Written by Michelle Henley, Director, Co-Foundation & Principal Researcher at Elephants Alive
We have had the privilege of fitting collars and conducting collaring operations as sponsored gifts to special friends or family. We have also had people in ill health participate in collaring operations to capture important memories to carry them through difficult times. Recollaring Intwandamela represented a gift from Jeremy Higgs to his special friend Mike Berry who has been fighting pancreatic cancer. On this occasion we also had five Grandmothers (Gogos) from the community, each with a grandchild participate in the elephant collaring operation, something they had never done before. The Gogos were familiar with Intwandamela as he represented one of their favourite sightings during our monthly Ndlopfu Gogo program where we take Grandmothers to meet elephants and go camping with them in the bush as an immersive conservation experience. How could the intersection between a gentle giant, gracious grannies and the close connection between two friends not lead to an unforgettable day?
Intwandamela was first sighted in March 2004 and collared in November 2004. We have followed his footsteps for almost 20 years. We have watched his beautiful tusks grow with each passing month until his registration with the Kruger National Park as an emerging tusker. When you first sight Intwandamela he will leave an indelible impression on you. He is like a living museum telling the history of a bygone era where elephants of his size and enormous tusks were a common sighting. Today he represents a few of his kind, bearing witness to the sound conservation practices of the Associated Private Nature Resreves, where we continually strive to protect large, tusked bulls. A majestic sighting of Intwandamela is matched only by his calm and relaxed nature.
Mike Berry was first diagnosed with stage 3 pancreatic caner in October 2021 and completed 12 rounds of chemotherapy. After being diagnosed with stage 4 cancer a month later, he has endured more chemotherapy. Due to the long and deep friendship shared with Jeremy Higgs, an Ndlopfu Private Game Reserve Member from the Umbabat Private Nature Reserve, Mike and his family were part of today’s plans. The parallels between Mike and Intwandamela were already obvious as Mike’s beautiful nature, despite his hardship, shone through all he greeted with warmth and gratitude. Mike had lost a lot of body weight as with Intwandamela who had endured a prolonged dry season.
We gathered round to go through the usual safety briefs and explanations of the collaring procedures. The Gogos and children listened with interest and as we set off to start the operation, we were beckoned back by Leanette Sithole. The Gogos and their grandchildren all got off the game drive vehicle and Mike was asked to stand amid the circle we formed while holding hands. The ebb and flow of the prayers of the gracious grannies filled the air and seemed to hover above us like an eagle posed in flight. Hand in hand we represented the circle of life with young and old, ill and healthy all bound together to pay our respect to each other and nature. All blessed to live in the now with expectation and gratitude. We wiped the hot tears from our eyes to set about the routine of the collaring operation.
Mike, the Gogos and grandchildren got to stoke the silky tusks of the sleeping giant and feel his warm leathery skin. Smiles flashed across weathered faces when smelling the carrot-like breaths of the snoring giant. Little fingers traced the cracks on the soles of his feet. The time came for us to pull back and wake Intwandamela. His one leg had pressed against a stump while sleeping and seem numb while he lacked the usual strength to hoist himself up. We watched him try a couple of times in anticipation and growing concern. In the distance I heard the rising of the Gogos prayers start again like a gentle wave washing against the shore. All those with muscle and will under Dr. Ben Muller’s instruction helped push, pull and heave at Intwandalmela’s large frame who was now fully conscious. Jandré Coetzee managed to maneuverer the Timbavati 4×4 with a tow rope to add extra manpower. Intwandamela slowly rose to his feet like the phoenix from the flames. It didn’t take long for his younger askari who had been clued to his side for the past couple of months to gather to his left while another collared bull called Spencer, joined his right flank. Together they wandered off into the distance to see another day while many of the onlookers were again left wiping the tears from their cheeks. Yes, I am because you are. We all felt this Ubuntu principle in a palpable way. Intwandamela needed the help of his friends to get up and keep going. Mike Berry has his wife Liz to his left and Jeremy to his right with his children, friends and all of us cheering him on in the months to come.
With gratitude to Dr. Ben Muller, Gerry McDonald and Jandré Coetzee from the Timbabati Private Nature Reserve for ensuring a successful collaring operation. A special thank you to the Spirit Wildlife Foundation for covering Intwandamela’s monthly service fees. We continue to be blessed by the Gogos prayers and the efforts of a dedicated Elephants Alive team.