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The elephant herd at Camp Jabulani needs a lot of “TLC”, and taking care of 15 elephants (including bulls with big personalities, growing babies and rambunctious teenagers) is hard work. It calls for a special group of people with a lot of patience and skill – the Camp Jabulani elephant keepers.

Chloe Grotto, our resident student researcher, spends a lot of time with the keepers and over the next couple of months she will be sharing her experiences and stories about some of these special individuals. First up, Kevin Mwanje.

5A638985Kevin loves to sing in the bush, bopping back and forth to the sounds of R & B music’s greatest hits with an occasional Christina Aguilera tune thrown into the mix. His eclectic taste not only applies to music, but his friendships with his fellow elephant keepers as well. Kevin is one who is loved and appreciated by all, as he is always there to lend a helping hand and the first one to bring a smile to a friend’s face who hasn’t had the best day. I can’t recall a time where Kevin’s face did not carry a smile and his chest was not filled with laughter. When a challenge presents itself, he is not one to shy away but instead goes out of his way to conquer it.

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5A473120As the youngest elephant keeper, it was only fitting that he befriended the youngest elephant, baby Timisa. As soon as Kevin walks past Timisa, you can see her quickly raise her head and flap out her ears. She then raises her trunk like a homing device, sniffing the air left and right until she locks onto his scent. Then she springs into action, quickly trotting across the bush, weaving under thorny bushes and over fallen trees, until she nearly smacks right into Kevin’s hip! With a hearty laugh, Kevin greets the little one, as she lets out a few hoots and toots of hello back. After a nice belly scratch from Kevin, Timisa will gleefully grab his hand with her trunk, give it a good slobber with a shake of thank you, and be on her way after the others to feed. He has formed an incredibly close connection with the herd through his gentle touch with the older members and outstanding amount of patience with the youngsters.

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5A090115My most fond memory of Kevin was when I first arrived at Camp Jabulani in February to begin my research. I was still trying to figure out where I belonged in the lodge’s mix when I was placed with the elephant keepers, who would become my guides to learning everything I could about the elephant herd.

I was nervous that I would be unable to adapt and make new friends, not to mention, also figure out how to get a herd of elephants to accept me. Before I entered the bush for the first time with the elephants, this elephant keeper with long, colourful beaded dreadlocks and a huge smile across his face came dancing up to me. With a warm laugh, he asked if I was ready to make some new friends, large and small, human and not human. I couldn’t help but laugh away my nerves as he patted me on the shoulder and led me to the rest of the group for a proper introduction.

Kevin has been by my side since my first day here with the herd and I couldn’t imagine getting as far with the research or as close with the herd without his insight and help. We are so thankful to have such a bright personality like Kevin’s working with the Camp Jabulani herd!”

By Chloe Grotto

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