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