Dr Elaine Yarbough Testimonial – Volunteer, January 2016
MEANINGFUL WORK AND DEEP SATISFACTION
I spent three weeks as a volunteer for AERU, Knysna Elephant Park in South Africa, January 2016. Having fallen in love with the elephants in Botswana and having heard so many stories about these endangered, magnificent animals in Africa, I decided I must contribute my part to support the health and wellbeing of elephants. After surveying many sanctuaries, two friends from Colorado, U.S.A., and I decided on Knysna: we wanted a place where solid research helps us understand the physical, mental, and emotional well-being of elephants. We really didn’t know what to expect but the following are what we found that made the experience fun, physical, and soul fulfilling:
- Debbie Young. She directs AERU, and has lived the rescue, caretaking, and sometimes death of the little ones. Her explanation of the importance of good research and the impact it has had on decisions for the elephants are inspiring. She talks about the elephants as smart, quick learners, and individuals with big hearts. Even though attached to them, her top concern is having them lead quality lives and so she lets go when needed….arranging for a herd of nine to be transferred to a large reserve. Their handlers will accompany them for security—physical and emotional. “I will miss them so much AND it is time. Those 5 small ones, all rescued, have grown up so well.”
- The elephant handlers and guides. Knysna has a philosophy different from most other parks/sanctuaries. Handlers are taught not to dominate and control but with authority, kindness and love develop relationships with the elephants. Their work is artful: they know when to approach with commands and when to let go. We humans can learn from the partnerships the handlers and animals sustain. The guides also can hold two truths: elephants are smart and emotional AND they are wild animals. Their predominant concern is for the safety of guests and volunteers. Not only do the handlers know a great deal about the elephants, they are willing and able to talk about the political environment that helps and hinders the survival and growth of elephants. And beyond all this expertise, they are very funny— teasing with us as we collect data. Going into the field is FUN.
- AND THE ELEPHANTS…Funny I should delay this focus. I had not expected that these big creatures could have such distinctive personalities. The matriarch, the leader who is big, steady, and teacher to the younger ones. We learned that when matriarchs are killed in the wild, the social order breaks down; the young ones are not taught survival skills, and the herd is easier to poach. Then there is the diva that gets what she wants and occasionally is naughty. Another female, now 11, rescued as a tiny one, has holes in her ears where bigger elephants attacked her during the transport. She is the most sensitive. Lasts longer with the tourists when others head for the hills after a long day. Approaches to have her trunk rubbed, her sides patted. And the young bulls that for no apparent reason, except that’s what boys do, begin sparring. Their tusks clash, they push and shove, and then go on their own ways. Anyone have teenage boys?
I also had not expected to learn so much FROM the elephants.
- Medium to slow is graceful.
- You can be yourself AND be an important part of the community.
- Be curious…repetition is boring and deadening…..and so on and so on. Lessons from the herds will keep coming long after I leave their presence.
- Variety of tasks. We cleared fields of branches and unloaded fresh ones for the elephants. We made elephant cookies—pellets, molasses, and grass—as enrichments. We learned that elephants get easily bored. In the wild, they have to be creative to find food. In the Park, enrichments are put in hay, tires, metal containers, and the branches so that elephants get curious about where to find the goodies. We chop the fruit and vegetables fed the elephants by tourists. Gets wild wielding the machete with the expert guidance of the women who work in the park. We made dung paper…not as dirty as it sounds…and used it to make souvenirs for the curio shop…yet another way to support the elephants and the Park. Of course, we collect data in the field and enter it in computers so patterns can be discerned. Some of the most peaceful, reflective moments were during the observations in the boma or outside, sitting high on the platform to watch the elephants at the end of the day and into the night. You know for certain that all earth’s creatures breath the same breath.
GETTING BORED IS NOT AN ISSUE. Sometimes being tired is…but that’s how it goes. If you’re going to make a difference, make a difference.
We met volunteers of many ages and from many countries—all in love with the elephants and each with special skills. This experience engenders hope: that people in the world are paying attention to what needs to be done, that highly skilled people are dedicating their lives to the well-being of elephants, a microcosm for us all. As we live with HOPE AND NOT FEAR, we each return to make a difference in our own lives. All the points of life connect and our precious earth thrives.