Nature’s Great Masterpiece … the Elephant

Elephants, in sets of three, lumbered into my consciousness last Friday.

Here in the Zambezi Valley where the parched winter days are slowly desiccating the leaves and grasses; where bush fires are randomly lit in the hope of speeding up the succulent shoots of grass; where the lack of food induces the migration of wild animals looking for greener pastures, it’s elephant time.

An elephant family.

For tourists their arrival is a wondrous thing; for farmers and villagers their arrival triggers a traumatic stress disorder. For the elephants, ha! A farm such as ours is like coming upon a Whole Foods or Food Lovers’ Market in the middle of the Kalahari Desert. Just imagine being the hungry elephant that first smells an oasis of growing wheat sitting alongside laden banana trees?

The way Chris has told me stories about the challenges of keeping elephants out of his crops in the past, it’s as if the animals plan their excursions as we would at boarding school when going on a secret raid to the tuck shop. It’s like they gather, say, at Tree IV, a kilometer west of the designated entry point on to the farm, where Chief Standard-Bearer asks, “Okay, who’s in? … You? Good. You’re big enough to knock down fence poles. … And you, you’re clever enough to unlock the gate. Yes, yes! I hear you! … Dude, if you’re so desperate not to lose out on the action then we’re volunteering you to be pushed into the electric fence so the rest of us can step over it. Cool? Good. … We have a plan!”

There they wait until under the cover of darkness, which is good if you’re trying to sneak around without being seen, but it’s a problem when you have appalling eyesight. Which elephants do. Especially at night.

Wrinkly bottom.

Last Friday night three elephants were seen salivating alongside our farm’s boundary fence near where the wheat is growing. Chris and I were sitting having a drink when a sudden explosion broke the silence of the night.

“Elephants,” said Chris.

His handheld radio crackled into life to let the farm know that a tractor driver, armed with fire crackers, was making his way to the wheat circle where the elephants were trying to enter the farm.  Pity the poor driver, a role Chris has played on many a night. His job is to drive straight at the invaders, blinding them with his headlights while exploding fire crackers in all directions in the hope they will turn around and flee. These massive creatures eat, on average, 660 pounds in 18 hours. If they chose to ignore the driver, an entire crop would be stomped and chomped in one go.

It is for this reason Zambian villagers living along the Zambezi River regard elephants as oversized vermin. For these people a visit by elephants to their small fields could eliminate meals from their tables for the whole of winter. It’s literally life or death for some of them. Last year a wounded elephant that swam across from Zimbabwe, fleeing poachers, killed three villagers in three separate incidents near our farm. The first woman was tending her maize crop, the second collecting firewood, and the third was busy chasing birds out of his sorghum crop.

A baby ele suckling.

It’s a tricky dichotomy, one where solutions are far from absolute. Nothing inspires more awe in me than seeing an elephant close-up. They are magnificent, intelligent animals that, while probably having the single largest following on social media today, are increasingly threatened by poachers because of a flourishing ivory trade among the growing middle classes in the East.

Two years ago an elephant was poached for its ivory alongside our bush airstrip. When it was later found by passers-by, two lions were on top of it. When we went to take a look, all we saw were streams of blood-soaked Zambian women walking away from the carcass with bowls piled high with elephant meat balanced on their heads, smiling broadly because they had just been gifted a free cache of much-needed protein to feed their families. On this occasion not even the vultures got a look in.

When we travel into Livingstone we are lucky to drive through the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park. Now that the bush has died back and been burnt, it’s easier to see the wild animals and it’s not uncommon to bump into big herds of elephants crossing the road. It’s a sight that floors me every time, with joy and foreboding. It’s such a relief to see so many at one time, but is it illusory? While I read story upon story of elephant populations being decimated all over Africa, Zimbabwean friends of ours across the river in Victoria Falls swear that their Zambezi National Park is heaving with elephants.

Here in Zambia we’re not so sure. When Chris first bought this farm in 2002 he and his workers waged nightly battles with herds of elephants in an attempt to keep them out of his crops during the hungry months. Last year we never had one incursion. On Friday three elephants contemplated a raid on our boundary, but were turned away by headlights from a tractor that exploded loudly every few minutes.

The most efficient of Mongongo nut foragers.

Riding out on horses with two friends earlier that same Friday morning, we followed the huge oval footprints of an elephant up a dirt path for some of the way. It was a heartening, if not slightly alarming, sight. It’s what elephants do to me: while I scanned the bush to make sure a gigantic bull on musth wasn’t going to run us over, I was overcome by the privilege of living in a place where elephants still roam wild.  When later in the day I read about our dear friend Roxy Danckwerts’ courageous rescue of three young elephants in Zimbabwe, all I wanted to do was help her in some way.

