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Paying the Last Respect

For this years' World Elephant Day, we asked our field staff to share their most memorable elephant experiences. Here are their stories.

Hugo's story: I am very fortunate to have had many special moments with elephants during my 23 years in conservation. While writing this I can see 12 bulls very relaxed in the riverbed in front of our house. There is something peaceful having elephants around. I try and go cycling whenever I get time, and will always encounter elephants on these rides, which makes it so much more special, and often helps to re-energize tired legs. Unfortunately my encounters with elephants are not always special nor peaceful.
Hugo van der Westhuizen The purpose of these very unpleasant encounters is to try and show some last respect to an elephant that died unnecessary. Hugo van der Westhuizen
One such encounter occurred yesterday. After 2 hours walk we started to see the first vultures. Then the buzzing of flies around eyes, ears and nostrils, and that incredible smell that only a dead elephant can cause. This time a sub-adult animal with probably only 8 kg of ivory hacked out of its face. This specific animal was shot by poachers 4 days prior to our visit. The patrol group heard the gunshot and an immediate follow up was done, tracking the poachers over difficult terrain, but due to the close proximity of the Mozambique border the poachers managed to escape across the border within a few minutes .
I am now with our Area Manager, Evious Mpofu, next to the carcass. Not much is said. The purpose of these very unpleasant encounters is to try and show some last respect to an elephant that died unnecessary, and also to show some support to the rangers that are working incredibly hard trying to prevent this happening. Then just as the stench becomes unbearable, and before we embarked on the 2 hour journey back to the vehicle, we find a shady spot under a Mopane tree, to discuss the circumstances. We need to constantly find ways to improve. Next time the poachers can not be so lucky.
Hugo van der Westhuizen is the Project Leader of the FZS Gonarezhou Conservation Project in Zimbabwe. During his work, he regularly encounters elephants.

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