Couple who walk with elephants

Published Apr 26, 2013


Durban - Dwarfed by the towering African elephant, Sandi Groves is unafraid. Her voice is monotone and calm as she welcomes the gathered tourists to come forward, to touch and feel the rough grey hide and to stroke the long, heavy trunk, to see the wire-like tail hairs and place their hands in the soft, cool skin under the tree-trunk-sized elbow.

She explains how the ridges on the inside of the resting trunk show he is “left-handed”. As she speaks, rumbles emanate from deep inside the male’s stomach: “Good boy, Jabu, come on, my baby, well done, what a good boy, that’s my sweetheart.”

Sandi, 45, with her American-born husband Doug, 58, has dedicated her life to raising three orphaned elephants, Jabu, Thembi and Morula, who now live deep in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. When the couple married in the late 1990s, they chose not to have children, because not only do they believe there are enough in the world, but because they committed themselves to the three pachyderms whose families were slaughtered in culling operations in the Kruger National Park and Zimbabwe.

Since then Doug has not left their tented bush camp home for over two decades, while Sandi goes occasionally to their “little place” in Maun, from where she runs the Living With Elephants Trust.

It’s difficult not to be fascinated by Sandi as she walks and talks with the elephants. Small-waisted, with a purposeful walk , her voice almost hypnotic but beautiful. Similarly Doug speaks quietly, reverently and with pure joy bubbling beneath.

When the couple met, Doug, who had spent a greater part of his life working with elephants in safari parks and zoos in the US, was employed at the Karkloof Falls Nature Reserve outside Pietermaritzburg. Sandi was completing her zoology and botany degree at the city’s university.

“When I met Doug, in 1990, he had adopted Jabu and Thembi. They were both about 18 months old. I was very naive then, so it was almost easy for me to commit myself both to Doug and the elephants. I would not change the decisions I have made, but perhaps we could have done things better,” she reflects.

She remembers when, as a teenager, she felt a “complete misfit” in the concrete jungle.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life but I just knew I could not work in the city. I think my love for nature first started when my Dad (Bill Austin, who still lives in Pietermaritzburg) would watch documentaries on television. TV had just come to South Africa. The first one, I remember it so well. It was on marine life. I was fascinated.”

The weakest in society always attracted her. “I got involved in all the anti-apartheid stuff at university but I soon came to the conclusion that humans could look after themselves, and that it was more important to preserve nature and get people to connect to it again.”

When the Karkloof reserve closed in 1994 the couple moved the two youngsters to a reserve in the Waterberg. It was then that they received a call from a field guide in Zimbabwe. He asked if they would adopt an 18-year-old female elephant whose brother had been shot for killing 15 rhinos, tipping over a tourist-filled game vehicle and then killing a man. The guide warned that Morula – as she is now known – was deeply traumatised.

Sandi says when Morula arrived she was gentle and very submissive but would also attack and gore trees, smashing them to the ground in fits of rage. The bond between the two is palpable, as is the tie between Jabu, Thembi and Doug.

When the Waterberg reserve was sold, the couple knew they had to find a more permanent home for their “family”.

“We found a place in the western part of the delta. We trucked them all the way. In those days it wasn’t usual to see elephants loaded into a truck and we also rather foolishly decided to give them only half the sedative dose recommended by the vet. Morula managed to tear a strip out of the side of the truck so her trunk and half her head was sticking out. We were a huge attraction when we stopped to fuel the trucks,” Sandi laughs.

The delta reserve, they soon realised however, was not ideal. Trophy hunting, the daily business, was in direct conflict with their philosophy.

“We then walked with the elephants for 12 days to where we are now and we have been here for over 20 years. It’s been decades of commitment,” she says.

Now, as the elephants wrap their trunks around the young and succulent fan palms before ripping them out of the desert sand, Doug calls the dainty Thembi forward to meet the tourists.

He croons to her, calling her beautiful and clever. Then he asks her quietly to lift her trunk. He reaches both his hands up to either side of her mouth, which towers above his head. The elephant obliges by sticking out her tongue as Doug gently points out the rows of taste buds and her teeth before reaching into his pocket and passing around a set of her discarded teeth for all to see.

All the time Thembi has her trunk raised, occasionally bringing it down and wrapping it around the heavily bearded man’s neck almost in a hug. It’s beautiful.

At least 1 000 tourists walk with the elephants each year, including school children between the ages of 10 and 12.

“That’s a good impressionable age, particularly to link themselves with the environment. It opens their eyes to opportunities in the tourism industry,” says Sandi.

As the group sits down to a lavish bush lunch in the sprawling shade of a giant marula tree, Thembi, Jabu and Morula gently munch on acacia branches and delectable piles of leaves and shoots provided by Doug. Suddenly a trunk reaches gently past an unsuspecting shoulder, delicately pinching a stray orange off the table.

And, as the conversation turns to the future, the elephants, desperate to be the centre of attention again, begin to entertain with a range of trumpets and “squeaks” made by blowing air through their trunks.

The muscles on their foreheads can be seen clearly controlling the force of the air flow. After each successful performance Jabu rubs his head against Thembi, who leans on his shoulder. Morula stands to one side, more interested in her lunch.

Indeed, what of the future? Doug explains the couple are now looking for a remote place, away from humans, well stocked with food where they can take their family. And how, over a period of five years they will slowly distance themselves from them so they can eventually lead the lives of wild elephants. The gentle Doug quickly adds though that the plan will only happen “in about 10 years”.

Sandi adds: “Every time we talk about it it’s another 10 years. I think it’s going to be more difficult to get Doug to adjust to civilisation.” However, she would like to travel.

But, until then, the family continues to walk each day along the flowing waters of the Okavango Delta, the elephants grazing along the way, or splashing and wallowing in the blue water. And hopefully, say Sandi and Doug, the visitors will spread the message across the globe that elephants are worthy of worship rather than destruction. That everything is connected. That what we all do at home has an impact on the whole planet, and our and the elephants’ futures are intimately linked. - The Mercury

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