Written by: Reece Thornley
There are many things about Africa that I will never forget for as long as I live. Many of these memories are beautiful and mesmerising, but a few are absolutely bewildering! However, of all my experiences in Africa, there is one individual in particular that stands out in my mind. This individual makes me long for the windswept floodplains and dense thicket of Pongola Game Reserve South.
He is staggeringly beautiful and gargantuan in size. His thick grey skin is tinged with copper orange soil and wrinkles that cross his entire body like deep fjords. I will always remember his eyes – sparkling and wise like great amber sapphires. An identifiable characteristic was his wonky left tusk that protruded inwards towards his long serpentine trunk. There has never been a more aptly named creature to grace this earth as Khumbula – the Zulu word for ‘remember’. And if elephants had second names, his would definitely be Ungakhohlwa, which means ‘never forget’.
There was one day in particular that I spent with Khumbula that was truly amazing. There was not a cloud in the sky and a light breeze made the leaves sway gently. One of the things that surprised me most was how easily Khumbula could hide in the thicket, and how easily he could disappear into it like a shadow in the night. I often heard the elephants before I saw them; the snapping of branches and crunching of leaves were the sign that they were ambling through the forest.
On this particular day it was another elephant, Asiphephe, that I first heard as he sent a four metre acacia tree crashing to the ground so that he could feed on the succulent roots that had been locked firmly below the soil. Khumbula chose the moment that we were watching Asiphephe to reveal himself and he slowly strolled out of the thicket in his characteristic gait.
After browsing near his travel companion for a short while, he was drawn closer to the car by a smell that seemed to entice his curiosity. Heike, the elephant whisperer (although her modesty will not permit her to enjoy that title), checked the proximity was okay.
However Khumbula edged closer to the car, surveying the strange new people that had invaded his home. It wasn’t long before some scent on the front of the car had him transfixed. It was clearly a smell that he just could not fathom. He stretched his long, slender grey trunk out repeatedly, sniffing like he was going to suck all the air from the earth as he tried to work out what the scent was on the front of our truck.
Occasionally he would reverse back and twist his trunk under itself, pointing its tip towards the car as he attempted to hide his interest – this “sneaky sniff” was something he was very good at. Bit by bit his interest dwindled and eventually he vanished into the thicket as easily as a leopard disappears up a tree.
I would see this astounding individual many times when I was in Africa, and he would appear by the side of the road just as we’d given up hope of finding any elephants that day and had started driving back to the bush camp. It was as if he had sensed our disappointment or craved the limelight, and he was always relaxed, absurdly photogenic and unfailingly curious.
One thing that Khumbula and the other elephants of Pongola made me realise was that nothing on the television can truly express how utterly amazing these creatures are. They are incredibly loyal, which is highlighted through their sense of family and kinship.
Khumbula left me with no doubt in my mind that these animals are natural wonders that have the intrinsic right to exist in their natural habitat, safe from the heinous persecution that is decimating their global population and that is being driven solely by human greed and vanity.
I cannot begin to imagine the extent to which the poaching crisis has affected elephants, not only in terms of population, but in terms of their societies, behaviour and mental wellbeing. The elephants of Pongola are luckily safe and prosperous for the time being. It would be a crime if we were to allow the thousands of elephants like Khumbula to become a distant echo of the past, as they have become across much of their historic range.
I will always remember Khumbula and his charming, lovable personality. I will always remember how he, and the other elephants of Pongola, taught me how important their survival is; not only for their sake but for the sake of humanity. My trip has left me with even more fire in my belly and a renewed determination to protect and conserve elephants so that the whole continent can be as safe for them as Pongola Game Reserve.
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