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Walking With Elephants

Walking in the footsteps of African elephant bull Jabu made us feel more closely connected to elephants than ever before. Working together with Sanctuary Retreats, Living With Elephants gave us the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend time with a trio of orphaned elephants in the Okavango Delta. Despite their large size, elephants walk through the Botswanan...

Walking in the footsteps of African elephant bull Jabu made us feel more closely connected to elephants than ever before. Working together with Sanctuary Retreats, Living With Elephants gave us the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend time with a trio of orphaned elephants in the Okavango Delta. Despite their large size, elephants walk through the Botswanan bush with a soft tread, intelligent animals that are both strong and gentle.

With its lush floodplains and dry Kalahari sands, northern Botswana is home to some of the world’s biggest elephant herds. Situated on the edge of Chobe National Park, we spent a night at Chobe Chilwero and went on a sundowner cruise amongst the largest remaining elephant population on the planet. At sunset, we watched a family herd with their young calves using their trunks as snorkels to swim across the Chobe River.


Since adopting Jabu, Doug has formed a strong bond with the African elephant bull.


From Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta, Sanctuary flew us into their private concession bordering the world-famous Moremi Game Reserve. We slept under the stars at Baines’ Camp, before setting off early the next morning for the elephant walk. Living with Elephants is led by husband and wife team Doug and Sandi Groves, who adopted Jabu, Thembi and Morula when culling operations in South Africa and Zimbabwe left them as orphans.

Our first sighting of the three elephants was of Doug riding on Thembi’s back as they walked towards us across the wetlands. With Doug as our guide, we joined the semi-habituated elephants as they foraged peacefully for food, stripping leaves from branches and shaking trees for the palm nuts. Doug showed us the African bush from an elephant’s perspective: what they see, hear and feel on their forays around their home range.


Picture of three African elephants raising their trunks
Elephant trio Jabu, Thembi and Morula act as ambassadors for their wild counterparts.


Over a span of two decades, Doug and Sandi have developed a close relationship with their adopted trio, earning their trust through daily care and unconditional love. On the foraging trek, we felt safer knowing that the three elephants were by our side, ready to chase off lions if they came too close. Walking with Jabu, Thembi and Morula and getting to know their distinct personalities deepened our appreciation for these gentle giants.

After the elephant walk, we moved across to Stanley’s Camp and went on game drives with herds of wild elephants. On our last night, Doug and Sandi invited us to stay with them at their bush camp in the Botswanan wilderness, which is normally not open to visitors. That evening, we witnessed firsthand the strong bond between the elephant trio and their human guardians as Doug and Jabu stood hand-in-trunk against the setting sun.


Picture of an elephant laying the tip of its trunk in a person's hand
In a tender moment, Doug holds Thembi’s powerful yet sensitive trunk in his hand.


We spoke to Sandi Groves about the Living With Elephants Foundation, their outreach project and human-elephant conflict:

Let’s start at the beginning. It is 1987, and a young Doug Groves is visiting Africa to work on a film project. Three years later, you arrive. It is now 2013, and you are both still here. What happened?

Doug left the USA in winter of 1987 on a ship with three elephants bound for their native home, Africa. After a stop in South Africa’s Western Cape to work on a period feature film about the exploration, woodcutters, elephants and timber industry of the Knysna Forest, he was charged with settling the three big elephants into their beautiful new home: Karkloof Nature Reserve, a 1,000 hectare (2,471 acre) game farm in KwaZulu-Natal. Not long after the relocation, James Meyer – the British property developer who owned the farm – decided to acquire two elephant calves as an attraction for his park, as he realized that the adults would soon be moving on. Doug, who was planning to head back home to the US, advised James against purchasing the calves. But he bought the two-year-old calves – Jabu and Thembi – and Doug ended up staying to care for them.


Picture of an elephant's eye with thick eyelashes
Thembi is the sweetheart of her small herd and enjoys being the center of attention.


In 1990 I was a 22-year-old Zoology and Botany student in KwaZulu-Natal, working weekends on a game farm just out of town. It was here that I met three of my future family members: Doug and the two orphans, Jabu and Thembi. I was enchanted by the relationship and rapport that existed between Doug and the elephants. The concept that such a close, exotic and positive interspecies connection was possible had not occurred to me in my wildest dreams, and it was not long before the four of us were inseparable. When James Meyer decided he wanted to sell the elephant calves we initially tried to find homes for them, but finally – with my somewhat naïve but heart-felt prompting – we decided to adopt them ourselves, so that we could ensure a positive future and good quality of life for them. Doug was a little reluctant at first, being more aware of the huge commitment involved in providing for such large, intelligent and long-lived animals, but eventually agreed.

