Gift Kanjaza and Maxwell Jonathan with bull elephant Rambo who they say protects them from predators during their walks.	Picture: Bongani Mbatha
Gift Kanjaza and Maxwell Jonathan with bull elephant Rambo who they say protects them from predators during their walks. Picture: Bongani Mbatha
Gift Kanjaza poses with Maxwell Jonathan and the elephant family they regard as friends, bull elephant Rambo, his partner Rachel, left, and baby elephant Jabulani. Picture: Bongani Mbatha
Gift Kanjaza poses with Maxwell Jonathan and the elephant family they regard as friends, bull elephant Rambo, his partner Rachel, left, and baby elephant Jabulani. Picture: Bongani Mbatha
Maxwell Jonathan keeps a distance between himself and the elephants to allow them to graze without distraction. Picture: Bongani Mbatha
Maxwell Jonathan keeps a distance between himself and the elephants to allow them to graze without distraction. Picture: Bongani Mbatha

On a cold and grey October morning in Zululand, the men who walk with elephants emerge from a deep donga, their convoy of pachyderms in close pursuit.

The first (man) to emerge is the slight figure of Gift Kanjaza, who has on a red wool hat and a broad smile.

Next is Maxwell Jonathan, a big man – tall, with broad shoulders.

He moves slowly and with purpose.

This is big five country but neither Kanjaza nor Jonathan are armed.

Under the watchful eyes of the three African elephants with whom they spend their days wandering the bush, though, they don't need to be.

“Rambo – he's our man,” Kanjaza says.

Rambo, a five-and-a-half-ton bull, is grazing on a thorny bush a few metres away.

With him are cow Rachel and their calf, Jabulani.

“If Rambo sees something, he lets us know. Maybe there’re lions around, he’ll make a noise to say ‘Stay close’. They just want to protect us. We spend so much time with them every day and there's a bond, like with a mother and her child,” Kanjaza says.

Louise Isaacs is a game ranger at Bayete Zulu, the farm which these elephants call home.

In her seven years here, she has seen them chase lions and buffalo away from Kanjaza and Jonathan.

“I've watched Rachel, who is known to be less welcoming to humans, chase rhino away from them. It's incredible and it's very special,” Isaacs says.

The elephants were never meant to share such an intimate relationship with humans.

But the herd Rambo and Rachel were a part of in Zimbabwe, was culled some time in the late 1980s or early 1990s.

“They were about 2-years-old, if not younger, and they were what we refer to as ‘milk babies’. They ran away and they hid from the cullers. Then that evening, they wandered into the camp. The guys decided they wanted to deal with them in the morning and they just pacified them. But then they grew such a bond to them overnight, they couldn't bring themselves to put them down. So they kept them and they were hand-reared at the Hwange National Park,” Isaacs says. “After that, they were sold to one of our neighbouring reserves and expected to live like wild elephants but they started to misbehave.”

It is difficult to re-introduce elephants into the wild, as they grow to depend on the human interaction and act up if they don't get it.

Rambo and Rachel arrived at Bayete Zulu some 19 years ago.

Here, they spend an hour of the day doing elephant interactions with visitors and the rest of their time with Kanjaza, Jonathan and their colleague, Vusi Nhleko, in the bush.

They gave birth to Jabulani seven years ago.

“This is the only life she knows,” Isaacs says. “She knows the elephant handlers are her family. She has a very good relationship with Gift and she's saved his life on more than one occasion”.

These relationships have taken years to build.

Kanjaza, 27, is from Malawi and he has been working with elephants since he was a teenager.

He came to Bayete Zulu seven years ago.

Maxwell, 38, and also from Malawi, has been here 10 years.

“I was the first person to see Jabulani after she was born,” he says proudly.

The elephants all answer to their names.

Jabulani hears hers and comes barging forward.

Kanjaza scolds her and she slows to a saunter at his side.

He pulls a leafy twig from the soil and offers it up to her.

“Before we work with them, we love them first. And these animals, they know if you love them or not. 

“They know we love them; that’s why we can communicate with them,” Jonathan says.

But how do they communicate with them?

“We talk with them,” Jonathan says simply.

Kanjaza says he and Jonathan are part of the herd.

The men are with the elephants from dawn to dusk.

They meet them at their lapa at around 5.30am.

And then they walk, until around 6pm.

The men don’t tell them where to go.

“We just follow them and walk with them the whole day, spending time with them. We stay around 100 metres behind them, so they can feed nicely,” Kanjaza says.

“Once they are done with interaction (with visitors), they are done. They are out on the reserve. They eat and fend for themselves as wild elephants would,” Isaacs says, “The only difference is that they have the elephant handlers with them. And the only reason the elephant handlers are with them is that they need the company."

Bayete Zulu does not plan on continuing with elephant interactions indefinitely as elephants are meant to be wild, Isaacs says.

But for the unlikely crew that walks together every day, the relationship will remain, because for Kanjaza and the men, this is their family .

The Mercury