by Nancy McDaniel

The first thing you notice about him is, of course, his immense size. But then you see his eyes: lovely, kind and liquid. His name is Jabulani, which is Zulu for “Happiness.” He is an adolescent male elephant, whom I met and fell in love with in Botswana.

An Elephant in My Former Life?
I have often said that I believe I either was an elephant in a former life or will be one in my next. I am hopelessly attracted to them. They are intelligent animals, with a strong and complex social and family structure. When left undisturbed, at their best they embody many of the characteristics I most admire in humans: loyalty, sensitivity and gentleness. I personally believe they have a sense of humor as well.

Who Are These Critters?
It’s a long story of who this Trio of Elephants and Their Humans are and how they came to be together in Botswana. The complete story is best told on the website of Doug and Sandi Groves’ Foundation: Living with Elephants ( or in the Animal Planet video A Herd of Their Own. This article, however, is about me and how I came to meet and love them. On my last trip to Botswana in November, I spent three days at Chief’s Camp on beautiful Chief’s Island in the Okavango Delta. It is a wonderful place to stay, but its strongest selling point is the opportunity to spend half a day with The Trio.

The Trio consists of three semi-habituated elephants; some would call them “tame” but they are not; they will forever be elephants living in the wild who are well mannered and used to happily interacting with humans. The male is Jabulani (Zulu for “Happiness”), who is 14 years old and huge; he stands 2.9 meters at the shoulder. I can’t do the math well, but he is really, really big in any numeric system! The female with whom he grew up is Thembi (short for Thembigela, “Trust” in Zulu.) The third elephant, an older female, is 23 year old Morula, named after a lovely indigenous tree, which the elephants particularly like.

Their humans are Doug and Sandi Groves, an American and South African respectively, who “adopted’ the elephants after they were orphaned by culls in the Kruger Park in South Africa. They have raised Jabulani and Thembi since they were about 2 years old and they took Morula in several years later.

Doug and Sandi are in their second decade of devoting their lives to these animals and insuring that both visitors and local people understand how important they are and how best to interact with them and protect their future. But that’s enough of the background; please read more on their website if you are interested. The rest of this article is about the wonderful time I spent with these most magnificent of creatures.

“Nancy, Meet Jabulani”
I have been around a lot of elephants, as I am lucky enough to travel to southern and east Africa quite frequently. But I always meet them when I am in a large vehicle, never on foot. I have had a few nervous encounters with them, either being “mock-charged” or charged (when you are being threatened by a three-ton creature and you are in a one-ton vehicle, it doesn’t do much good to debate whether the charge is “mock” or “real”; you just respect the elephant, his dominance and his right to be where you are.) So I have a very healthy respect for elephants, as well as a little bit of fear of them. But, at the same time, I love them desperately. Several years ago, in fact, I spent two weeks helping to gather data on elephants in Zimbabwe on an Earthwatch project. So when I had a chance to spend some time “up close and personal” with these three elephants, I eagerly signed up.

Doug came to camp to meet me and, upon chatting a little, we discovered that the elephant researcher with whom I worked in Zimbabwe is a good friend of his. In fact, they came to southern Africa together to relocate some elephants. Joe stayed awhile doing research and then left; Doug has made his home in various spots in southern Africa ever since.

We drove a mile or so and, in the distance, saw the three elephants walking with KK, one of Doug’s elephant guardians. My heart raced as I realized that I was really going to spend time with these beautiful animals. We hopped out of the vehicle and slowly walked up to Jabulani. He eagerly came to greet Doug and was properly hospitable to me.

Jabu the Hat!
Though not full-grown, Jabu is so tall that Doug can stand under his chin. He’s an extraordinarily handsome fellow (Jabu, not Doug, though he’s quite attractive too).

I was close enough to see details of an elephant that I’d never noticed before… like the white ring around his eye and the rough texture of his skin.

I was able to touch the inside of his leg and the back of his ear, which is soft and velvety, not rough like his trunk.

I was in awe of him and I kept grinning like a lunatic.

I am always chastised for not wearing a hat when I am on safari, but fortunately I brought one with me on this day.

Fortunate, because Jabu likes to take hats off his visitors and put them on his head, then put the hat back on its proper head.

(Jaba the Hut? Nope, Jabu the Hat…with apologies to Star Wars) Quite charming, and very funny.

In typical animal fashion, he also likes to smell people.

I have a very funny picture of Jabu with his trunk in the general vicinity of my crotch, in which I am giggling like a mad woman (well, it tickled).

Doug’s suggestion: “Jabu, behave.”