Our final herd member, Morula, joined us at Christmas of 1994.  She was a 17-year-old destined to be shot, and we were alerted to her situation by concerned game scouts trying to find a way to save her life. The bull she had been paired off with as a youngster, the result of a Zimbabwean culling operation, took to hunting down and killing white rhinos. By the time he had killed eight rhinos, the park authorities decided the pair were a liability, and sold them off as a private hunt. And that’s when the game scouts got in touch with us.


Picture of a man and woman standing between three large, tusked elephants
Doug and Sandi have made a life-long commitment as caregivers to the elephant trio.


Not many people can rightly claim to be part of an elephant herd, but you and Doug have that honour. What are your roles in the herd? How do Jabu, Thembi and Morula view you?

As human members of our interspecies herd we provide leadership, structure and security in much the same way as parents do for children. We place boundaries but also offer encouragement and support. Our elephants seem to view us as benevolent parental figures as well close family members and friends.


Picture of an elephant resting its trunk on a kneeling man's leg
Living together in the Botswanan bush, the elephants have become family for the Groves.


What does a typical day look like for the herd? Is there anything that Jabu, Thembi and Morula get particular pleasure from? How do they handle interactions with fully wild elephants?

The elephants spend each dawn to dusk out in the bush wandering, foraging, mud bathing and doing the things elephants like to do. Finding food is high on the priority list of Jabu, Thembi and Morula, and among their favorite delicacies are wild fruits such as palm nuts, morula fruit, jacket berries and sarma melons. During palm nut season Jabu goes from one palm tree to the next, shaking down nuts while Thembi and Morula eagerly help him gather and gobble them up. Great fun is also had in the summer months, wallowing and frolicking in the mud as a means of staying cool and keeping insects at bay.

During our daily ramblings we will often bump into their wild elephant cousins. These interactions are usually with wild bulls, as the breeding herds tend to be very shy and somewhat closed societies of blood relatives (i.e. family units) who prefer to avoid confrontations with strangers. The bulls on the other hand are social butterflies, interested in knowing and testing their social standing in relation to other bulls and also wanting to meet reproductively available females. Most encounters are amicable, but males bigger than or of a similar size to Jabu sometimes consider him a threat to their status, and we will usually intervene to deflect these challenges.


Picture of elephant pushing a tree with its trunk
Thembi and Morula wait together for Jabu to harvest palm nuts using his tusks, trunk and body weight.


You and Doug started the Living With Elephants Foundation (LWE) in 1999, with a vision of creating harmonious relationships between people and elephants. How have you gone about this, and how do you feel that it is working?

LWE encourages a positive perception of elephants by developing a greater understanding and appreciation of the African elephant by providing both local and international visitors with the opportunity to spend time with our trio of elephant ambassadors. By exposing visitors to Jabu, Thembi and Morula and giving them the chance to get to know our elephants as individuals, as a species, as an important part of the African ecosystem and the economy of Botswana, we hope to foster an appreciation and affection of elephants.

Protecting our planet’s rich but dwindling biodiversity while developing the socio-economic capacity of poor rural populations is one of many major challenges facing humankind. In northern Botswana wildlife areas are quickly being transformed for agricultural use, and this represents a very real threat for biodiversity conservation. At the same time, wild animals threaten the livelihood of farmers who share range with them. Indeed, African villagers trying to grow crops and keep domestic animals in order to feed their families find it hard to appreciate protected wildlife reserves when elephants regularly damage their fields. The challenge is therefore to foster sustainable development of rural areas while preserving the African elephant and other wildlife, and we established LWE in order to meet these objectives.


Picture of man and woman smiling beside a large tusked elephant
Walking with the semi-habituated herd gave us a greater understanding of African elephants.


Encounters between elephants and humans are unfortunately not always positive; pressure from human populations can have serious impacts on elephants, and elephants present a very real danger to human lives and livelihoods. Human-wildlife conflict mitigation is a focus across much of Africa, and is a priority also for LWE. Could you tell us a little about your work in this area?

LWE has conducted surveys of human-elephant conflict (HEC) to enable us to better understand the HEC situation in and around the Okavango Delta. Methods recommended by the African Elephant Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union (IUCN) have been used; these involved interviews with farmers, field observation and GIS mapping. LWE supports mitigating conflict through long-term sustainable solutions (e.g. land use planning and crop protection) and motivating villagers to live with wildlife through eco-tourism development and alternative economic strategies.


Picture of elephant trunks poking out of the water.
A breeding herd of elephants use their trunks as snorkels to swim across the Chobe River.


You offer hundreds of local children a chance to interact with Jabu, Thembi and Morula every year. What do you hope to achieve through this? How do you view the role of children to the future of elephants in Africa?

