It’s another glorious morning at Antelope Park as we wake to the roaring of lions and the chatter of birds, have a quick cup of coffee, and start the day off walking with Lewa and Laili. Really, it just doesn’t get any better than this. The two L’s are enjoying the morning as well. They are quite energetic and playful, and even give a bit of a chase to some impala. Way to go, girls!
Next on the agenda is behavior enrichment with Paza and Penya. We are tasked with making toys to engage them in play using only natural materials we find around camp and in the bush. We gather branches, elephant dung, grass, and feathers; while Tom, our lion guide, expertly removes bark from tree branches that is pliable enough to tie our materials together, yet strong enough not to break. Feeling pretty good about our handmade creations, we enter the P’s enclosure only to discover they already have a toy that will be hard to compete with – an impala skull!
The skull comes from a successful night encounter kill earlier in the week – one that we did not see. The P’s are pretty cute, wrapped up in the horns of the impala; sometimes both chewing on it together, and other times one successfully wrestling it away from the other. But we are supposed to engage them in activity, so Tom and Craig take turns placing the skull at the end of a walking stick and taunt the cubs to come and chase it (à la Da Bird for our little kitties at home). Paza seems most interested, and we are all a little nervous watching these antics, but it’s all good fun and no humans get hurt. Later, Tom places the skull in a tree and Penya climbs up to claim the prize.
While she’s otherwise occupied, we are able to engage Paza with some of our homemade toys which suddenly become enticing. Elephant dung is hard to resist, after all. But then, our handmade toys get usurped once again when JB, along with the meat prep crew, come in with some meaty animal legs for the cubs. At this point, even the impala skull is of little interest and the cubs, each with a leg of her own, has lunch. After we watch them for awhile, we realize it is time for our lunch as well and as we take our leave, the cubs don’t even notice.
As we exit the enclosure, we see AP’s elephants walking through the bush nearby. This is our first close up view of them and it’s very exciting because we know that we’re scheduled to spend time with them later in the day.
The early afternoon has us filling up the water troughs for the two stand-alone lion enclosures: Gum Tree, where we met the boys yesterday; and the Bush enclosure, which houses the MKs. Meeka, Moyo, Mara, and Kali were recently retired from walking, as they’re almost two years old now and too big to walk with; ready to move on to night encounters to work on their hunting skills. Moyo is often referred to as the “fake lion” because, well, he just seems reluctant to play the part (but he will later prove us wrong!) Filling up the water is a fairly straightforward task and one of the few that we’re able to bring to completion unlike so many of the other tasks we are assigned.
The last activity of the day is something I’m really looking forward to – which I realize sounds ridiculous, as everyday is filled with activities I’m really looking forward to. But this afternoon we are to meet the elephants! It seems as though all the other volunteers have already spent time with them, but for some reason we haven’t yet. So last night we mentioned to the vol managers that we would like to spend time with the elephants, and sure enough it was on the schedule today. Here is our opportunity to finally meet Amai, Chibi, Tombi and Jecha. These four elephants are all orphans and were rescued as babies during a severe drought in Zimbabwe in the early 1990s. There are three females and one male, and all are in their early 20s, which is quite young in an elephant life span; they have not even reached sexual maturity.
Elephants are amazing animals. They are gentle, intelligent, very emotional, and extremely family oriented. And, like so many of Africa’s spectacular animal species, they are in grave danger from humans: poachers who want their ivory tusks, big game hunters who want their heads, and occasionally, local villagers who will kill them for their meat. But this group of elephants appears happy and healthy. AP does offer elephant rides, where you go through the bush on elephant back, but most often you see them freely roaming and foraging through the bush.
Our activity is elephant herding. We are to walk with the elephants, much as we walk with the lions, from an area close to camp and the horse paddocks, where the elephant rides originate from, up to their boma, where we would then feed them. The elephants are constantly eating as they roam the land, but that is supplemented with feed that will enhance their diet. Elephants have extremely poor digestive systems which is why they eat so much (300-400 pounds of food a day) to make up for everything that goes straight through which also explains all the elephant dung (up to 300 pounds a day)!
Off the elephants go in a group towards their boma, as we walk up a pathway through the bush with an elephant guide who talks to us about the elephants and answers our questions. The elephants are off in the distance, however, and it doesn’t really feel like we are “walking” with them at all. When we make it up to the boma, about a 15 minute walk, where we’re expecting to feed the elephants and spend time with them, we are told we can either walk back to camp now or they can call a truck to come get us. WTF?!? Where is our quality time with the elephants? It turns out it’s going to be a full moon tonight and there is going to be a lunar elephant ride for some of the volunteers, and because of that they aren’t going to feed them yet, which means no quality time with them for us. We trudge off back to camp, feeling completely underwhelmed about our “elephant herding” experience. Meet the elephants, not!