Together with the elephant’s naturally gentle nature, the seeming ability to have a deep understanding of things around them, their incredible awareness of the state of individuals around them, their ability to open up chakras and make connections with people, combined with man’s natural interest in and fascination with elephants, makes this relationship a natural given.
(Thompson 2003, unpublished paper)
In 1954, Howard Blight's pioneering Cornish father and compliant Scottish mother left the tin-mining town of Rooiberg, north of Pretoria. They bought a small fruit farm tucked beneath the eastern escarpment near Tzaneen, in the Limpopo Province in South Africa.
From the age of five he played in the leafy mulch of the highcanopied rainforest surrounding their farm. He grew up a dyslexic farm boy, who was given a Saturday sixpence and could buy a lucky packet for a penny. They had a pet vervet monkey, a mongoose, then a genet and a crow. His earliest childhood memories are of hunting experiences with his favourite friends, Bebédu and Mashadrulé, along the Mabitsi River, which has its source deep in the subtropical rain forest on the eastern escarpment.
He quite clearly remembers plucking the snow-white breast feathers from a tambourine dove that he and Mashadrulé had trapped, prior to roasting it for a feast with marogo (wild blackjack spinach) and pap (stiff maize-meal porridge.) They swung on vines in the forest and climbed the great matumi trees that still stand on the banks of the Mabitsi and are estimated to be thousands of years old.
They regularly visited the Kruger National Park (KNP), where they had numerous close encounters with elephants. He remembers never feeling afraid.
Howard completed his tertiary education at The Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, in the United Kingdom in 1974. In 1991, he was appointed as the Wildlife Consultant to a Zimbabwean company, Touch Africa Safaris. In the same year he acquired a share in Giraffe Private Nature Reserve, now incorporated into the world-renowned Timbavati Nature Reserve. Giraffe Farm remains the sanctuary from where he draws most of his wildlife insights. This is where he first realised that he had a special understanding for elephants through an old bull they named Tatters.
People who have had close encounters and interactions with elephants will tell you that talking out loud to them, works. They understand tone and intent. He continues to experience this time and again.
Explorer Mike Boon encountered this regularly on his solo canoe trip down the Zambezi River in 2003. When he camped out alone at night, breeding herds of elephants that passed within feet of where he lay would simply acknowledge him and move on as he offered them verbal encouragement.
In 2002 Howard rode Asian elephants through a tropical forest in Thailand and down a tributary of the Mekong River. Here too he experienced a remarkable and sensational interaction with elephants.
On his return from Thailand, his good friend, Tony Sommers Cox, introduced him to the world-renowned elephant trainers, Rory Hensman and his wife, Lindie.
Rory, Lindie, Philé van Zyl and Howard joined forces and established the organization Elephants For Africa Forever (EFAF) in August 2003. The aims and objects of EFAF are essentially to tame and train wild African elephants for numerous tasks and disciplines by using Rory’s bilateral ‘ask-and-reward’ principle: ask an elephant to do something and then reward him with food.
These elephants might otherwise be culled. This process has afforded him additional invaluable insights, at close quarters, with elephants both wild and tame. What his dealings with Rory and Lindie have given him is the understanding that elephants remain mysterious, largely unfathomed and fascinating.
He also visited Daphne Sheldrick in Kenya on two occasions, and has hosted her and been in the presence of her surrogate elephant partner, Eleanor, near Voi in Tsavo East, where he swam up close with a herd of wild orphans.
He can confidently claim that elephants do communicate with one another on a higher level than most other land-born mammals.
Elephants can be categorised with dolphins and whales in this regard. They give and receive information through infrasound and their vommoran gland or Jacobson’s organ. They have the ability to pass on information, and reveal an emotional state of mind to each other. They are caring towards one another and have a sense of family. Elephants truly experience a substantial, long-term sense of loss for their loved ones. We all know what good memories elephants have. But they also have a substantial sense of humour. Tembo definitely does – it’s just that he can’t laugh out loud like we do.
This book is a testament to much that we know and much we can only imagine, and so much we still need to learn from and about these magnificent gentle animals.