We offer youths from Botswana’s primary schools a hands-on elephant learning experience every year: an opportunity to touch, walk, learn, interact and connect with Jabu, Thembi and Morula at our field station in the Okavango Delta. Many of the children who visit live in villages where their families compete with elephants for space and resources, so initially most of them show fear and negativity towards elephants. But by the end of their two-day visit, when asked how they feel about elephants, a common response is, “elephants can be friends.”

By exposing children between the ages of 10 and 12 years of age to Jabu, Thembi and Morula we aim to positively mold their perceptions of elephants on a personal level as well as to instill in them a regard for the value of elephants in the African ecosystem and Botswana’s economy. By showing them firsthand the significant role of wildlife tourism we seek to inspire them with the opportunities and solutions this industry holds. It is our hope that meeting Jabu, Thembi and Morula will foster a love for and appreciation of the intrinsic value of elephants and the natural world, and that in the future they will be equipped with the tools and passion to protect their splendid natural heritage.


Picture of human hand touching an elephant's rough skin
Local villagers are given the opportunity to touch, feel and walk with African elephants, as Sandi does here.


Tourism is an essential part of your existence – it enables you to raise awareness as well as funds. How did your relationship with Sanctuary Retreats come about, and what does it entail? 

In order to help generate revenue to help support our trio of elephants and the work of LWE we work in conjunction with Sanctuary Retreats. Guests from both Stanley’s and Baines’ camp are afforded the opportunity to spend a morning with Jabu, Thembi and Morula. Groups of up to ten people are taken out into the bush to meet and interact with the elephants under our careful supervision. A leisurely walk through the wilderness alongside the elephants follows, with chances to touch and observe the elephants, while we share information about the elephants and the surrounding habitat. The morning culminates with a picnic lunch under the deep shade of a grove of sausage trees adjacent to a flood plain, where Stanley’s Camp has prepared a beautiful meal. Lunch is enjoyed while watching the elephants eat their own meals close-by. The elephant walk is generally pre-booked and helps to make the wildlife area we are based in sustainable, as well as contributing towards the employment of over 70 people in the two camps.

It is our hope that by immersing guests – young and old, local and international – into the daily lives of African elephants we can foster respect and reverence for these phenomenal creatures, and that by enlisting our herd’s enormous emotive energy we can encourage reflection and discussion on bigger planetary challenges, possibilities for conservation and our shared destinies.


Picture of three elephants laying their trunks on two people's shoulders
On the elephant walk, we observed and interacted with the trio in their natural environment.


How do you see the future of your herd? Will you stay together? What changes would you like to see in the human-elephant relationship – in Botswana as well as around the world – in the next ten years?

Elephants live an average of 65 years and given that Jabu and Thembi are both 26 years old and Morula is approximately 35 years it means that they are going to probably outlive us by decades. With this in mind it is ultimately our plan to release them back into the wild at a point when we are no longer physically able to keep up with them, and on the proviso that the wilds of Botswana remain safe for elephants.


Picture of a baby elephant's muddy foot
Thembi, the baby of the herd, lifts up her leg to show us the soft pads underneath her feet.


The last ten years have seen a dramatic increase in poaching of all African elephant populations in Africa except for some healthy pockets in southern Africa. Estimated continent totals of elephants have gone from about 650,000 elephants down to just over 400,000 during this period. Botswana remains a relatively safe haven for elephants, and with approximately 130,000 elephants residing here it is an extremely important population. As host to the world’s largest elephant population it is vital that we do not allow ourselves to become complacent, as once the more vulnerable elephant populations farther north in Africa have been depleted, and if the insatiable demand for ivory remains, new hunting grounds will be sought by traffickers. At current poaching rates, it is possible that the African elephant could be extinct in as little as 20 to 25 years.


Picture of a man and a woman hugging a tusked elephant's trunk
As elephants live for up to 70 years, the adopted trio will likely outlive the Groves by decades.


Marcus and Kate were hosted by Sanctuary Retreats.

To find out more about the Living With Elephants Foundation visit:

To see more photos by Marcus and Kate, visit their website or follow them on Facebook.

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Meet the Author

Marcus & Kate Westberg
Marcus and Kate are dedicated to exploring and sharing the natural and cultural wonders of the world through writing and photography, and in doing so inspiring people to make conscious choices when travelling. We want to celebrate all that is good and beautiful in the world, to capture its beating heart, and to weave a tapestry of nature, humanity and connectedness. The world is a crazy place, full of joy, adventure, grief, wonder, anger, love and understanding. Understanding threats and challenges is essential to creating solutions, but we always try to find something positive to focus on. Much of our planet is under threat, but there are also countless people striving to make it a better place, and places of breathtaking beauty still abound. It is our desire to share some of the wonders we get to experience with the rest of the world.