While I was at Gorah Elephant Camp in Addo Elephant National Park, I picked up a copy of a remarkable book by Nicola Schwim, a former field guide at Gorah who now lives in the nearby city of Port Elizabeth, running her own organic fresh produce business.
Nicola worked for several years at Gorah, guiding guests around Addo and introducing them to it’s wildlife and other wonders. She documented many of her experiences in Addo into a beautiful book called Elephant Footprints, A Photographic Journal of the Gorah Elephant Camp in the Addo Elephant National Park, and it makes for intriguing reading.
What seems to separate Nicola from most other field guides and wildlife researchers I have met, however, is that she considers elephants, in particular, to be not only intelligent, but also highly emotional and spiritual creatures. Her book is full of events which she witnessed that support her hunch that earth’s largest land animals are in fact able to commune, in some way, with us humans.
(As Nicola herself admitted to me on the phone a few days ago, it’s of course impossible to prove scientifically that elephants can do this, but “I have seen too many seemingly coincidental events to believe that they’re coincidental, if that makes any sense!”, Nicola said.)
Two particularly powerful moments are related by Nicola in the book, which she also explained to me on the phone.
The first instance involved an overseas family who was staying at Gorah for a few days, and one of the three young girls in the family had severe down syndrome.
“I was keen to see if the wildlife of Addo was going to have an affect on the young girl,” Nicola said, “because I long suspected, and some research suggests, that people with down syndrome or cerebral palsy are able to communicate with animals in a way that most “normal” people aren’t. But after an hour or so of driving the family around, I could see from her reaction that she wasn’t any more interested than usual, even though the rest of her family were really enjoying the drive, and they seemed to be enjoying it. So I kind of forgot about my “theory” for the moment.”
“Then we saw a breeding herd of elephants, and so I stopped and we watched them for a while. They kept their distance, and then as I usually do with elephants, I opened my hands, welcoming them into our space; often they seem to “pull” towards this gesture. As I anticipated, they stopped their feeding, and walked closer to the vehicle, and the matriarch of the herd came right up to us, with her trunk up in the air. Two calves did the same, coming closer, and at that moment, the young girl with down syndrome was leaning towards the elephants, staring up at them, transfixed. Her face was so excited and full of joy, and she started giggling.”
“Then the ellies started talking to each other – and maybe to the young girl – with their deep rumbling, and the whole herd then approached the vehicle and came to see what the fuss was about. They all stood there, looking at us for a few minutes, before moving away.”
“I have no doubt that the elephants were communicating with the young girl, that they had a connection which was lost on the rest of us. There was definitely some kind of connection between the girl and the elephants.”
The other instance that Nicola writes about in her book, and which she spoke about with me, was one afternoon when she was driving back to the lodge alone in the Land Rover. As Nicola said, “it was one of those afternoons, when the world seemed particularly sad, and for no obvious reason, I was feeling depressed.”
She noticed three bull elephants coming towards her on the road, one of which was Skukuza, an old bull that had been translocated from Kruger National Park a few years previously. Nicola had always suspected that Skukuza – despite his size and dominance – had a sensitive personality. Nicola stopped to watch the elephants as they walked towards her. They ambled past her in single file, moving to the side of the road and giving Nicola lots of space, with Skukuza the last to go past her.
She watched them in the rear-view mirror walking down the road away from the vehicle, and when they were about 200 metres past, Nicola felt an overwhelming despair rise up in her. “Something triggered all this emotion inside of me, and so I had a good cry, just letting it all go.”
Nicola just sat in the Landy, not watching anything, sobbing into her hands. But when she looked up again a few minutes later, tears in her eyes, Skukuza was right next to the vehicle, watching her.
“He had walked back up the road to me, and was just standing there, looking at me. He stayed there for several minutes, and by that stage I was feeling much better. I was just amazed by what he had done. Once I had stopped crying, he waited a bit, then carried on back down the road in the direction he was initially going.”
“It certainly seemed that he had come back up the road to keep me company.”
Nicola’s book is full of other anecdotes like these, and includes a lot of the history of Addo and Gorah Elephant Camp. Her first edition was sold out, but she is due to release the next edition, so if you’re interested in buying a copy, contact Nicola on email@example.com.
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