elephant in captivity
A Journey with Elephants by Greg Vogt – Conservation Guardians
Thandora – Final Chapter

Anthropomorphism

Readers of this blog will probably ask 100 questions and offer as many possible answers as to why the girls did not accept Thandora.

During my hours with her in the reserve I challenged every scenario possible. All I can say is that Thandora was happy on her own. The day after the famous meeting described in videos and pictures in the previous blog, we meandered to a dam I called our ‘secret dam’. The water was clear and for some reason there were no traces of elephant spoor at this Dam. I assumed the other elephants did not come to this dam very often for whatever reason.

I was mesmerised in the moment of her splashing herself and again I began speaking to her. There are no words to describe these conversations. They seemed to calm her and she often replied with a low rumble. I got chills when she rumbled back in conversation.

After her bath she amble towards the vehicle and then just stood beside it, rocking every now and then, eliciting that strange two-step, one-step movement I described in the earlier blogs. “Is she ‘simple’?” I thought. It appeared to me that Thandora might have lacked appropriate cognitive development, and that she was stuck in the mind of an eight-year-old elephant. The more I thought about this, the more it made sense to me. This adult female elephant never had the opportunity to develop cognitively. Her social skills were lacking, and she had never had the opportunity to learn from other females during her life at the zoo. From the age of 5 years old she only had interaction with another male elephant and humans, with long periods on her own. She was bullied by this male and in many instances injured by him. She was immature and watching her for hours and days on end, my observations were that she behaved like a tween. She really reminded me of a young elephant I grew to know at the park I had worked at previously.

We were at the far extreme of the reserve, one of the furthest points from the lodge and any human structures. I needed to attend to business matters for a few days and made arrangements to be relieved from Thandora watch. It was always strange moving from the reserve and facing reality again.

Three days later I received a call from the reserve manager saying that he thought Thandora had colic. Wildlife managers are trained in animal husbandry and easily recognise symptoms like colic. It was evening and the vet advised the team to watch her closely and offered a number of standard procedures for them to follow.

Elephants are hind-gut fermenters and they have a very poor digestive system. This is great for the dispersal of seeds into a fertile environment once they have passed through an elephant’s digestive system. Unfortunately, the smell of bread and all the things that Thandora had been fed at the zoo attracted her to the garbage, and the glutton she was, she must have devoured plastic and anything else she could put in her mouth.

elephant release
The team working for hours to revive Thandora

Thandora had somehow made her way to the lodges and trashed the garbage area. Whilst the reserve has strict measures to manage its waste, it was no great feat for Thandora to dismantle any human measures aimed at stopping animals from reaching garbage. It was not very long before the rubbish she ate began to lodge in her gut, slowly blocking her system from functioning naturally and within hours, the colic symptoms kicked in.

When I arrived at the reserve with the vet I could not believe the skeleton of an elephant I observed. She had deteriorated within 36 hours and was painfully thin. It was unbearable to see her in this state. The vet did his best and the team that had gotten to know Thandora did everything they could to keep her going. Laying on her side with make-shift drips, and an eager team giving her love, she slowly slid away into another world. That last breathe was almost a bellow, a sound that I had witnessed before when an animal takes its last breath. The group sat together in the dark of night, silent in their own thoughts with Thandora’s warm skinny body the focus of our attention.

elephant rlease
Thandora laying on her side with make-shift drips

My mind was in a turmoil, fighting with the various arguments raging inside of me….

Too many organisations, ego’s and viewpoints had pushed Thandora into a space she did not want to enter. Living in the wild is tough, and the cost-to-benefit of looking for food is a poor option when you have had 30 years of bread, vegetables and fruit with pellets delivered to you. Think of how you feel when you go on diet and remind yourself of how long it takes to adjust to that new diet? And do you stay on that diet?

A momentary lapse in concentration from her minders, and Thandora headed for the human settlements where she knew weak humans would provide her with the junk food she loved. Her gluttony caused her to devour anything and everything in the trash bins, and the post mortem revealed plastic packets lodged in her system. Her insides were inflamed and infection had set in. Her system could not absorb any nutrition because of the swelling and she slowly starved before her system collapsed and stopped functioning.

‘Thandora, you taught me more about elephants than any other elephant I have worked with. Being with you forced me to extract myself from the human world and integrate into the wilderness of the reserve you briefly lived in. Whilst I loved this natural space, you did not. We could not see this and kept pushing you further and further into this wild space. Thank you for our special moments and thank you for making me stop to think about life, its values and how humans in most instances make decisions about wild animals that suits their own thinking rather than taking the time to find out what the wild animal wants’

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Add your thoughts
  • April 20, 2018 at 6:11 pm
    Reply

    I’m at work sitting in my truck crying. I’m this emotional over an animal that I never met. Greg I can’t imagine how you must have felt. Thank you for sharing this story. I’m sure it just have been hard revisiting all those thoughts and emotions … I appreciate the life lessons you learned a and shared.

    • April 21, 2018 at 2:01 pm
      Reply

      Hi Chris! Your interest in Thandoara’s story means the world to us. It was not only me who felt devastated those few days Chris, that night I watched hardened men break down. She touched so many hearts and this blog series pays tribute to her because her stroy has never been told before. Sara and I were talking about how much your following her story meant to us. Thank you for expressing your feelings to us…