Jabu also makes wonderful sounds, some on cue.

He squeaks and rumbles and trumpets and does this “raspberry” sound like when you blow on your hand.

He also makes what, to me, almost sounds like a purring sound of contentment.

Tiny Thembi
Then Doug led Jabu over to Thembi, a petite little female.

I know it sounds insane because she too is quite large, but she really looks dainty next to Jabu, even though they are the same age.

She is described as being very coy and sweet.

It is absolutely clear how each of the three elephants has its own distinct personality.

Doug taught me the cue word, “Beak,” where I gently held the palm of my hand just touching her trunk. This is the way to lead the elephant trio when you want them to walk with you.

You’re not holding the trunk, just touching and they follow you as you walk. It’ sort of like a magnet between hand and trunk. It was a magical moment. Me, leading an elephant on a walk!

The Sweet and Slightly Shy Morula
I finally met Morula, the eldest of the elephants, a cow half again older than the other two. Shy and impossibly sweet, she became my favorite (but don’t let the other two know). Imagine being close enough to an elephant to realize that the pattern on her forehead was bumpy and very different from the other two. That discovery filed me with joy, just to know how well I was getting to know each of them. Morula has a stumpy tail too, probably due to an injury many years ago. I was amazed to see that this huge, seemingly thick-skinned animal can be tortured by tsetse flies, even drawing blood in a tender spot on the softer inside of her leg.

After we all spent some time together, we started to walk, because the elephants were ready to roam. Doug had the ellies holding trunks and tails as we ambled off into the woods. This is the way days are spent in the world of Doug and Sandi’s world. Following the elephants, going where they go, letting them eat and swim and play, all the while continuing their education and the continual building of trust. There are lovely things for the elephants to eat here, lots of tender green plants, wild asparagus with soft tender leaves.

“Teddy Bears’ Picnic”
And then there was our lunch. We strolled over to a stunning shady spot across from a pond. The Stanley’s Camp staff had set up a proper luncheon table for the humans. We had a lovely lunch and I celebrated the magic of this day with a glass of South African wine.

And I just kept smiling. The elephants had large bowls of “elephant chow” (actually horse pellets), while we had our meal. Then they all went swimming and joyously frolicked in the pond, splashing and playing.

At one point, Jabu was completely submerged, with just one leg sticking up in the air, and using his trunk as a snorkel. They reminded me so much of kids playing in a swimming pool. If I could have heard them underwater, I’ll bet they were doing an elephant version of laughing and maybe a little ‘‘motor boat”. I was so in awe of the moment that I actually forgot to take photographs, which is quite an unusual occurrence for me.

After lunch (ours), the elephants got out of the pool, even without Life Guard Doug blowing a whistle to signal “Everybodyouttathepool!” Then they had their post-swim treats of bales of alfalfa. We went over to be with them for a final visit. The elephants are so beautiful when they are all wet, sleek, dark and shiny. And they seem so refreshed. Morula touched my T-shirt with her trunk and got me muddy – I was such a happy mess! This is when I noticed the different texture on her forehead and was again amazed at being close enough to really see these things. Doug asked Morula to open her mouth to show me her teeth. At age 23, her 5th set is starting to come in (elephants get 6 sets of teeth in a lifetime). And then I got to sit on her front left foot! She gave me a real elephant kiss. (I remember when I was a child, I did this silly thing of pulling a long sweater sleeve over my hand and then balling up my hand inside. I would go up to someone and touch their cheek that way and say “elephant kiss!” and they would giggle. I still do that sometimes and it always makes people laugh. I don’t know why, but it makes me laugh too.) This elephant kiss, the real thing, was so sweet, with Morula’s warm breath, her kiss kind of slobbery, wet and tickly on my cheek. I laughed and laughed. I felt like I was about 8 years old, all giggly and breathless. How magical and delightful was this moment!

I felt exhilarated and sad at the same time. Saying good bye to Doug and The Trio was very difficult, as I didn’t know if I would ever see them again. I arrived back at camp, dirty and messy and blissfully happy with a goofy grin on my face. I knew this was a high point of my life.

Later in the day, when I finally was able to put my thoughts into words in a camp journal for Doug and Sandi, this is what I said:

“Words seldom fail me. Being an avid talker and a pretty fair writer, I am generally quite good with them. They have all been said in this book in the previous pages: ‘experience of a lifetime,’ ‘wonderful,’ ‘awesome,’ ‘special.’ I have few words to add, but ‘humbling’ comes most to mind. And ‘magical’, as well. I am humbled by the very presence, gentleness, curiosity, and intelligence of this most wonderful of all animals. So, too, am I humbled by your unbounded dedication to your three magnificent charges. I’m not religious but I must believe that there is a reason why you were sent for Jabu, Morula, and Thembi and that no one could do it better.

