The wisdom of elephants

Written for the SAA
in-flight magazine Sawubona

Keen to get in touch with who you really are? KARENA DU PLESSIS took the plunge and went on an innovative eco-therapy programme being run at the beautiful White Elephant Lodge in the Pongola Game Reserve

I have to confess that am not a group-style sharing person. I cut my teeth on group confessions at Brownies when I was eight and we had to wrap our smiles on a tennis ball and throw it to somebody in our circle. The reason why was never clear - but worse was to follow. We then had to stand up and say how we felt about the experience. In all seriousness, what is there to say about wrapping a smile on a tennis ball?

So, when I received a program from Cape Town psychologist, Mandy Young, outlining some of the things we could expect on our eco-therapy experience, my heart rate spiked and I started hyperventilating. What happened if we had to say how we felt in front of strangers? But, at the same time, she caught my attention. After all, who wouldn’t be interested in choosing an aboriginal name or reflecting on how we could learn some valuable life lessons from elephants? Before I could say, “I am at one with the universe” I was overlooking the magnificent Jozini dam wondering whether I should name myself after a chameleon or a juggler.

But let’s backtrack a bit. Seven years ago, psychologist Mandy Young, was at a crossroads and in need of a holiday. Having grown up in Zambia and then Zimbabwe the love of the bush pulsed in her veins, so when a game ranger friend from Madikwe phoned inviting her for a visit, it took Mandy less than a second to decide this was just the break she needed.

“As a therapist it’s really important to have a good sense of yourself and at the time I was doing a lot of thinking about where I fitted in and the role families play in helping to develop our sense of well-being. Not surprisingly, I started looking at the way I was bought up and my family life,” Mandy explains. “I was 10 years old when I was sent to boarding school two countries away, and I only saw my family every six months. In many respects I didn’t have the resources I needed to cope, and felt as though I had been orphaned. Even though I went on to get married and have a family of my own, I lived with a sense of not truly belonging. Watching animals provided me with some valuable insight into what was missing in my life.”

Because Mandy can see I don’t get the connection, she’s quick to elaborate. “When a wild dog leaves the pack for a couple of hours and then returns, the rest of the dogs go through an elaborate greeting ritual which serves to reaffirm kinship bonds and cement the group. The human family today is under enormous amount of pressure, yet we do very little to strengthen the bonds that keep us together. When a parent walks through the door in the evening after being at work for the whole day, what happens? Chances are no one looks up from what they’re doing and the person walking into the family is completely unacknowledged. The kids will carry on watching TV or talking on the phone, while the other adult is frantically throwing supper together in the kitchen. As a mother of two teenagers I completely understand that homework needs to be done and dinner cooked, but we are forgetting to nurture those bonds which keep us together – and this must be contributing to the chaos families find themselves in today.”

While Mandy was observing the wild dogs at Madikwe and working on an Imax script to capture the experience, history was being made up in Northern KZN at the White Elephant Lodge. For years, owner and veterinarian Heinz Kohrs had dreamt of returning elephants to Pongola. The last of these gentle giants had been shot out 100 years previously and Heinz worked tirelessly to get the necessary permission from National Parks officials and neighbouring landowners to reintroduce elephants to the area. In 1997, permission was secured and two families were relocated to Pongola Game Reserve from Kruger. But these weren’t the only elephants to arrive at Pongola - three years later five adolescent 'orphan' elephants broke in from a neighbouring reserve where they had been originally translocated as youngsters. The parents of these elephants had been killed in the last big Kruger cull which shocked the nation.

But, while wild dogs were fascinating subjects, Mandy had decided to extend her research to look at parenting and attachment behavior in other mammals, including elephants. In 2002 she received the opportunity of her dreams - two cows in the different herds at the Pongola Game Reserve had given birth within weeks of each other: Charm, one of the orphan mothers, gave birth to Charlie, and Aquilla a more experienced breeding herd mother gave birth to Asterix. This was particularly interesting for Mandy, as she believes good mothering is the cornerstone of both elephant and human societies and it was through these observations that the idea of an eco-therapy programme was developed.

“The people at White Elephant are incredibly special,” Mandy elaborates. “They are passionate about finding a space for elephants in wilderness areas and there is an enormous sense of integrity in what they do. Each time I came up here, and spent time watching the herds and interacting with people from White Elephant, I went back understanding more about myself, especially as a mother. I also felt nurtured by this patch of Mother Earth and kept thinking about offering a similar experience to other people needing time out to re-establish who they are and what they want out of life.”

