Pilanesberg National Park | 27 Oct 2014 | By Sun International
Sun City’s Beloved Elephants Retire
It was a bittersweet announcement. After 12 years of service, entertaining and educating visitors, Sun City has retired its family of treasured elephants. While it may come as a surprise to the many visitors who were humbled and amazed by their personal interactions with Chikwenya’s herd, Pilanesberg Elephant Back Safaris announced the closure of their commercial operations as part of a long-term plan, and are now focused on rehabilitating these magnificent creatures back into the wild.
Man’s relationship with elephants
Man’s relationship with elephants dates back as far as 218 BC, when elephants were captured and trained by the Carthaginians and used as vehicles of war. More recently, this relationship has appeared in Southern Africa in the form of elephant-back safaris, a novel and popular tourist initiative.
During the 70s and 80s, culling operations in Zimbabwe produced a number of elephant orphans, who were sold to private farmers in an attempt to generate much-needed funds for national parks. It was through these culls that the Zimbabwean model for the domesticated elephant was born: based on the use of positive reinforcement training principles, and founded on trust and mutual respect between man and animal, the vision allowed for domesticated elephants to pursue a lifestyle similar to that of wild elephants. A far cry from the training methods of the past, domesticated elephants, through tourism, have played a vital role in conservation through education.
Following the culls in the 80s, Chikwenya, Sharu, and Mana were initially raised on a ranch in Zimbabwe. In 1996 they were moved to the Elephant Camp in Victoria Falls. Michael joined the herd at the camp in 1999. Together with their handlers, the herd was trans-located to the Letsatsing Reserve in 2002 with the opening of Pilanesberg Elephant Back Safaris. The move was successful, and saw the elephants settle into their new home with minimal stress.
For over a decade, visitors to Sun City were left awed by their interactions with Chikwenya’s herd at the Elephant Wallow, and enriched through learning about their history, marveling at their curiosity, and witnessing the rare bond between the elephants and their devoted handlers.
Years of nurturing and dedication resulted in a unique relationship of mutual trust between these incredible animals and the individuals who mentored their development. The handlers – who have guided and cared for the elephants for 20 years – have become an integral part of the elephant family, and will continue to oversee and support the herd’s translocation into the wild.
Retirement and rehabilitation
After a working life of two decades, Chikwenya, together with her young calves Tidimalo and Ngwedi, as well as adult bulls Sapi, Mana, Michael, and Sharu will be reintegrated back into a wild environment.
In line with the long-term management vision for their fostered elephants, Pilanesberg Elephant Back Safaris has secured a new future for Chikwenya and her family; one in which they can live out the remainder of their lives as wild elephants. The first stage in the rehabilitation process – to remove the elephants from any commercial interaction – is already in effect. Now, the elephants, under the gentle guidance of their handlers, are preparing for a life with minimal human interaction.
- Elephants are some of the most intelligent animals on Earth. Their brains weigh 5kg, much more than the brain of any other land animal.
- Elephants have a highly developed hippocampus, a brain region responsible for emotion. They commonly show grief, humour, compassion, cooperation, self-awareness, use tools, are playful, and have excellent learning abilities.
- Elephants are matriarchal. Herds are headed up by the most experienced matriarch, and the females in each herd help each other find food and care for calves. An elephant herd is considered one of the most closely-knit societies in the animal kingdom.
- Elephants communicate within their herds or between herds many kilometers away, using sounds too low for human ears to perceive.
- Elephants live between 60 and 80 years. While the existence of elephant graveyards is not supported by any hard evidence death is important to them. If an elephant dies, herd members will try to revive it with food and water for a while. Once it is clear that an elephant is dead, the herd will become very quiet. They often dig a shallow grave and cover the deceased elephant with dirt and branches, and will stay at the grave for days afterwards. If the elephant had a particularly close relationship with its deceased peer, it can show signs of depression. Even herds that come across an unknown lone elephant that has died will show it similar respect.
Tell us: do you have any special memories of an interaction with Chikwenya and her herd? What do you think of the decision to retire the Sun City elephants and reintegrate them back into the wild?