captive elephant release
A Journey with Elephants by Greg Vogt – Conservation Guardians
Thandora – Part 9

Our quest was to get her to interact and link up with Bonnie and Thembile, two elephants we released from captivity a few years earlier (mentioned in a previous blog post). The brief encounters Thandora had with the two girls were always in the evening, and were unpleasant. The two girls would attack her, striking her with their tusks and she would flee. During these times I would feel so helpless, when I eventually caught up with her she would come close to the vehicle for protection. These encounters destroyed me emotionally. There are no words to describe her state after these encounters, especially when her distress was tangible with her tremors vibrating through the vehicle as she leaned closer to the vehicle than ever before.


elephant care
Tusk marks on Thandora’s hindquarters from the girls

At dawn, our routine included me taking her to a pool in the river where she could drink and I could wash and clean up for the day. Our routine was magical and her low rumbles seemed to communicate her relief that another night was over. The cows and bulls always seemed to appear at night, certainly surprising me every time. The only way I would know that they were approaching would be by Thandora coming to my window and leaning close to the vehicle, closer than it could handle.

elephant compassion
Thandora sleeping close to me

The film crew was going to come to film Thandora’s progress this particular day and I shamelessly discussed this with Thandora, telling her to embrace whatever the day had in store for us. I was always anxious on the days when the film crews were here to film Thandora. They had a way of attracting people more interested in their own exposure, rather than being there for Thandora. Once the filming was over, they to disappeared, only to be seen again when the film crew re-appeared.

These occasions introduced bad habits that included breaking all the lessons I had taught Thandora. I was working so hard at her getting used to browse further and further away from the vehicle and not expect food from it. The visitors would always have food in their vehicles and Thandora would become a glutton again, searching for ‘easy’ nutrition – all her progress lost in a few moments.

I thought back on the previous week when a similar visit took place. I was encouraged to take a break and the visitor – who had previous experience with Thandora – offered to watch her whilst I went for a shower and dealt with various administration issues I had neglected whilst being with her in the reserve.

My gut told me that this event would end in a disaster. The visitor brought friends along and this only meant one thing for me – posturing! I asked the reserve owner to back me in giving everyone a speech about the progress we had made conditioning Thandora to operate without her dependence on us, and to follow a set of guidelines when ‘on duty’ with her.

My speech fell on deaf ears and my short time away from her was broken with a crackling on the radio announcing that Thandora had exhibited aggressive behaviour towards the guy who was ‘supposed’ to be looking after her. They had taken food into the reserve and Thandora was attracted to the vehicle, not see her old (so-called) friend, but to get an easy meal: eating in the wild is hard work!

I am sure that the elephant handlers reading this blog all understand the concept of food demand; that behaviour where wild animals lash out at humans, demanding ‘easy’ food, just as they do with each other when there is food around that they are competing for. The guy was lucky that he did not get badly injured and the occasion was used as a lesson to all those working with Thandora.

It was a pleasure to meet up with my old friend and nature film maker when he arrived to shoot the next episode of Thandora’s story. It was not a pleasure to be introduced to the glory seekers who followed the camera’s to Thandora. The reserve guides announced that the cows were coming our way and we lead Thandora to the area that would basically put the two cows in contact with her, this time in daylight. The afternoon was beautiful with a rich light signifying that we will be witnessing a most beautiful sunset – a film-makers delight!

elephant welfare index
Bonnie and her calf

Thandora, sensing the cows were near, moved close to the vehicle, and the film crew and visitor were in an open vehicle 200 metres from where we were parked. The cows appeared on the ridge above us and started moving towards us. I was miked up with the camera crew and we could communicate with one another.

The cows progressed onto a road that lead them to where we were parked, and as they reached the road I saw a young calf with them. The calf was a month or two old moving equally between both cows. We could not tell which of the cows was the mother because both cows showed swollen breasts.

They covered the distance and were metres from the vehicle I was alone in, in a matter of minutes. The little calf was heeding her mothers signals, scampering between their legs and underneath their bodies with amazing agility, whilst the cows seemed oblivious of this little miniature elephant scampering between their legs.

Thandora instinctively moved to the other side of the vehicle, placing the vehicle between her and the cows who raised their trunks over the vehicle to take in the odours that would tell them what they needed to know about Thandora. Whilst they moved with agility, their bumps certainly dented the vehicle even more, the jolts shaking me around inside, as I tried to talk quietly to the film crew who were catching the encounter of film.

Animal care score
Bonnie, Tembile and the calf

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Add your thoughts
  • April 6, 2018 at 6:31 pm

    How long do I have to wait for the next part?! What “signals” does the mother give the calf? Verbal or visual?

    • April 6, 2018 at 8:16 pm

      Hi Chris! So happy you are enjoying the blog. Next post will be Friday week. A mother communicates with her calf in many ways: touch,vpocal messages, and non verbal signals. It is interesting to note how the females share the duty of looking after the calf. On this occasion, the little calf moved between both females quite naturally. It was beautiful to watch.


  • April 8, 2018 at 10:15 pm

    Thanks for the reply! So how did you figure out that the calf was Bonnie’s?

    • April 9, 2018 at 7:06 am

      When I first saw them, the calf was moving between the two cows and I could not establish who the mother was. Both cows seemed to be lactating, and the moment was quite a stressful one.
      In the next fee weks I had the opportunity to observe them both in far more relaxed situations, and saw the calf drinking from Bonnie. Not long after this event, Thembile gave birth to her calf. Amazing considering that Thembile was once being trained for the tourism interactive industry and Bonnie was in a circus. I think the key to their success was that their transition from captivity to a wild reserve was that they did it together.
      Thanks for your interest