Elephant Havens shifts mindsets on Ngamiland elephants

Touch the wild: The Okavango community is getting closer to wildlife  PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES
Touch the wild: The Okavango community is getting closer to wildlife PIC: THALEFANG CHARLES

SHOROBE: The people of Shorobe, Matsaudi, Mochaba, Shukumukwa and Gabamocha in the northeast of Maun have an opportunity to learn and understand elephants, all thanks to the new locally run elephant sanctuary that has opened in the area.

Elephant Havens, the brainchild of young local elephant handler who used to work at Abu Camp in the heart of the Okavango, and philanthropic American couple, is presenting a unique opportunity for the people of Ngamiland to change their mindset about elephants and wildlife.

Despite the fact that the people of Okavango Delta live in an area with the world’s largest population of elephants, the majority of the people do not understand these giants.

Humans in the area have an antagonist relationship with elephants. These large mammals trample their crops, while some families have buried their loved ones killed by elephants and they are therefore feared and loathed. Therefore, most communities do not see any direct benefit from these animals. But the situation is about to change because of Elephant Havens’ great work.

Elephant Havens is a non-profit organisation that aims not only to protect and preserve the African elephant, but also to educate local communities on elephant behaviours and habitat protection as well as to instil an understanding of the benefits of conservation.

It is a sanctuary for abandoned and orphaned elephants – an educational safe place for them to be cared for until they can be reintroduced into the wild.

The president and trustee of the foundation is Boago ‘Bee’ Poloko - a third-generation elephant handler, who was raised in the bush by his handler father and grandfather. He is a former elephant manager at Abu Camp.

Poloko says setting up the sanctuary has not been easy but the journey has been ‘rewarding’. Poloko, together with his co-trustees Debra Stevens and Scott Jackson, endured the rigorous long process of acquiring the permit. He says they finally got the greenlight to operate the sanctuary on December 18, 2018.

And almost immediately after being given the thumps up the stars aligned as five days later they were called to pick up an orphaned elephant found at Sekondomboro.

The baby elephant that was just over a year old became the first orphan to arrive at Elephant Havens and they named it Mmamotse - a name that christened the calf as the future matriarch of the haven’s herd.

Today Mmamotse is about two-years and five-months-old and has three mates at the orphanage. It is Tsholofelo, the only male, from Katjiratjira that arrived on September 7, 2019.

Then came Bonolo from Sechenje, which is now two-years and 10-months-old as per their advanced elephant age estimator. Bonolo is the eldest and still very shy around humans. The newcomer and youngest is Tshepiso, which is 14 months from Sekondomboro.

As the herd increases, the team looking after the little gentle giants is increasing. Apart from their leader Poloko, there are two famous expert elephant handlers, Akanyang ‘AK’ Mosebata and Onkobetse ‘Onks’ Motamma.

Both are experienced former elephant minders at Abu Camp. These legends, who have raised and trained orphan elephants for over 10 years, are now impacting their knowledge into a project that is closer to their people with far-reaching benefits.

They are part of a 17-strong permanent workforce, all Batswana, at Elephant Havens who are working to rehabilitate elephants and educate Ngami community about them.

According to Ipeleng Chabata, who is another trustee and co-founder, with boots on the ground at the orphanage, “raising an orphaned elephant is a delicate, patient and costly process that demands a dedicated team of handlers, veterinarians and support staff”.

She says to successfully raise baby orphans, the handlers have to give them care around the clock and sleep with them in their specially designed bomas (enclosure). They are provided with milk formula and later introduced to the grass. Later on when the elephants are big enough and showing signs of independence they would then begin another phase of reintroducing them to the wild.

Chabata says the community has welcomed them with open arms. They have had outreach programmes which include community leaders and primary school students visiting the elephant orphans to interact with them.

She reveals that apart from hiring young staff members from the community, they have since drilled a borehole for them and plan to get a school bus for the children who are travelling long distances through wild animals to school.

Community members, who have seen the transformation of Mmamotse, Tsholofelo, Bonolo and Tshepiso from the feisty wild orphans to tamed humble elephants, are having a total mindset shift about the entire species and confidence in fellow Batswana running wildlife NGOs.

Before the orphanage, the only elephant the people of this area ever touched was a dead one.

Today Elephant Havens offers daily visits for the community to interact with young elephants, learn about elephant behaviour and even shoot selfies with them – an experience many dearly cherish.

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