Follow the Tracks

I’d been in Mozambique for a few days now caring for the young elephant (who had been nicknamed Zuali after the area she was found in). Thanks to the time we were spending together, she had begun to see me as part of the family. She’d now walk with me and follow me meaning we were able to go for long walks in the bush during the day. Walking was important to help keep Zuali busy, being a young elephant without a herd is not an easy thing for such a sensitive soul to handle. Walking together and experiencing the sights and smells of the bush helped to keep her life enriched.

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In the early hours of the morning, the air was cold and we would bundle up in coats while Zuali slept in blankets awaiting the sunrise. Just before 6AM the sun would rise through the trees, casting a fiery glow on the camp and burning through the morning mist, clearing the dew that clung to the grass and causing the animals to stir from their slumber. Zuali was not much of a morning elephant. She would stay snuggled up in her blankets until the sun had been watching over us for at least half an hour, giving everything a chance to warm up before she would be ready to go for a walk. By then, we were already on the borderline of no longer needing to wear coats as the temperature was rising fast and quickly setting us up for another 25 degree day.

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Now awake, Zuali would be ready to head out. There is something so magical about walking along the sand roads and game paths, walking barefoot with no cars or people in sight. The deep sand would tumble beneath the weight of our footsteps, leaving perfect tracks where we walked. To walk with a baby elephant is truly blissful, taking in the surroundings, no rush, no real destination in mind, eyes up away from screens and fully enjoying all that nature has to offer. As we’d walk, I’d look at the tracks of the animals who’d walked the same path before us, in the night and the early hours of the morning; the vervet monkeys, nyala, impala…

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Meg & Zuali’s tracks in the sand

One track that I would see at least a few times a week was the track of wild elephants. Sometimes it would be a large, lone bull crossing the path heading towards the waterhole. Other times it would be a herd of females and youngsters. The large round tracks have a pattern of lines and cracks from the sole of the elephants foot, which in that sense is not too dissimilar to the tracks of rhino.

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Fresh wild elephant track

I always loved comparing the tiny tracks of Zuali to the tracks of the wild elephants. Of course, seeing fresh tracks of wild elephants made me a little cautious but that didn’t take away from the awe of seeing first hand the sheer size of them. The huge tracks showed so clearly the path that had been walked by these gentle giants mere hours before I stood there with a hip-high baby elephant by my side. I’d watch Zuali as she’d investigate the tracks, smelling them and showing great interest. It was curious to see how Zuali reacted to fresh elephant dung… she’d stop for a moment or two to smell it and then she’d very carefully go out of her way to walk around the dung rather than over it.

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Zuali & a fresh wild elephant track

Every so often, Zuali would grumble, reach up to touch me with her trunk or rub her head against my legs. Elephants are incredibly tactile and this small touch was simply reassurance.

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As we walked alongside the wild elephant tracks, I learnt something fascinating… Samson, a very experienced elephant carer (understatement) told me that if you measure the circumference of the elephant track and multiply this by 2 you get the shoulder height of the elephant. WHAT?! Of course, I instantly tried this with Zuali using some long pieces of grass as measuring tape and IT WAS SPOT ON. Now, as we walked, we measured the tracks of the individual elephants and discovered how tall they were. How amazing is that?!

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Tread lightly on this Earth,

Coexistwithmeg ♥
Megan Richards

Elephant Orphan Care in Mozambique

Approximately 8 hours after receiving the call about the baby elephant, I was boarding a flight from the UK to Mozambique. A couple of days prior, DAG counter-poaching unit and Saving the Survivors had rescued a dehydrated and emaciated elephant calf who had been found wondering around alone within the Maputo Special Reserve. With very limited options, they transported the calf to a staff camp within the reserve and the DAG team provided her with around the clock care while waiting for permits to move her across borders to an elephant orphanage. Although the details I received were patchy, there was a baby elephant in need and that was all I needed to know.

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Upon arrival, I joined James – the DAG helicopter pilot – and 2 volunteers in caring for the female elephant calf thought to be just a few months old. As I arrived at the camp in the evening and I was getting to work right away I had to very quickly remember the route between the elephant’s room and my tent as I certainly didn’t want to stray too far from the path in total darkness… Particularly as I could hear the unmistakable grunt of hippo just the other side of the tents and the deep rumble of wild elephant close by as they broke branches and pushed their way through the trees near the camp.

I put my bags into my tent and rummaged around for my head torch as I laughed at how unprepared I was for camping – fortunately I had acquired a sleeping bag to use and I was lent a very warm jacket to take the edge off the nightshifts (thanks James!!). After locating my head torch, I zipped up my tent and retraced my steps back to the kitchen where the team were arranging the shifts for the night ahead. We decided that I would shadow the beginning of the first shift of the evening and then take the 3AM shift. With the shifts sorted, I went to the elephant’s room to be introduced to her and be shown how to make the milk mixture that she was guzzling down every two hours.

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The barely hip-high elephant was still sleepy from her nap when we arrived but as soon as she realized we were mixing milk she perked up, pushing against the door with surprising force. Her expressive eyes were encircled by a baby blue ring, her body enveloped with a soft blanket that was loosely tied in place and her inquisitive trunk was handled with relative confidence, for a youngster. She had nasty grazes along her cheeks which were thought to be a result of her rubbing herself against things but aside from that there seemed to be no physical injuries.