This is not the first time Mandy has incorporated eco-therapy into her work as a psychologist. Not only has she worked with vulnerable youth at the Chrysalis Academy (an innovative intervention spearheaded by Mark Wiley – former MEC for Safety and Security in the Western Cape), but she also worked with a prestigious private school that was battling with a group of learners who were using drugs.

“The Wisdom of Elephants program is aimed at trying to help you understand yourself better, regardless of who you are. You could be a mother or mother-to-be; an exhausted businessman having to make many corporate decisions; a couple wanting more for your partnership; a school leaver asking 'what next' or a sportsman wanting to find a better way of being part of a team. But,” laughs Mandy, “as a mother of two teenagers, my heart goes out to women who want to parent in the best possible way.

“Mothering is an incredibly hard job because having a child touches the core of who you are and challenges you in the most astonishing ways. I have learnt so much from these elephants: when Constance, an orphaned cow, gave birth to a stillborn calf she spent days standing over her dead baby before finally moving on. Constance seemed to grieve for a few weeks and couldn’t tolerate being anywhere near her sister's calf, Charlie. Then she did an about turn and started relating to him with neurotic over-concern. She began to interfere when Charlie lay down to sleep and kept nudging him awake with her foot before he was fully rested. Obviously the memory of her stillborn calf haunts her and she needs to check that Charlie is still alive. This checking might be good for her peace of mind, but its terrible for the calf who isn’t getting enough uninterrupted sleep. On the positive side Constance makes up for the affection Charlie does not receive from his own mother who is less physically responsive and protective - hardly surprising because she missed out on years of nurturing when her mother was shot.”

Aquilla, however, mothers in a very different way. According to Mandy, Asterix's natural rhythms are appropriately responded to by the whole breeding herd. They move when he is ready to move, stop when he’s tired, give him time to rest and generally he’s always within very close range so if they were confronted by danger, the older elephants could very quickly surround the younger, more vulnerable members of the group. These elephants reminded me of the mothers in the Yequana tribe who were studied by Jean Liedloff, a medical doctor. She was deeply impressed by the harmony within the tribe. She put it down to the way they cared for their young, keeping them “in arms” with close bodily contact until the child was old enough to move away independently. The Yequana children grow up with a very strong sense of themselves and, as they mature, this makes for well-adjusted adults.

That’s all very well, but what have Yequana Indians and elephants to do with us?

“Based on my experience as a therapist, I think we all have unmet childhood needs,” explains Mandy. “There is no point in blaming our parents – in many instances, they too experienced inadequate parenting and did the best they could with limited skills. Instead, if you are wanting to break this pattern, you need to spend time working out who you are, how you want to parent and what you want for your children. This is one of the ways the Wisdom of Elephants eco-therapy course will help guide you through this experience.

But back to our group experience. In the end I chose the Zulu name unwabu which means chameleon. And that’s often how I feel – moving from one very different situation to another, having to adapt to each new circumstance in order to blend in. I like the name and it has given me pause to think about what this says about who I am and how I construct my world. Want to find out more? Best you haul out your kakhis and dust off your emotions and give Mandy a call.

White Elephant Lodge

Eco-therapy course or not, White Elephant Lodge is good for your soul and provides a bush experience fit for a princess. One evening (when) I staggered back to my luxury tent after an icy game drive to find my bath overflowing with bubble bath and rose petals, I knew I would never want to leave! Situated at the foot of the mighty Lebombo Mountains with a spectacular view of Lake Jozini, Heinz and Debbie Kohrs have transformed a once bankrupt farm with a checkered history into a spectacular wilderness area that has been declared an UNESCO biosphere area.

But, although Heinz has returned elephants to the area, he’s not content to sit back and admire the view. Instead, together with other committed individuals and organisations, he is working on a project called Space for Elephants – a scheme which would see Pongola Game Reserve linked to Mkuzi Game Reserve and then onto the Greater St Lucia Wetland Park. The aim is to provide the growing herds of elephants more space to roam and to allow them to re-establish natural migration patterns.

“For some reason, our elephants are breeding much faster than elephants at Kruger,” Heinz explains, “and there is increasing pressure on the land. The tribal authorities and local farmers are excited about opening up corridors, but this initiative will be a first in South Africa and there is a lot of red tape involved. We also have to ensure that the elephants won’t be able to wander from these corridors and disrupt village life, or pile into a farmer’s sugarcane. But it will be a memorable moment when we can take down our fences and the elephants will be free to roam.”

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