Have you ever wondered what it must be like to work with elephants? We can tell you! Our Elephant Groom-series of blogs introduce you to the people who work with our magical animals.
Today we’re focusing on Stavros Chakoma: a Level 4 groom. This is the highest level a groom can achieve in the hierarchy of performance, work ethics, loyalty and the skills needed to work with elephants.
How long have you been with the CJ herd?
I joined Camp Jabulani to work with its current herd in 2002, but started working with elephants much earlier, in 1985. I also worked with some of the elephants that now form part of the Camp Jabulani herd, but which originally came from Chinoyi, Zimbabwe, earlier in 1994.
How was it that you ended up working with elephants? Was CJ the first time you interacted with these animals?
I initially worked with horses and cattle! My work with elephants started at the Dambwira Game Park, where I worked with Sebakwe, Samopane, Setombe, Tokwe and Fishan. They now form part of the Camp Jabulani herd.
What does your typical day involve?
Pretty much the same as Joshua’s! That means my day starts at 6 am. The stable gates are opened at that time, and the elephants emerge into a new day after spending a safe night in their protected area.
As they exit the stable, the elephants take their own brushes, and find a spot to stand in the open area.
Here we inspect and brush them to make sure that they don’t have any thorns, wounds or skin irritations that might bother them.
The safari-elephants will then move past a platform one by one, where they will get their saddles. This process prevents them from having to adopt a funny or abnormal position, or from having to lie down during the saddling up. It is similar to saddling a horse.
To keep from getting bored while waiting for the guests, the elephants will go for a short walk and a nice drink of water. They then return to pick up their guests, and start the safari.
Not all elephants go on safari, so 8 or more will spend the day feeding and foraging in the bush.
Safaris do not last more than an hour, and after unsaddling these elephants, they will join the others who are already feeding in the bush. Depending on the shift, I will either go with the elephants and guests on a safari, or join the elephants that go straight to the bush for the day’s browsing.
Shifts last about two and half hours from the time that the herd meets up again, and the next group of grooms will then take over. The next shift starts at 1pm when the elephants go for a swim. There will always be seven grooms with the elephants in the veld – an average of two elephants per handler. During the time we spend in the bush, we need to watch where the elephants go and that they move in the direction selected for feeding for the day. The elephants cannot move and feed in the same area every day as it will eventually damage the area. That is why we plan for them to feed in different areas every day.
The elephants will browse until about 4pm, when they return for their last safari of the day. After the safari, the elephants return to their stables where they meet up with the non-safari elephants.
Going into the stables, they know exactly where their individual areas are. Each stable will have fresh drinking water and piles of branches, lucerne and bana grass, placed by the stable hands in separate areas to prevent the elephants from eating each other’s food.
Stables are locked at 6 pm. Our working day is eight hours long, and we therefore have shifts to reduce the 12-hour day during which the elephants need care.
Do you have any favourites in the herd, and why?
Yes, Tokwe, because she has a good heart and always tries to please everyone.
What do you love the most about your job?
I like ‘doctoring’ the elephants the most. Whenever one of the elephants has a thorn or an injury, I clean it every morning and afternoon. Dr Rogers has taught us what to do and how to clean the wounds. This is what I really enjoy doing.
Your best memory with the elephants?
When Samopane tracked poachers. He has a very good sense of smell. You can give him something that belongs to a person to smell and he will find that person!
These are really big animals. How is it that you get them to listen to you?
Their size is actually not an issue. The elephants have certain commands which they have learned, and these stay the same. When they obey these commands, we usually reward them with food and gently pat them for encouragement. The elephants like being touched and patted. Just like children, they need to be assured or hugged when they’ve done well, or given a treat sometimes.
Do you ever feel unsafe?
What is it about Camp Jabulani that makes it unique in the way it takes care of its elephants, and the experiences it offers?
They are good to the elephants. Camp Jabulani lets the elephants spend as much time as they want in the bush just feeding, and still offer them food in the stables. The elephants often have free time and not all the elephants partake in the safari. Guests are allowed to touch and interact with the elephants, and even watch them swim and play.