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Meeting this gorgeous elephant immediately melted my heart; she was sweet, good natured and had no problem at all drinking the milk we made for her. This came as a pleasant surprise, I’d experienced months on end of pushing, shoving and bruises when feeding Ellie (the young orphaned elephant I intensively nursed for 6 months in South Africa) but this elephant was far more agreeable… She would hold her trunk up and stand more or less in place to drink her milk.

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I was relieved that the little elephant was happy to drink milk from me from the get go but I knew it was going to take a few days of me being around until she fully accepted me as a member of the herd and would happily walk with me through the bush. Until we’d reach that level of trust, I’d be spending lots of time with her and would join her on all of her walks with the other carers so she could get used to me being around.

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After the early evening feed and introduction, I used my headtorch to guide me through the darkness back to my tent. I made a conscious effort to remember the route as I would be walking it again at 3AM to take over the early shift. With an alarm set to wake me at 2:52AM (yes, those extra 2 minutes do matter!) I fell asleep, slightly cold, not exactly comfortable but full hearted and inspired.

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Tread lightly on this Earth,

Coexistwithmeg ♥
Megan Richards

The Beginning: Rhino Orphanage Volunteer

People often ask me how I got involved in wildlife rehabilitation and working with rhinos, usually wondering if there is a path they can follow to experience the same things… As this is the first of the Conservation Stories series and today is coincidentally six years since I first flew out to South Africa to volunteer at a rhino orphanage, I figured we really should start at the beginning.

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After studying a Diploma in Animal Management I was vaguely aware of the state of the planet and the fact that we needed to actively protect and conserve it. I decided to take some time out of studying to delve deeper into the reality of the situation and gain some hands on conservation experience – I claimed this was going to be a “gap year” but we are 6 years down the line now…

As my “gap year” began, I was keeping up to date on conservation issues and a rhino orphanage caught my eye. They were the first dedicated rhino orphanage in South Africa, and – unable to resist- I contacted them to see if they were accepting volunteers… Spoiler alert… They were! 😉

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The organization had just celebrated their first anniversary, they spent their time rescuing and rehabilitating rhino orphans – many of which had been orphaned through poaching – and at the time of me reaching out to them they had been extremely busy with not enough staff but lots of rhino orphans in need. They needed more hands on deck so, on this day six years ago, I was boarding a flight to join them as a volunteer (note: I did not pay to volunteer. I covered the cost of my flight and the orphanage offered me food and board in exchange for work).

By the time I’d reached the rhino orphanage, been briefed on the security protocols and had realized we were pretty much in the middle of nowhere I did, for a fleeting moment, question my decisions but this apprehension soon passed as I was introduced to the rhinos for the first time.

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I was 18 years old and my life changed the moment I saw the rhino orphans. I had to pinch myself because it just didn’t seem real. These miniature tanks squealed a high pitched cry when they wanted milk, they stared into your eyes with the most recognizable expressions and they were gentle despite their strength. The team on the ground was small and incredibly committed to the orphans, with more orphans than pairs of hands I was quickly shown the ropes; learning the day to day routines of the rhino orphanage such as how to mix the special milk formulas for each of the rhinos, how to clean the rhino rooms and how to keep the records… I built bonds with the younger orphans and I started to take on nightshifts, as the work of a wildlife rehabilitator is around the clock, and we would need to feed the rhinos every 3 hours.

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Although the hours were long, the jobs were often messy and we often faced challenges, I felt like my life had purpose. Everything we were doing, we were doing for the rhinos. I was supposed to stay for 3 months as a volunteer but I stayed for close to 6, only leaving because my visa demanded it. In that time, 3 more orphans (2 white rhino and 1 black rhino) were brought in to us and there was no doubt that more would follow them.

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I had to leave but in those 6 months I had fallen irrevocably in love with South Africa, wildlife and this kind of hands-on work.

After this initial experience, I returned to the UK and volunteered with Sea Shepherd, campaigning in the Faroe Islands against the killing of Pilot Whales. I was then called back to South Africa to be part of the core care team at a rhino orphanage and from there I spent several years working in rhino orphanages.

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The poaching was (and continues to be) ongoing and I felt like I wasn’t doing enough. Council of Contributors – a non profit I am proudly a director of –  was created in 2017. We are dedicated to supporting the amazing people and organizations down on the ground that are protecting, rescuing, treating and conserving rhinos. After working in the field and knowing how much of a difference even seemingly simple equipment donations can make I knew CoC could help make a positive impact… and we are!

This rundown plus some emergency call out work – more or less – brings us to now. I know that was pretty brief but we’ll save the finer details for another time. I just wanted to give you an idea of how I became involved and what has brought me to this moment, volunteering all those years ago was truly invaluable for me… it not only gave me a far deeper insight into the realities, it also gave me the opportunity to meet like-minded, passionate people and make vital contacts within the world of wildlife conservation and rehabilitation.

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As many of you know, a few months ago I was called out to assist with the care of an orphaned elephant calf that was found and rescued in Maputo Special Reserve, Mozambique. This is where the Conservation Stories will start from next week.

If you want to do something for wildlife and conservation, my advice to you is to find what you are passionate about, make the contacts and be willing to give your time for the cause.

Tread lightly on this Earth,

Coexistwithmeg ♥
Megan Richards