Clever ellies and an amazing family legacy

I arrive at Adventures With Elephants in Bela Bela and immediately fall in love. But can you blame me? Surely no true African adventure can be complete without these iconic and awe-inspiring animals. Does anything compare to relaxing in a camping chair, sipping Amarula and watching an elephant family come running down to the river thirstily – trunks wobbling from side to side and tails sticking up like warthogs?

Adventures with Elephants

© Rodnick Clifton Biljon

Adventures With Elephants is owned and run by the Hensman family, who are the founders of Elephants For Africa Forever (EFAF).

We have timed our arrival perfectly and I bound over to join a small group of guests gathering in sunny anticipation, watching an assembling line of six contented ellies. I am immediately struck by Rory Hensman’s gentle and familiar way with the elephants. ‘Speak, guys’, he says, and they respond in low rumbles. This, I soon learn, is how elephants communicate over distances of up to 65 km. However, most of these sounds are transmitted at frequencies too low for the human ear and are channelled via vibrations in the ground absorbed through their very large feet.

Suddenly, it is hard to control the many questions bouncing wildly around in my head, but I manage to ask Rory how his work with elephants started. ‘It all began in 1988, when young calves were made available to farmers in Zimbabwe during culling operations in the Zambezi Valley. I wanted to give my children the privilege of growing up around wild elephants.’ I can just imagine the excitement that must have shone through the faces of his three young children, now grown, when two orphaned calves arrived at their farm. ‘The ellies were too young to release onto the game farm, and so we adopted them … we were at the right place at the right time … it was the elephants who taught us.’ This marked the beginning of what would become a lifetime devoted to learning from and sharing in the lives of these intelligent and magnificent animals. Amongst a collection of delightful memories, Rory recalls the indignant requests made by his three children on their arrival home on boarding-school holidays – that they could take their sleeping bags and go and sleep with the elephants. I think of myself as a child … I would have given anything to do that! In fact, even to do it now…

Photos © Hensman Family archives

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Standing in front of a big elephant called Messina, I am in for a big surprise. ‘Give her a handful of pellets and let her smell you with her trunk,’ instructs Francis, one of the skilled handlers at AWE. I say my name clearly as I do this. After the whole group has had a turn, we all remove our shoes and put them in a big pile in front of Messina. With mouths agape, we watch as she begins to use her agile, muscular trunk (an elephant’s trunk has between 50 000 and 100 000 muscles in it) to pick up each shoe and return it to the correct owner. Even after we switch places with each other she does it with ease, possibly laughing to herself and wondering at the surprised expressions on our faces. Unlike in humans, an elephant’s memory improves with age. This is imperative to the survival of an elephant family, who are led by the oldest and wisest female called the matriarch. The wisdom she acquires has been, and will be (without human interference), passed down for many generations. She knows the seasonal migration routes, how to find food and water (even underground – critical in surviving drought) and how to sense and avoid danger. Although elephants can go for four days without water, they will drink every day if it is readily available.

‘So, it sounds like elephants understand English and Shona…?’ I ask Francis half-jokingly, but his expression is thoughtful. ‘I think they just understand human’ he replies, smiling. As I run my fingers over the intricate network of veins on the inside of Messina’s ear, I decide that there is nothing quite like being close to an elephant.  She lets me feel her strong tongue … after a lifetime of swallowing acacia thorns (an adult bull can eat up to 300kg of plant matter in a day), how can it feel so smooth and slimy? So much is still a mystery when it comes to elephants…

Rory Hensman elephant bela bela

Rory Hensman riding an elephant as a young boy ©Hensman Family archives

The next day, I gain further insight into the ellie’s unrivalled memory and sense of smell. ‘We are training our elephants to detect landmines; come and see’, says Rory. He takes out small plastic containers, which contain about a teaspoon of gunpowder in each. We drive through the farm and he tosses them at random into the long grass, a few metres from the road. With handlers riding them, the ellies stop parallel to each ‘landmine’ and signal with a salute by lifting their front right foot and curling their trunk upward for their reward.  With the same concept used to detect landmines, Rory explains that elephants can be taught to find hidden rhino horn and track poachers. ‘Elephants operating in a clandestine role would be the perfect vehicle to patrol parks as they can go anywhere, at any time, and can constantly search for signs of poaching … it would be low on cost too and not a bad job for the ellies, they can easily carry up to 25% of their body weight on their back’.

At dinner that night, Rory asks each of us what we most enjoyed about the day. For many it is the elephant’s memory that most impresses, for others it is sheer size, or gentleness in manner. These all made a deep impression on me, but what delighted me most was how sociable they are. It seems that they embraced the company of humans. Rory agreed, ‘elephants are extremely sociable animals, they are also very sensitive to the body language of humans, yet, unlike dogs, they will not take advantage of this and will go out of their way to help you feel comfortable.’  This is a true reflection of what Adventures With Elephants has set out to do. The hope, Rory explains , is that, ‘through these intimate encounters, people will become aware of both the wonder of elephants, as well as the importance to responsibly conserve them … we must find a way for elephants and humans to live together, we must find a balance.’

I find myself sad to say goodbye to the elephants. While walking to the car, I step over giant round tracks in the earth – they are not unlike the ones left on my heart. Both tranquil and wild, I find it hard to deny that Africa beats in time with the footsteps of elephants.

Rachel Lang

Hi, I’m Rach . If not adventuring in the African bush, the chances are I’m dreaming about it. My childhood played a big role in this passion as I was privileged to travel much of Southern Africa from an early age. Needless to say, I’m happiest barefoot with a sketchbook in hand – watching elephants at a water hole or listening to lions roaring around a campfire. Wildlife, children and storytelling are a big part of my life. Follow my adventures on my blog www.bushboundgirl.com

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