Before I arrived, I corresponded with Sandi and learned more about how she became involved with the three elephants — and with her husband, Doug. She happened to meet Doug at the same time she met the younger two elephants, in 1990 at South Africa’s Karkloof Falls Nature Reserve. She was enchanted by the elephants there, and equally captivated by Doug’s amazing relationship with them. At the time, she was in her final year of a zoology/botany major at Natal University in South Africa, and spent her spare time volunteering at the reserve.
A native of the United States, Doug came to Karkloof by a more circuitous route. For fifteen years he worked with Asian elephants at the Washington Park Zoo in Oregon and the San Diego Wildlife Park in California. In 1987 he joined a crew relocating four African elephants from the United States to South Africa. Once in South Africa, the elephants were granted a permanent home in the Karkloof Nature Reserve, seven thousand acres of indigenous forests and mist-belt grasslands located a little more than over sixty miles northwest from Durban, on the Indian Ocean side of South Africa’s coastline. When one of the elephants died from the stress of the journey, Doug grew concerned about the demands made on trained elephants to earn their keep.
Not long after Doug arrived at Karkloof, two baby elephants were orphaned during a culling operation northeast of the reserve in Kruger National Park. Until 1995, culling elephants was an accepted conservation practice for population control on private and public reserves throughout Africa. At first elephant culling in Kruger involved random killing of adult members from a herd without specific criteria. The practice evolved into removing every adult from a chosen herd and then transferring calves to zoos or other game reserves. Since elephants are highly social creatures and would naturally grow up in and benefit from family groups, juvenile elephants from culled herds often exhibit unruly or violent behaviors towards other elephants, wildlife, and even humans. Due to great international pressure, elephant culling was banned in South Africa in 1995. Culling, however, remains a wildlife management tool in other countries and, after a thirteen-year hiatus, the elephant-culling ban in South Africa was lifted.
In 1987, Doug saw the two, traumatized orphaned elephants as an opportunity. He wanted to test his theories on a new type of elephant training: creating a family consisting of both elephants and humans — with humans literally becoming part of their herd. He adopted Jabu and Thembi in 1988 when they were barely taller than his waist.
Four years later, Karkloof’s owner decided elephants were no longer needed in the reserve. Doug and Sandi moved to Glen Afric, a farm near Johannesburg, and trained their two adopted youngsters for freelance films. The popular South African TV series Okavango starred both Jabu and Thembi. The plot of the fictional TV drama centered on an American family who had inherited a game park in South Africa and wanted to turn it into an animal sanctuary. When Jabu was just two, he also starred in advertisements for both IBM and the painkiller Panadol.
Whenever anyone asks Doug about the special relationship he has with his elephants, he’ll relate two stories by way of explanation.
One afternoon several years ago, Doug was with his trio of elephants as they browsed inside a large grove of trees. As he walked around one of the trees, he disturbed a young lion beneath it. Growling and snarling, the lion charged Doug, halting just seven or eight feet away.
“I did my best kung-fu stance,” Doug told me, “then I realized THIS was really serious.” He called Jabu and all three elephants came running, heads down, shoulder to shoulder, from 150 yards away.
The lion turned tail and ran.
“I think they were already were coming before I called,” Doug says, then and pauses. “They saved my life.”
The second story is of one of the early days at Glen Afric, when Jabu rolled his eyes back and sank into convulsions.
“My heart stopped,” Doug will always say, shaking his head and looking at the ground. “He is like a son to me.”
After several seconds, young Jabu struggled upright and leaned against a tree. A heavy drainage of pus poured from his ear. “It might have been a bad ear infection,” Doug told me later.
Concerned at the time that the loss of Jabu could have a significant effect on Thembi, Doug and Sandi made enquiries about adding another elephant, Mary, to their herd.
Born in Zimbabwe, Mary was just two years old when her family was exterminated during a culling operation. Mary and a young male cousin eventually were sent in the early 1990s to Borakalalo, a new game park near Sun City, the casino capital of South Africa. Mary and Zorba, her cousin, became partners in hooliganism, chasing fishermen and breaking open cooler boxes for the food and beer inside.
They also began to chase Borakalalo’s rare white rhinos. Zorba eventually killed seven of them; he’d flipped over a safari vehicle. He was shot and, because she was at the scene of the crimes, Mary was under a death sentence, too — licensed to be killed by big-game hunters. Doug and Sandi believed she did not deserve such a fate. Borakalalo was more than willing to let them take a delinquent seventeen-year-old elephant off their hands.
Shortly after Mary joined the herd in December of 1994, Doug and Sandi changed her name to Morula, the local Tswana word for her favorite fruit from the Marula tree, a fruit commercially distilled into the cream liqueur Amarula. In my mind, Morula and I obviously shared good taste.
Doug and Sandi’s dreams of establishing an ecotourism venture with their elephants came true at the same time. Abu’s Camp had just established elephant rides in the Okavango Delta. A competing safari operator invited Doug and Sandi to develop an ecotourism venture that did not involve riding elephants. Their relocation to Botswana was filmed in its entirety and became a Discovery Channel feature, A Herd of Their Own, released in 2000.
In the beginning, Morula was submissive, but a bit of a misfit, creating twisted sculptures out of trees in her frustration. It couldn’t have helped that Jabu bullied her a bit, establishing his presence as the alpha elephant. And Thembi pretty much ignored the new kid on the block.
One of the first things Doug taught Morula was to put her trunk over her head. This gave him access to her mouth to reward her for good behavior. Slowly, all the members of the family established trust with one another. They’ve been together now for twenty-three years.
In partnership with two nearby tourist camps, Doug and Sandi offer their guests the experience of a lifetime – an opportunity to walk for several hours through the bush with three unfenced and unfettered elephants, culminating in a picnic lunch at the end of the trek. Rather than submitting to elephant-back safari rides, Jabu, Morula and Thembi provide one-on-one interactions, a unique chance to learn how elephants behave in the wild from elephants who accept humans as part of their herd.
And, once again, I get to tag along.