South Africa: Volunteering with Elephants

Imagine being surrounded by the most majestic animals on the planet, the kindest people and the most picturesque environment. I am currently sitting on the deck of the bunkhouse I’m staying in at Knysna Elephant Park in South Africa, listening to the sound of crickets filling the silence and cold air.

It’s winter here. I can see my breath when I talk. It’s cold. And for someone who despises cold weather, I am at my happiest.

For the past three weeks I have been volunteering in the park, collecting important research through monitoring protocols in which I record the activity and behaviour of ten elephants.

The park was founded in 1994 by husband and wife Ian and Lisette Withers (visit https://knysnaelephantpark.co.za/home/our-story/ for more on this). Harry and Sally arrived in 1994 (named after the famous film of the 90s) after the Withers heard of two struggling elephant calves in need of a new home. The rest is history.

Meeting the elephants

I am lucky enough to be spending four weeks with ten elephants, Sally being one of them. She is breathtaking. The most majestic of all the animals I’ve ever seen. Her stroll is calming, and her overwhelming beauty had me in awe throughout my time at KEP. She only has one tusk, but she shouldn’t be underestimated. Her physical and mental strengths are outstanding. Sally is the mother of the herd, the biggest, strongest elephant on the park, and leads them with so much intelligence and beauty.

Nandi and Thandi – the two are never far from each other. Nandi is Thandi’s mother, and observing their relationship is one of my favourite memories of South Africa. If there is any conflict or tension between the herd, Nandi will rush to Thandi and they will wrap their trunks together to comfort each other. They are adorable, and the mutual love they share is admiring to watch.

Keisha is another ellie at the park, known for her ears and her ability to win-over everyone who meets her. When Keisha was born her mother passed away, and shortly after she was caught-up in tension between other elephants after attempting to suckle milk from another mother. The holes present in her ears come from the tusks of those animals who attacked her. Although this is heartbreaking, it is important to remember these things are natural occurrences in the wild. The park was called immediately and literally carried Keisha in the arms of the AERU (African Elephant Research Unit – the research team that works on the park) workers, back to the park where her wounds were treated. She now lives a happy life here at the park.

Then there’s Thato, the baby of the group who is now nine years old and the smallest of the herd. She has the tiniest tusks and tail and is just the most adorable ellie! Her cheeky personality and gentle approach to people warmed me to her, and she has definitely stolen my heart!

The two boys, Shungu and Mashudu are the trouble makers. They are constantly flirting with the girls and causing trouble, but are always quick to back down when Sally arrives. Shungu is constantly pushed to the side and stands very sadly at the end of the barrier on his own when the tourists come to feed them, but he is mischievous underneath his innocent act. Mashudu is a boisterous elephant, who never fails to make his presence known.

Recently three new girls have joined the herd, Shanti, Amari and Madiwa who are all ridiculously cute but I have not had the chance to get to know as they are still getting used to the dynamics, and often choose to separate themselves from the rest of the herd. 

Volunteering for the AERU team

So my role as a volunteer is to record the elephants behaviour every two to five minutes within a 90 minute shift through different monitoring protocols. This enables the AERU team (African Elephant Research Unit) to contribute the right factors to ensure the best welfare of the elephants. Everything the AERU team and the rest of the staff do here is for that reason, to keep our ellies healthy and happy.

My particular jobs involve different monitoring protocols, cleaning the night camp and boma that the elephants use during night hours, observing them throughout the night twice a week, helping the Feedgrow team to wash trays and fill them with seeds to be harvested for elephants in other parks and reserves, setting up enrichments for the elephants, keeping track of the health of the zebras within the park, and just making sure we perform our best in helping with the park’s aim.

My time in South Africa has opened my eyes to not only the culture of Africa, but to cultures of the United States, Canada and Costa Rica, as I have been living and working with other volunteers from these places. I have met people who feel the same way as I do about the beautiful creatures that elephants are, and have made friends I know I will have with me forever. I have explored the local traditions, tried new foods, visited markets, restaurants and clubs, and learned how to live away from home and be away from my family and routined life in the U.K. I miss home and especially my mum, but it has been amazing to have her support throughout this experience, whilst learning how to enjoy being away from home. The days are tiring, but I can’t fault being here as there is nothing more perfect than dedicating my summer to learning about and looking after my favourite animal. The elephants all have such individual and striking personalities, and they are so much more like humans than we think. They understand our body language, they listen to the guides and act in ways you’d never believe. I’ve gained a very strong emotional connection to them and it will be hard to go back home and not have elephants walking by my side.

Guides in the field, do you copy?

The guides. The most important people in the park. They know the elephants and the elephants know them, so well. They listen to the guides and love them like parents, their relationships are admirable. It’s incredible to watch a person interact with an elephant like they’re another person. They have such a beautiful relationship that I envy so much. They really are a family, and I have learnt so much about their lives and careers in South Africa.

The first guide I met was Dumisani. He is the wisest, most spiritual man I have ever known, and he shares the kindest words and never fails to make me smile and warm my heart. He always reassures and reminds us of our importance here and has the purest soul. I feel so lucky to have met him.

Washeni, probably the craziest guide. He has the best sense of humour, and has left us with lots of memories. Then there’s Viper, the guide who always looks high and makes absolutely no sense and would survive a zombie apocalypse without meaning to.

Then there is Ndyebo, who we call Welcome. He reminds me of Jiminy Cricket.  Welcome never fails to make me smile, and gives the best hugs. He really made me cry with his beautiful words and song, and he really is someone I will stay in touch with as he has a really beautiful soul.

Then there’s Zenzo, probably the most difficult guide. We have a love/hate relationship. He’s so hard to hold a conversation with because of his argumentative tone and drive to wind me up, but I always laugh around him. Him and Mashudu have such a unique bond, he calls him his son. They are never far from each other and Mashudu often pulls Zenzo under his trunk for comfort.

There’s many other guides that do an equally amazing job as those I’ve mentioned, but these are the guides that wormed their way into my heart and made it very difficult and emotional to leave the park. The staff are also amazing, Nicki, Cathy and Erin are three motivated and inspirational women that have also made the experience the best it could’ve been, and contribute to the park in such positive ways. 

Anyone who gets the opportunity to, I would highly recommend volunteering at Knysna Elephant Park on the AERU team. I have never felt happier or more at home, and will never forget the beautiful experience they created for me. Or, if you ever find yourself visiting South Africa, take a day to visit KEP – I promise you will not regret it.

“Good friends are hard to find, difficult to leave, and impossible to forget”

-G. Randolf
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Live, Love, Travel

Hi! My name is Cara, I’m a university student studying Journalism and Communications and it’s my dream to travel the world.

I want to share with you my travel stories, and what I have learnt and loved about travelling, and continue to update you on any new travel experiences I encounter.

“Travelling – it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”

– Ibn Battuta