By the time Friday rushed in, seven days had flown passed since I'd started my assignment at Thula Thula Game Reserve in South Africa, and already my gypsy ways were battling with an unfamiliar feeling of belonging. It's not just the people I'm becoming attached to, but the elephants too, an incredible herd of pachyderms that has attained legendary status since the release of The Elephant Whisperer, written by Lawrence Anthony, who so suddenly passed away in 2012.
Not long after my arrival, Francoise Malby-Anthony, Lawrence's wife and charismatic owner of Thula Thula, had mentioned to me in conversation that it had been a long time since the elephants had visited the area surrounding the safari lodge, so I was surprised to hear trumpeting when I was drifting off to sleep at about a quarter to midnight.
I jumped up, slowly opened the door of the chalet, and scanned the pitch black night.
Clearly I was the only person awake, but a stone's throw in front of me were a dozen pairs of animal eyes, maybe wildebeest, maybe bushbuck, it's anyone's guess.
I sat down on the deck chair and began listening intently to the trumpeting which was coming from the east, not very far away. The elephants were calling out, a strangled cry that came from a place of anguish, and sitting helplessly in the dark I began to feel like a clamp was squeezing my heart. I knew something was very wrong, but there was nothing I could do.
The next morning at first light the helicopter pilot flew in with veterinarian Mike Toft, and I was at the runway to greet them with Vusi, Game Reserve Manager, and Zelda, Operations Managers. The son of proud mum Marula, the youngest in a family of 29, was caught in a poacher's snare, and the snare was wrapped around his precious five week old face, missing his eye by millimetres. Every hour that passed was another hour that the baby would be starved of his mother's milk, and the herd was growing increasingly agitated.
After a very short debrief, the chopper took off in search of the herd, with us following behind at an explosive pace. A couple minutes later members of the Thula Thula security team were on our tail. Vusi was driving, and Zelda and I were in the back of the open truck. I stood up to get a grip of the bullbar just as the 4x4 suddenly hurtled around a corner, lost my balance and came crashing down.
"Your knee!" shouted Zelda beside me.
"My camera!" I shouted back, panicked it might have broken in the fall. By this stage the blood was pumping so fast through my veins I think I was temporarily immune to pain. I jumped back up, grabbed hold of the bullbar with my left hand, and held the camera in my right.
"It's still working," I gasp with a sigh of relief, as I switched the camera from photo to video mode.
"Elephants to the left!" Zelda loudly replied, and as I swung around I saw the herd thundering towards the road. I felt the car surge forward and managed to hold on while I filmed the elephants crossing between the two vehicles, missing us by just a few metres.
The baby had been darted, and the elephants were on the run, herded away by the noise of the low flying helicopter.
Minutes later we arrived on the scene, and within seconds the snare was removed with magnificent precision. Lying there in a tranquilized heap, the calf looked very small and vulnerable, his little head bobbing with every breath he took. After quickly assessing the situation, the vet injected the reversal 'wake up' drug into his right ear, and we knew we'd have less than a minute before it kicked in.'
"Let's go!" said Vusi who was on elephant watch. "The mother is nearby and could rush in at any moment."
Well he didn't have to tell us twice. The helicopter was already poised for take-off and we dashed back to the vehicle and hit the road in a cloud of dust. By the time we turned the bend the helicopter was long gone, and mother and baby were reunited. Vusi stopped the vehicle and we gave ourselves a minute to take it all in. I picked up my camera and zoomed in on the two figures standing on the hill.
As she towered over him I noticed that sweat from her stress glands had stained a line down her cheek, and she was gently caressing him with her trunk, in a comforting way as if to say, "You're okay now, my boy. Everything is going to be alright."
I swallowed hard and looked at Zelda, and I knew she felt it too; the overwhelming feeling of being witness to something so tender and profound.
The war on poaching has a way of draining the life out of those that are up against an enemy that never seems to die. But then days like these come along, and it's like a shot of adrenalin straight to the heart, and I've never felt so alive.
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About an hour before sunset I went with tracker Siya and ranger Shandu to check up on the herd. They had once again returned to an area near the lodge, and when they heard the vehicle they all came sauntering over the hill and surrounded us in a surreal scene of gratitude and serenity. They munched away on the long grass, and last to emerge was Marula and her baby. He suckled on her, quenching his hunger, while the sun in the west painted the sky in a soft glow of pink. By now I had been out with the elephants at least ten times, but I'd never seen them this close and so relaxed.
At 7pm we were asked to congregate at the Thula Thula bar because a radiantly proud Francoise had put a couple bottles of champagne on ice to celebrate her team's successful mission. And in a moment of mystical, the herd had moved to the entrance of the lodge, where they were able to welcome their rescuers and show their thanks with their graceful presence. And that's when all the pieces started to come together, but it is a puzzle that will never truly be solved, because some things are simply beyond human intelligence and understanding.
As Siya and Shandu explained it, they had actually discovered the snare on the baby around 5pm the day before, but they weren't entirely sure as they couldn't get a clear view. The herd was about thirty metres away from the vehicle when they called Vusi and alerted him of their position. As soon as Vusi arrived the herd moved towards him and presented the baby, shuffling him forward, while mother Marula (daughter of Frankie and granddaughter of Matriarch Nana) reassuringly put her trunk on her son's back. When Lawrence was still alive Vusi had worked very closely with him in the bush operations of Thula Thula, and the older elephants especially were comfortable in his presence.
The rangers also pointed out that the elephants had been keeping close to the staff house in the 48 hours leading up to the calf getting caught in a snare, even if the weather should have been driving them south. They believed that the elephants could sense in advance that something bad was going to happen, and wanted to be close to the people that they knew would help them.
Lawrence Anthony died on the 2nd of March 2012 while away on business, and every year on the 4th of March this once rogue herd of elephants make their pilgrimage back to the house he lived in, to pay their respects to the man who saved them from certain death. But what I was not aware of was that they had disappeared five days prior to his own death, and many of the people that work at Thula Thula believe the elephants sensed something bad was going to happen. At 4500 hectares the reserve is not massive, and so anything more than a day or two without sighting the herd is peculiar.
Call it sixth sense, call it bush intuition, whatever one calls it, there is no denying that whenever Lawrence went away on business, the herd would always arrive at his house just before him to welcome him home. And if the flight was delayed, or Lawrence missed his flight, they would re-route, but they were always on his clock.
The bond that Lawrence shared with this wild herd of elephants will never be repeated, and as devastating as it was for the people that work at Thula Thula to lose their Mkhlulu, a man who was a father figure to many, life must go on. And there is perhaps no greater honour in death than for one's work to be continued with courage and dignity.
When we embarked on the rescue operation I was expecting a bit of a fight, and yet it could not have gone smoother. Looking back now I have come to realise that we were working together, as a team - elephants and humans - equally dedicated to swiftly ending the suffering of a family member.
Nature cannot be tamed, but trust between species can be earned.
And so moving forward, the baby elephant has finally been given a name. From now onwards he will be known as Vusi, joining the other members of the herd that have been named after the men and women that go to great lengths to protect them.