“They say an elephant never forgets. What they don’t tell you is, you never forget an elephant”- Bill Murray
Departing at the crack of dawn on April 27th2023, from the Onderstepoort parking lot, the members of the OP team were filled with anticipation for what was to come.
Despite a few “upside down map” directions and a breakdown here and there, we arrived 9 hours later at Hoedspruit, Mpumalanga in one piece, with our spirits still intact. Our amazing hosts, Hoedspruit Elephant Rehabilitation and Development (or HERD), made sure we had everything we needed to carry out our lessons.
When we arrived at the primary school we were met with smiling faces and warm hugs from the enthusiastic students.
We started the morning with a quick game of soccer before heading into the classroom, where the real fun began.
Kicking off the lesson with a brief introduction to the concepts of ecosystems, food chains, and conservation, they were eager to learn, and we couldn't wait to show them what we had in store.
The students were attentive and quickly grasped difficult concepts such as migration and metamorphosis, and they had tonnes of fun completing the activities we had planned for them.
Over the course of the next two days, we learned about birds, snakes, spiders, and the Big (and little) Five, and it was incredibly rewarding to see how they soaked up all the information like sponges.
Between cups of Oros and ham sandwiches, we laughed, listened, learned, and got to know these amazing kids and as they opened up to us, we were honored with stories of their school, family, and community lives as well as their personal experience with the bush.
Although they were aware of the existence of big renowned game reserves in the area, they have little access to these places and the wildlife therein.
Many stakeholders in the region want to commit to bridging this gap and bringing tangible benefits to the communities surrounding them, one such being HERD.
Through the efforts of HERD, we had the opportunity to give these kids the experience of a lifetime and cement their love for nature.
When we told the class about the excursion they would embark on by the week’s end, which involved interacting with real elephants at HERD, they couldn’t believe their ears.
Interacting with the largest land mammals in the world, with the chance to touch them with your own hands?
Elephants have not only shaped the wild lands but also entire societies throughout history.
In India, elephants are considered sacred, gentle, and intelligent beings who are removers of figurative and literal obstacles.
Traditionally in Africa, elephants are praised for their power, strength, and will to survive, as well as their close-knit family structures, paying ode to the knowledgeable, loving, and experienced matriarchs that are the keystones of every society.
At HERD, we were briefed beforehand that the interactions would happen on the elephant’s terms, that they would leave if they wanted to, and that we should warn the kids against making loud noises and sudden erratic movements, so as to not upset the elephants.
All the safety measures were explained and the experienced guides who would be with us and the elephants for the duration of the interaction ensured that everyone felt confident and safe.
We were even cautioned that one of the bulls was less inclined to tolerate kids.
Nothing could have prepared us for what happened that Sunday morning. As the kids piled out of the vehicle, and said hushed but excited hellos, we stood at the platform, waiting for the grooms to bring the elephants around.
Towering silhouettes against the sunrise horizon, came Jabulani, Sebakwe, and Somopane, the bulls of HERD.
Practically shaking with anticipation, one brave child stretched out her hand to touch the breathtaking animal in front of her.
With bated breaths we watched as Sebakwe gently moved his trunk towards her, playfully fiddling with her jacket, and taking the food from her hand, eliciting the most joyous laugh from the little girl.
It was as if the elephants could sense the spirit and hearts of the children, a connection that runs deeper than any of us could comprehend.
Overcome with emotion, there was not a single LiC member with a dry cheek in sight.
It is only when you stand at ground level, face to face with these majestic beings that the pieces fall in place and it clicks as to why they have been revered across centuries. A sense of awe, fear and wonder, something primal, courses through your veins.
All the bulls stayed for the hour and a half of our interaction, interacting with each child, and happily accepting the snacks (and hugs) they were offered.
The kids giggled at the naughty bulls and their antics while brushing up on their elephant facts, such as what material a tusk is made from and what they are used for, how long a cow is pregnant for, and why these awesome creatures are under threat.
We were also joined by Dean, CEO, and founder of Lessons in Conservation, who shared his experience of being a ranger with the kids and the adventures that working in the bush had afforded him. Along with park managers, hotel staff, grooms and us as veterinary students, we were able to give a comprehensive idea of what opportunities and careers exist in conservation.
When we started our lessons, we handed out a survey to the learners, the purpose of which is to gauge how much they know about conservation and wildlife, and at the end of our time with them, a post-lesson survey is filled in, which allows us to quantify the impact we have had in growing their knowledge. Part of this survey includes what they would like to be when they grow up.
Most answers ranged from doctors to teachers and policemen. When we posed this question at the end of the set of lessons with them, we were happy to hear careers like a park ranger, veterinarian and ‘elephant protector’ among the answers.
By making note of the most promising and passionate of these kids and following their journey, LiC will be able to make some of these dreams a reality and empower these students to go on to make meaningful contributions to conservation.
As the kids stamped their handprints onto the white paper reel, vowing to be protectors of nature, we shared a conversation that will stay with us always.
One of the kids asked, “ Why do people poach?” The textbook answer that came from us was unsatisfactory to their introspective minds; “No, I know all that, but WHY do they do it? Why do they want to hurt these animals and destroy the nature? What can I do about it?”.
“I know” came an answer from back, “we must teach everyone about what we have learned and show them how beautiful nature is!”
And with that, we knew we had achieved our mission. This is the core of Lessons in Conservation, by instilling and inspiring a love for animals and nature we can ensure that there will be kids who are willing to fight for these places and their futures.
Bidding a farewell to the students who have touched our hearts in more ways than they will ever know, we left a piece of ourselves with them and the elephants who changed their worlds. If there was ever a moment that reaffirmed hope for the future, it was this.
We would like to extend our gratitude to HERD for their hospitality, for making it possible for these kids to have this life-changing experience and for all the countless other details they saw, which allowed us to have such a successful project.
There's no question that every child walked away forever changed, and so did we.