This unique park was founded in 1994 by husband and wife team Ian and Lisette Withers. They had heard of two young elephant calves that had been rescued from a cull in Kruger National Park and were in need of a safe home.
My visit was way back in 1999 when there were only three elephants; it was still relatively new and they were in the process of finding their feet. It’s been lovely following their progress over the years and watching how they have grown.
My encounter with Sally and Duma
Upon entering the park, I boarded a small open top bus which had margarine tubs for speakers – like I said, back then it was basic! We were told some history of the elephants in this park and that there used to be 500 free running elephants, but at the time I visited, there was just the one living in Knysna Forest who was around 55-60 years old.
As the elephants in this park are free to roam wherever they choose, we had to go and find them. I liked this! When they were found, we stopped at an open clearing and stepped out of the truck. Standing in front of us was Sally, a single-tusked 10 year-old who was on the right and Duma, 7 year old and standing on the left… the handler informed us that Harry, their third elephant was away on a trip.
I had my photo taken next to them and stood back to watch as they fed on grass and trees around them. They would play with each other, gently sparring with their trunks and, on one occasion, Duma put his front legs onto Sally’s back (probably practicing for later on in life!) to reach higher branches on the trees.
We stayed for around an hour and were given elephant facts by Mac and Jeffrey, the two very informative handlers. These elephants are fed a kilo of exotic trees for supper and are kept in a barn overnight so they don’t cause too much damage to the forest. Their dung is used for many things – paper and paintings, boiled up for asthma sufferers and if you have a headache and you smoke it – you will never have one again! I actually bought some elephant dung which was in a plastic container from their shop – why?? I have no idea but I’m sure my friends loved the elephant dung Christmas card I sent them!
Elephants have poor eyesight and can only see 40m (120ft) so rely on their hearing and smell.
Their trunks are the most important part of their body and is controlled by 60,000 muscles. It is used to drink from, it’s a weapon, it’s also like a hand which we witnessed when feeding and when they need to make a noise, the sound actually comes from the trunk and not its mouth.
An elephant’s gestation period is between 22 months and 3 years! I wouldn’t want to be an elephant. Adult bulls grow to a maximum of 4m (12ft) and sleep deeply for only 20 minutes whilst standing up because if they led down, due to their weight, they would squash their internal organs. Baby elephants sleep on their side and adult cows grow to a maximum of 3m (9ft).
An interesting fact about elephants is that they have four inches of fat around their feet and, if they get stuck in mud, they pump more blood into their feet to swell the fat, this spreads the feet out like wide tyres on a 4x4 vehicle allowing them to walk free! How cool is that!!
Mac talked to us a little about their training because although they are obedient, they still retain their wild side and sometimes need to be told three times before they do something i.e to stand behind the logs they are in front of when tourists are feeding them. The handlers and elephants have a deep mutual appreciation which is clearly evident in their behaviour and the way Mac would talk about them. It takes about four months to tame an elephant before they can start to be trained and they learn similar to humans i.e they are first shown what to do then are helped to do it, this is so they later react to voice command eg lifting their foot. It really is amazing to watch how well they respond to voice command and how they react to it relatively well although, naturally, there is sometimes an element of rebellion.
Most of the time we were with them, they stood with their legs crossed which is a sign that they are relaxed, just as humans do in fact they have a lot of characteristics in common with humans! Body temperature is an example, when we are cold, they are cold and when we become hot and we splash cool water on us, they use mud to cool down. The way they pee, though, is quite different to humans - it comes out like a hose on full power! I don't actually know why I shared that with you!
Meeting Harry for the first time
Just as we were about to leave Sally made an a-typical elephant trumpet noise and we asked Mac why she did this. He said she was communicating with Harry which confused us – Harry wasn’t anywhere near us!
Harry appeared about five minutes later, when Sally was communicating with him he had just entered the park, this was an excellent example how acute their senses are.
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