SIZI - The Elephant Child

It was mid August when our old friends from Holland, the Rosemeijers, arrived to holiday with us at Sentinel.  We moved them into camp and spent some happy, halcyon mornings walking and driving through the Limpopo Valley bushveld, catching up on the years gone by since we had last been together.  What fun it was getting to know their children, now grown, sharing our beautiful landscape with them again!

One of our most prized places on Sentinel is Sizi, a natural spring that provides water to a multitude of animals all year round.  The fresh, clear water bubbles up gently from the ground in two shallow chasms in the middle of the African bush and flows copiously over calcite and sandstone slabs, joining together in a glistening, gurgling, diaphanous sheet for a few hundred meters before dropping over a shallow ledge into a large shaded pool, where we have frequently seen lithe leguaans dive out of sight in the murky shadows of a massive submerged rock.

At the source of the flow, the water emerges through gray volcanic sand so gently that its movement is barely discernible but for the soft tinkling noise it weaves through the rocks downstream.  The water is cool, clean and sweet.  Thirsty, and with no animals in sight, Saskia and I had left the vehicle to taste it.  Kneeling on a flat rock between basalt boulders, we had taken a few sips when Digby, Nico, Mark and Linde yelled out to us excitedly - "GET BACK IN THE CAR - ELEPHANTS!"

We looked up and saw emerging from the acacia trees above the spring, not far away at all, a young tuskless elephant calf, barely four feet tall, trundling towards us.

Saskia and I glanced upstream behind her expecting to see the rest of the herd following, but she was alone. 

The calf looked thin and a little wobbly as she barreled down the slope to the stream.  We barely had time to back away from the water’s edge when the little elephant arrived.  We froze.

Her ears still folded around her head like an unopened bud, she silently moved to the water’s edge a few meters away from where we stood and stretched out her long dark trunk.  She was intent on quenching her thirst, which she did facing us with great slurping, hollow-tube-like noises through her awkward, misbehaving appendage.  Not wanting to frighten her, Saskia and I very slowly retreated a few steps, the soft dust beneath us deadening any noise we might have made.  Then we stood there without a word, glancing sideways and smiling at each other, while this beguiling little animal drank voraciously at our feet.

After a few minutes, the little elephant turned away and awkwardly tried to spray herself with water.  Her spine was quite pronounced along the top of her back and the curve of her ribs under her gray dry skin, still spikey with black baby-down, rose and fell with her breathing.  What a sorry little sight she made, all alone, her trunk acting independently of her will, refusing to do what she bade it to do!

Saskia, ever so gradually, made her way back to the Land Rover.  I heard Digby tell her in a voice too discernible for my liking,  that this was a very wild animal, and he did not like the fact that I was so close to it.

As the little elephant drank, I too withdrew - behind a large weathered leadwood tree on which the word "SIZI" was etched high up on its trunk.  The name of the spring had been carved roughly into its hardwood surface by an ill-disciplined game scout some years earlier.  The haphazard letters were smeared with tell-tale dried mud where a large elephant had evidently rubbed itself after a bath, making them almost indiscernible.  

The elephant calf paid no attention to me whatsoever, attempting to splash water on her dry, dust-covered back.  Camera in hand, I edged forward and sat on a small boulder, now only a few feet from where she stood in the shallow stream.  I so wanted to join her in the water, to help her splash, to cool her down!  She really wasn’t managing very well!  

I reminded myself over and over that this was a wild animal.  “Don't do anything stupid,” I cautioned myself.

My chest tightened when she turned toward me again and looked straight into my eyes.  Curiosity swept over her as she lifted her little trunk to test the air for my scent, but the soft breeze was blowing towards me, blowing my trace away from her.  I sat dead-still.

To my utter surprise this little wild elephant slowly tottered up the shallow bank towards me.  Silently, gingerly as if not to frighten me, she came within a meter or two!

For a breathless, mesmerizing moment we gazed at one another, fearless - just the two of us in time and space.  I wanted her to know how beautiful she was.  I was worried about her.  Where was her mother?  Her brown eyes gazed at me through long lashes.  There was sadness in that little soul, but wisdom too. What had she seen? Why was she here?

With a toss of her head she stepped away and passed between me and the distant Land Rover and ambled slowly into the bush from whence she'd come, alone.

So began the tale of Sizi, the elephant child.  

