you do.

  6. Please, you and we MUST find a way to bring more elephant calves through this process to survive to adulthood. There is always an answer to every question and/or problem and somehow we must find it. I personally am too raw emotionally at this time to speak more of this now. I know you all tried everything to bring Phabeni through. 💐💐💐🙏🙏🙏 I am not one of those people BTW who can be eloquent whilst upset.

  7. In thinking of words of comfort in this sudden shock.heart broken news that was flashed across the world few days ago of our little bull Phabeni.Our mouths dropped open minds went blank.The words and emotion offered by Kat-kess i guess hits it home. which i totally agree and probably each one of in the human herd family…Dame Sheldrick who was in the conservation business of African wild life for a long time, and whom your parents Adine probably conferred with many times showed us each animal is special helping them grow and love. the lost stays with you forever….The Jabulani crew still needs you physically and emotionally as they are confused and hurt of the lost of their little brother Phaibeni lets step up and continue the journey.This si the best i can do or say right now.ohio united states.

  8. I was thinking who is going to take care of all the babies in heaven. Milk bottles, hugs and rubs, kisses. Then it dawned on me. Kenneth! And of course Nungu the sheep. What a herd up there and Kenneth is in his element. Laughing and keeping all the babies laughing with him.

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