Destinations, South Africa

Walking With African Elephants

February 12, 2014

Today’s my mom’s birthday. And Abraham Lincoln’s. And…a sweet little friend of mine named Amelia: a little girl who happens to love elephants very much.

When Ted and I were in South Africa in 2012, little 1+ year old Amelia saw pictures of elephants in my Instagram feed, and her mom told me about her excitement.

I’d intended to write a story about the facility we visited and their elephant program, but after the day’s experience and the additional research Ted and I did about the system of elephant “rehabilitation” they purported to provide (and after the fruitless series of emails we exchanged with the operators, asking for more transparency in their operation), neither of us could in good conscience recommend the place.

I ended up writing a different post (The Questionable Ethics of Wildlife Tourism in South Africa), and later on in Asia we steered clear of animal-related tourism, including the famous Asian Elephant parks. We’d become awfully jaded, tired of petting zoos masquerading as medical centers, tired of tourists buying into the bull.

Yet, there was something undeniably amazing about standing next to those mighty animals that day in South Africa…

This year, I’m dedicating a little collection of elephant photos to Miss Amelia on her third birthday.

Just like an elephant, Amelia never forgets! She came with her mom and sister to visit Lucie and me a few weeks ago, and asked for a particular stuffed animal that she’d only seen once before, last summer, tucked away in an old cradle (it was Ted’s threadbare little childhood lambie that he saved for our Peach). I went and found it (in it’s new home, buried in the nursery closet until Lucie’s older) and brought it out for her to play with. Sure enough, that was the little Velveteen-Rabbit-esque animal she remembered…well worn, well loved.

I’m crossing my fingers and hoping Amelia will remember those early pictures of the elephants and enjoy today’s snapshots, too!

Walking with African elephants – note, again, please see The Questionable Ethics of Wildlife Tourism in South Africa for our more candid thoughts on places like these…

Leathery ears and crinkled skin…

Dust baths…

Feeding on fruit slices…

Weathered and worn…

For as incredibly majestic as the animals were, the shameful bit of the experience was feeling like false pretenses were in play.

Perhaps with honest presentation of the facts, we would’ve more wholeheartedly enjoyed the visit with the impressive pachyderms and been willing to recommend it to others following in our footsteps along the Cape on their visits to South Africa.

As it stands, perhaps I can offer the next-best recommendation?

A visit to the Oregon Zoo!

If you’re going to support wildlife tourism, seek out reputable places.

I interned for a summer with the horticulture staff at the Oregon Zoo and got to see plenty of behind-the-scenes peeks at the animal care, and I’m looking forward to taking my little Lucie to the zoo when she’s old enough to enjoy it.

The Oregon Zoo was founded in 1888 and has “the most successful zoo elephant breeding program in the world.” Baby elephant Lily was born while we were in New Zealand and turned one last fall; this cute two minute video shows off her first 12 months of life. (Hope you love this, too, Amelia!)

Lastly, since we’re on the topic of babies and elephants…I’ll leave you with my favorite lullaby of the past year: a new cover of the old song Baby Mine, as originally seen on the classic elephant movie, Dumbo.

Happy Birthday, Amelia! (And mom! And Abraham Lincoln!)

And…six months from now (August 12th), happy World Elephant Day!

“World Elephant Day asks you to experience elephants in non-exploitive and sustainable environments where elephants can thrive under care and protection.”

Have you had a good (or bad) experience with captive wildlife? If you could stand next to an elephant in person and hold its trunk and pet its ears, would you?

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  • Reply Maria Falvey (@acceleratedstal) February 12, 2014 at 10:56 am

    Sweet animals and I love the added touch… the lullaby.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians March 18, 2014 at 6:53 pm

      I’m so glad you got the chance to listen to the lullaby, Maria! It’s one of my very favorites. Such a nice remix of the classic.

  • Reply caedmonrhys February 12, 2014 at 10:57 am

    Hi! Great pix of elephants! I wonder if you have more. Reason I ask is I’m starting a blog with an elephant theme and would love to acquire some images…Lemme know. Thanks! :)

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians March 18, 2014 at 6:54 pm

      Hey! Apologies for the delay. (You know what it’s like re-prioritizing life after a baby, yeah?) I don’t have very many others. Maybe send me an email at and let me know what you’re after, though?

  • Reply Susan Buck February 15, 2014 at 11:09 am

    An odd series of connections came to my mind while reading this:

    Did you remember that an English teacher shared literature, history and encouraged social activism with a prince who when he became the king of Siam freed slaves, changed his country’s name to Thailand (free-land), and offered to send Abraham Lincoln elephants to start a herd in America for the Civil War effort? What a response to Anna Leonowen’s teaching of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin! There you have it –English teacher (like me), elephants, Lincoln (fellow birthday boy) and social justice. And to think that although Lincoln graciously declined the offer of pachyderms, our zoo started just 24 years later, and today here in America it’s world renown for elephant breeding,while my eldest pupil has grown up to tell the world in beautiful ways about history and encourage social justice. The story of humanity truly is interwovwen, repetative and ironic.

    I think this is an apt example of what Mark Twain meant when he said “history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

    Loved this, Bethany. Thanks for a wonderous birthday tribute.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians March 18, 2014 at 6:57 pm

      I loved your comment, mom :) I’m glad for the interwoven layers and so very glad that you taught me to appreciate pulling on threads to find out where they lead… I’m forever grateful that you taught me to have a curious mind and a soft heart. Love you. xx

  • Reply Heather February 16, 2014 at 8:15 am

    My girls liked these pics and video too- thanks! Too bad you got such an icky feeling from that place, but I always appreciated your thoughtfulness in recommending attractions that are ethically sound.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians March 18, 2014 at 7:00 pm

      Aw, I’m happy that your girls got to enjoy the pictures. Yes, it was such a disappointment to realize that this place’s projected image wasn’t quite aligned with what was actually going on… All the more reason to celebrate the better spots!

      Give Penny and Ramona a squeeze from me! Miss you guys xx

  • Reply Tiffany February 28, 2014 at 7:38 am

    Hey, I have a question I wanted to ask you regarding your blog. If you could send me an email when you get this, I’d really appreciate it. Thanks!

  • Reply backpackerreport February 28, 2014 at 11:02 am

    this makes me so gutted that i didn’t see any elephants while i was in south africa! where exactly did you walk with elephants? i didn’t see any mention of it on this page.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians March 18, 2014 at 7:31 pm

      Hey there! Thanks for stopping by and thanks for your comment. We intentionally didn’t name the place we visited; we felt like giving them additional press was in conflict with our stance on wildlife tourism.

      While they represented themselves as a rehabilitation project, they had no demonstrable plan outlined for releasing these animals from captivity, and the more they were pressed for relevant information, the less they wanted to share.

      I’d recommend heading instead to Addo Elephant National Park. :)

      • Reply backpackerreport March 20, 2014 at 1:27 am

        ahhh ok i understand then why you didn’t share. although on the flip side, by telling people to not go here for these same reasons people who know to avoid this place. 2 sides of a coin i guess!

  • Reply Wilson Ng March 6, 2014 at 9:26 am

    You can walk with Asian Elephants in Malaysia and Thailand. =)

  • Reply Marcello Arrambide March 28, 2014 at 7:06 am

    Adorable! It’s a lovely dedication. A late happy birthday greeting to your mom and little Amelia!

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