Over a period of three weeks, I went to the spring almost daily to see if she was drinking there. I saw her tracks, but could not be certain they were of a lone elephant calf, or part of a herd.  Two weeks went by. On the morning of August 30th,  I took my sister in law, Tuffin, to the spring determined to sit there as long as possible to see if she would come in again.  Just before lunch, at the height of the midday heat, the elephant reappeared, a ghostly, boney little figure, and like clock-work, she followed the same path down to the water.  I knew then, that there was hope!  If she was drinking here on a regular basis, we COULD rescue her!  Time was of the essence, though, as her condition was deteriorating. I rushed down to the spring and watched her drink from the twisted leadwood stump nearby.  After a few minutes she saw me.  Once again she came to investigate.  This time I held my hand out to her as she came up the shallow bank.  With her trunk stretched forward, right into the palm of my hand, she took a big sniff, lifted her trunk and tail in the air in alarm and was off, leaving clear fresh tracks in the soft dust!  Before she had even left the spring,  I pulled the tape-measure out of my pocket and placed it over them. Hind foot - 23cm. Front foot - 21cm.     Roxy Danckwerts - a friend and managing director of the Zimbabwe Elephant Nursery (ZEN) at Wild is Life in Harare, with whom I had been communicating, was adamant that she could be saved. She was tiny, and not much bigger than Roxy's 18 month old, Moyo! 

She applied to the Zimbabwe National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority, roped in the veterinary services of The AWARE Trust (Keith Dutlow and Lisa Marabini), and booked a Cessna Caravan with Executive Air.

Patty Bristow, a dear friend and local farmer (unrelated), offered her assistance.  Patty, her cook (Welshman) and I went to the spring on  the morning of August 31st, and again, the calf arrived to drink.  We followed her from the water to a treed area north of the spring where we watched her eating a few dried shrubs under an acacia bush.  In the meantime, I contacted the local Tuli Safari Area warden and asked him to come and see the calf - his report was required by HQ.   We had no problem finding her again that afternoon. 

Before Roxy would let the flight leave, she insisted on one more sighting.  Early on September 1st  I went to the spring again to make sure she could still be found.  With me was Robert Makwanda, our chief gamescout,  whoably tracked her to a clump of mopani trees nearby where she had obviously spent the night.  

I was ecstatic when I got back to the house.  The flight was due to leave Harare by 9am.  It was past that.  I ran for the cellphone to let Roxy know that the calf had been seen again ensuring that her efforts would not be wasted.  

Roxy had left a message on the phone with terrible,  bombshell news:  Permission for the capture had been DENIED!  The calf had been reported by the local warden to be "eating and drinking well by herself!"   I sat down at the computer to write my own appeal to the concerned Permit Officer at National Parks HQ.  Half an hour later (it took that long to compose a letter that would not contain expletives!), I phoned Roxy to ask for his contact details.

Roxy, in the meantime, he had not taken no for an answer.  Her voice tumbled out of the phone.  "It's on again! Don't send that email!"  While I had furiously been tapping away at my computer, Roxy had been phoning the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry , who immediately reviewed the situation and granted permission!  The capture was rescheduled for that same afternoon!  There was no time to celebrate! 

The plane was on its way by 1 pm, and arrived at Nottingham airstrip on the neighbouring farm just before 3.  Patty was waiting for Keith and his assistant, Anton Newall, and the requisite attendant NP scout and drove them straight to our gate where we were on standby for them.  We drove directly to the spring in convoy. Robert had already been deployed with a handful of scouts to monitor the little elephant's movements so we could locate her quickly.  Within minutes, Keith had darted her with a mild sedative, and the dozeybcalf was heaved onto the back of Robert's Land Rover.   She remained standing, bolstered by human bodies on all sides, while driven 7km back up the dusty track to the main road and to the landing strip.  Forty minutes later, we arrived at the plane where pilots Ed Mordt and Caroline were waiting.  

The Land Rover was reversed right up to the cargo door at the rear of the plane and the baby elephant was shoved backwards and guided into the fuselage that had been cleared of seats for this exercise.  Keith administered a knock-down drug, and the elephant was gently laid on her side for the 1 1/2 hour flight back to Harare, where Roxy, Lisa and the rest of the ZEN team were waiting for their special cargo!  

By 9pm, "Little Sizi", as the elephant had become known, was happily ensconsed on a thick bed of hay in her new enclosure with Moyo, an 18 month old rescue calf on one side, and three three-year-olds on the other (Annabelle, Matabele and Kukurakura - the three damaged little elephants that had escaped being sold to China because of their "imperfections")!  Her new family!

To follow the progress of Sizi and the other little elephants that are cared for at ZEN, visit Wild is Life and ZimEllies.  Any contributions you can make to their work will be very gladly received.  The AWARE Trust gives freely of their expertise and time to cover the veterinary needs of the ZEN animals, and do sterling work too.  Their expenses are covered by donations. They too would be very grateful for any support.

Updates on Sizi will be posted from time to time on our Facebook page: Sentinel Limpopo Eco Safaris.