elephant release
A Journey with Elephants by Greg Vogt – Conservation Guardians
Thandora – Part 8

Standing in the exact same position I was in when I released Bonnie and Thembile, I waited as Thandora tentatively approached the invisible line that separated her holding-boma space from 10 000 hectares of reserve. The gate was open and all she had to do was walk out, but the moment was to big for her and she was clearly not happy about taking this next step.

What is it about elephants sensing a new space and recognising the boundary line of that space? I remember an interesting dynamic when we released Gobisa into Thula Thula game reserve. The only difference in this scenario was that Gobisa moved into a new piece of land that had just been opened to Thula Thula game reserve and the resident herd would not cross the invisible line that separated the reserve from the new space. This gave Gobisa space to consolidate, recover from the drugs used to sedate him during his capture and trip from Shambala and gain the confidence to tackle the young bull that was to date, the dominant bull in the herd.  The resident herd would not cross the line that separated the reserve from the new land opened to the reserve.

Thandora approached the gate with trepidation, unwillingly moving towards the vegetables I was using to coax her out of the Boma. There was once again an audience, curious people who came to observe the ‘big’ occasion that was turning out to be a non-event. The significance of the audience for me was their expectation that Thandora really wanted to bolt out of the Boma into the ‘wild’, free at last from the shackles of captivity; when in fact all she seemed to want is to be left alone in her safe space.

As described earlier, she had bonded with the vehicle and together with my familiar voice and vegetables, we proceeded to coax her into the reserve. The management group had defined a target for Thandora; get her to the other cows as quickly as possible. Another assumption, that she was yearning for elephant company when in fact it was only human company that relaxed her.

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Thandora had bonded with the vehicle

As my daughter had said, Thandora was a human in an elephant’s skin.

By sunset Thandora had moved a few kilometres from the Boma, with the management group trying to get her closer the cows. In hindsight, I am not sure who we though we were fooling, because I later learned that the resident elephants new of her presence on the reserve and had been visiting her at night. That is why she had broken out of the reserve on her first night.

As usual, the audience had left by sunset and I was once again alone with her, the only difference being that we were now in the open 10 000 hectare reserve. Thandora was terrified. She was shivering against the vehicle. Keeping her body against it all the time. She did not venture off to browse or investigate her surroundings at all. I was emotionally distraught for this poor demure creature. Here we were, pushing her limits when all she clearly wanted was to stay in a small safe place that was familiar. I kept wondering whether she would adjust to the reserve, would she become an elephant once again?

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Thandora against my open window

There are no words to describe the nights spent in the reserve with her. Immersed in nature and locked away from the world surrounded by so many sounds from various creatures sharing the ecosystems of the reserve. I dozed off with the familiar smell of Thandora against my open window only to be shocked awake by a thump and screech from Thandora. She had moved quickly to the other side of the vehicle and, keeping close to it and placing the vehicle between her and two massive shapes that were trying to reach her. I was in the middle! The deep rumble that emerged from one of the Bulls terrified Thandora and she once again moved alongside the vehicle, ripping whatever was left extruding from the vehicle off it. The bulls circled the vehicle, gently manoeuvring around it to reach out to her. She wanted nothing of this and eventually the bulls had to settle with smelling her from the other side of the vehicle. I was sandwiched in the vehicle, surrounded by three elephants, wondering what would happen next?

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