Roxy, with the support of her husband, Craig, and a team of dedicated helpers, founded a wildlife sanctuary 15 years ago on the outskirts of Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare. Wild is Life, Grand Zimbabwe is, in Roxy’s words, “a work in progress … an ongoing evolution happening with the passing of time and maturity of spirit … a fusion of humanity and wildlife.”

Originally, the Zimbabwe Elephant Nursery (ZEN), a subsidiary of Wild is Life, was set up only for milk-dependent elephant calves. Roxy has inspired thousands on social media with her stories about Moyo, the first undernourished, tiny elephant calf she rescued after he was abandoned by his herd. (Watch how far Moyo has come in the video at the end of this post.) Now, with the sudden arrival of three new young elephants — taken in at the request of Zimbabwe’s Parks & Wildlife Authority — the elephant nursery has been turned into an appropriate first-stage rehabilitation boma. This has taken money, and lots of it.

Today I’m appealing to those readers compelled by Roxy’s commitment, and inspired by Wild is Life, to consider donating even a small amount of money to this groundbreaking organization. It’s very easy, the details of which can be found at the bottom of the page when you click on this link. I thank you in advance for your consideration. Every little bit will help.

Annabel Hughes Aston is a writer and an award-winning chef in Livingstone, Zambia. She is the creator of "bush gourmet" cuisine.


  • Another great piece Bella ….. illustrating the extraordinary life you lead up there. I love that you’ve woven Rox’s elephant story into it too.
    I don’t know if you’ve heard about the success Kruger and other parks down here have had with keeping elephants off agricultural crops with bees. They establish hives along boundaries, and the eles won’t come anywhere near them xox

    • Thank you for your sweet comment, Bridgey. I hadn’t heard about the Kruger experiments and will tell Chris. What a terrific idea! Thanks for the heads-up! xo

  • Thanks for this – love the photos. So pleased Chris’ elephants now down on paper as everything suggests elephants are in trouble – that they’re fading from the map of Africa. This graphic is quite interesting:
    and here’s another statement from Bloomberg specifically about Zimbabwe’s elephant population that explains the Hwange numbers:

    • Thanks so much for this, Georgie … I can’t wait to read all the links. I know how much this issue means to you, and I look forward to staying in touch. x

    • Hey Georgie, one more thing I remembered from the conversation with my Vic Falls-based friends who said that the Zambezi National Park was heaving with elephants: the whole area was overseen by a very efficient anti-poaching effort.

  • What a great article! Can I assume you took all the beautiful photos? Where were they taken?

    • Thank you for your kind comment, Cynthia. Yes, I did take the photographs …. last year at Elephant Encounter, just upriver from us.

  • What an honour to have these great creatures visit your farm – sorry Chris about the damage they do! How lucky are you to even see them in the wild like this when in a couple of generations they could be gone for good. Our greatest viewing in New Zealand is a possum!!
    Loved that post Annabel and good credit for Roxy too. Well done as always. x

    • Thanks so much, Louise. It is indeed a massive privilege to be interacting with these animals the way we do. Hey! You have the kiwi in New Zealand … as well as lots of other birds and critters you can’t find anywhere else in the whole world!

  • And we complain about rabbits and pigeons eating our crops! Elephants are truly magnificent animals though I wouldn’t want to play host to them.

    • It takes pest control to a whole new level … literally! Thank you for your interest, Anne. I love your blog! All the best to you, Annabel

  • Fantastic post Annabel!

    • Thank you so much, Di! A fantastic subject, to be sure!

  • großartige Artikel! ich nehme an, grüße Überraschung, all die schönen Fotos auch

  • Reblogged this on nz.

    • Thank you so much for your support and interest! All the best to you, Annabel

      • I thank them, nature is so much and wish werklich a great time in Africa .where untroubled and unchanged, man see people with great soul into it, much success
        and greetings to their family of Salah from Berlin,
        ps. I hope the drinking water problems in have cross …

  • Magnificent photos. How interesting. How sad.

    • Thanks, Michelle. Yes … no one knows today how the story of the African elephant will end. I am hoping it will be happy, but it’s not likely.

  • A lovely post. My husband and I took our trip of a lifetime 6 years ago when we visited Tanzania for 2 weeks, followed by a week in Rwanda. No shooting, except from cameras. It was life changing. Jambo!

    • Thank you, chef mimi. I’ve never been to Tanzania or Rwanda, but have many friends who just loved their safaris in both countries. Lucky you! Hopefully one day we will make it up there …


Write a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.