You inspire me. I don’t think I could be as selfless or dedicated to anything or anyone as you are to these amazing three. As you know, I have been in awe of and awed by elephants for a long time and find my life perpetually entwined with ellies. Perhaps there is a reason I came here and met you and you Triumvirate. Maybe so. I know I will never forget this day, nor you nor they. My support will be tangible financially as well as intangible emotionally. I will ‘spread the word.’ Remember when I said I either was an elephant in a previous life or else will be one in a future life? Or both? I think I will choose to come back as one of yours, called Kabusinze, ‘one who splits the night in two’. Stay well and always walk safely.”

Not The End, Not Just Yet
As I finished my journal entry, I began to quietly weep. And I said to myself, ‘I have to go back again tomorrow.’ So I asked the camp manager if I could, knowing full well that sometimes the second time you do something isn’t as good as the first time. I knew that there would always be other game drives in the African Bush for me, but I wasn’t sure if I would ever see my Ellies again. Barbs got in touch with Doug and he said he would be delighted to have me visit again.

Much of the second morning was the same, except that I was even more comfortable with the elephants than I was the previous day. I may have imagined it because I wanted to, but I believed they remembered me. And, like Sally Field, I think they really liked me. I know that they respond to and are conscious of kindness and gentleness. And I believe they knew how much I cared about and admired them.

I developed a special place in my heart for Morula, because she had a much tougher early life than the other two. She had been understandably anxious and neither trusting nor open when Doug and Sandi first met her and now she is the sweetest girl, who has blossomed under Doug’s gentle hand. She is a strong and kind elephant, come up through adversity to be strong in her gentleness and gentle in her strength. Morula is my kinda lady!

Watching the elephants swim at lunchtime was again a treat. Of the three, Jabu seems to love the water the most. This time he submerged himself and, at one point, we just saw a giant Ellie Butt sticking out of the water. He and Thembi got a little frisky and were either just playing or actually were mating. (We’ll watch for a baby in 22 months or so to find out for sure.) Judy, an Australian woman who was with us, commented that watching goldfish swimming in a bowl is relaxing, but watching elephants swim in a watering hole is way better!

This time I not only got an elephant kiss from both Morula and Thembi, but Doug asked me if I wanted to kiss Morula back. So I got to gently kiss her just above her large and beautiful left eye. (I am insanely jealous of her long curly eyelashes, by the way.) She silently and intently gazed right at me. Of course that made me cry.

I continue to be humbled by and in love with these beautiful animals. They (and Doug) amaze me with their gentleness, kindness, intelligence and sweetness. Doug is unfailingly kind and patient with them and they respond in kind. His voice even has a smile when he speaks to them. “Thembi, all right!” I never imagined in my life that I would be holding an elephant’s trunk and kissing its eyelid, while being totally and utterly unafraid. And feeling remarkably serene.

I wept when I said good bye to them. I’ll hope to see them again someday. This time, I am sure that I will.

My journal entry to Doug and Sandi from the second day:

“Kabusinze again! I had to come back—I figured that there will be many more game drives and mokoro rides in my life but maybe not another morning with The Trio and their friends. My note, this time, is to the Ellies. I always wanted to fall in love in the African Bush, or be in love in the Bush. Now I am—with Morula, Thembi, and Jabu—they have touched my life. And now I can’t imagine being away from them, tho’ I will be soon. I cried when I said goodbye and kissed Morula’s lovely left eyelid. I love them all but I think she is my special favorite. She had such a rough start in life and with Doug’s love and kindness and gentle hand and voice she has turned into a lovely, well-adjusted and happy girl. I admire her especially and am proud she evolved so spectacularly. I will remember her—and her friends—fondly and forever.”

There are few words left. I have been fortunate to have done many wonderful things in my life, many of which I say were “the best thing I have ever done.” They weren’t. This was. These Gentle Giants have changed my life for the better; I will always treasure my short time with them. Stay well, my friends.

1 Comment

  1. I found this deeply moving and it brought tears. Tears because I also have a deep and abiding love for elephants, but whenever I think about them now I can’t help thinking of the terrible slaughter that is going on .. it breaks my heart. I hope the leaders of these countries, or a larger international body, will act soon to try and put an end to this unspeakable horror. On a personal level, my one dream in life is to one day have the opportunity to meet elephants in their natural habitat.
    Thank you Nancy for sharing your experience and writing about it so movingly.

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