Learning about life and loss while caring for orphaned elephants in Zambia’s Kafue National Park
After a restless night in a dorm of snorers at the Lusaka Backpackers hostel, I left Zambia’s capital in a Land Cruiser crammed full of food and camping gear, and headed to Kafue National Park—the fifth-largest national park in the world—where I had signed up to volunteer at an elephant orphanage run by the nonprofit Game Rangers International.
On the way, Kate Brill, who organizes the volunteer program and had picked me up in Lusaka, was repetitive in her instructions: Put safety first and don’t ever be complacent. After an eight-hour drive deep into the bush, now surrounded by deadly snakes, lions, hyenas, elephants, crocodiles, hippos, scorpions, buffalo and cheetah, I had to concur.
Once at the Game Rangers camp, on high alert, I pitched my new home for the month: a shabby tent. I am no stranger to a tent, having camped at music festivals around the U.K.. But considering my new surroundings, I questioned its sturdiness. The only detectable sense of security was its proximity to the 20 other tents, occupied by GRI elephant keepers and two other volunteers.
The camp, located in the southern part of the park, was a community in itself: a kitchen and dining area, an area for vehicle repair and a designated zone where milk for the orphaned elephants was prepared.
At night, a thick wall of noise seemed to edge closer and louder in proportion with my sleeplessness. The sound of a bellowing hyena, who loitered on the edge of camp, would almost be lost through the chorus of primate, bird and insect chatter. Chirps, warbles and beeps resembled the tone of an old dial-up modem; my warped city mind adapted slowly.
On my first night, at 4 a.m., fully awake, I sensed something outside the tent. Trying not to breathe, I turned my head and saw the moonlit shadow of a lioness. It was a petrifying but exhilarating welcome to the wilderness. After 20 very long seconds, she wandered off. Adult elephants, monkeys and jackals also became regular visitors. A poacher even strolled through once, only to get arrested by the park scouts.
Though selling African elephant ivory has generally been banned since 1989, poaching is once again rampant. During my stint with GRI, 11 infant elephants aged between eight months and seven years were at the orphanage; their mothers killed for the black-market ivory trade, which has seen rising demand in recent years. A report published by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species last June said “elephant poaching levels are the worst in a decade and recorded ivory seizures are at their highest levels since 1989.” “It is as if a large order has come in,” said Sport Beattie, chief executive of GRI. “Poachers are becoming bolder.”
As if to prove the point, five days into my stay, we heard a heavy caliber gunshot about five kilometers away. Mr. Beattie gathered a small team of scouts, who all carry AK-47s, and headed out in search of poachers or wounded elephants. I was later told that gunfights are common here; two of the orphaned elephants had been named after scouts who were killed in such battles.
The teams of scouts and elephant keepers operate 24 hours a day, year round. In addition to protecting wildlife, they play a pivotal role in rescue operations like the one that helped save an 8-month-old female elephant while I was there. Suni was found weak and wounded near the Zambezi River in Livingstone. She had lost her mother to poachers and was then attacked with an ax. The veterinarian on scene, fearing that Suni had been left partially paralyzed, contemplated euthanasia, but instead allowed the orphanage to take her.
I was assigned to assist the elephant keepers, who worked to restore feeling in Suni’s damaged leg through massage, physiotherapy and even reiki, the Eastern medicine practice of laying on hands. Her ax wounds also needed close attention; constant cleaning and iodine flushing five times a day was no easy task. But by the time I left, she had regained most feeling in her leg, though she still has a long way to go before she can be released into Kafue.
Another of my daily chores involved fetching a sizable snack at sunset for each elephant to chew on at night. I would drive to a thicket of trees a few minutes outside camp with Innocent, the driver; Rodwell, the scout; and elephant keepers Lasick Kapeshi and Steve Zuulu. An amateur with an ax, I watched the others scamper up trees and chop a selection of branches to the ground, picking up the pieces and securing them to the back of the Land Cruiser with a bit of rope. Back at the stables, I distributed the nighttime nibbles.
Being in the presence of such majestic animals was an enthralling experience. During the first two weeks, I was eager to get as close to them as I could, but often remained behind the scenes, doing tasks that helped the camp’s daily routine flow.
As the month rolled on, I learned to identify the elephants. I got to know their characters and stories, developing a deep sympathy for them. How close I could get fell off my agenda, knowing that as a transient volunteer who kept disappearing behind a camera, I made them a little uncomfortable.
Despite how long those first days—and nights—felt, the month passed quickly and before I knew it, it was time to go. As I zipped up the tent for the last time, and said my goodbyes to the elephants and the keepers, I began making plans to return. I hope to be in Zambia next year. I wonder if the elephants will remember me?
The Lowdown: GRI Elephant Orphanage Project
Getting there: Direct flights with British Airways IAG.MC +4.80% from London Heathrow to Lusaka. Ethiopian Airways, Emirates, Kenya Airways, and KLM
offer indirect flights. Pickup arranged by GRI at Kenneth Kaunda International Airport or Lusaka Backpackers hostel.
Volunteering there: Start the application process at least nine months out, as only two volunteers are accepted each month. You will be asked to donate £1,500, which covers all accommodation, transfers and food for one month. Details atgamerangersinternational.org.
Staying there: Camping gear and blankets are provided. Breakfast is at 6 a.m. and dinner is at 6 p.m. The camp is entirely solar-powered. Mobile-phone coverage is nearly nonexistent, but Wi-Fi is available in the camp office.
What to bring: For added comfort, pack mosquito repellent, good walking boots, warm clothing for nighttime, hat, headlight and batteries.