For many people living near Victoria Falls, wildlife is not viewed in a positive light. Many only ever see elephants when they raid their plots for vegetables, or carnivores when they are killing livestock. Even if the animals are not in conflict with humans, their sheer size and strength make people fearful of them, especially for those who live with few defences from wildlife – scanty shelter, no cars for transport and poor communication. This means that people in these communities constantly live on the frontline of survival. Human/wildlife conflict is part of everyday life for many rural villagers, and even urban dwellers in places such as Victoria Falls are often affected as wild animals are commonly seen in town, where green gardens and even domestic pets provide a lure for hungry wildlife.
Wild Horizons and the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust (VFWT) jointly host a weekly conservation education program in which we bring children from the surrounding areas to interact with our resident domesticated elephant and cheetah who act as wildlife ambassadors. A Wildlife ambassador is an animal that for various reasons may not be suitable for release back into the wild, and instead by sharing their rescue stories, act as ambassadors for their species in order to increase awareness of their plight in the wild.
Wild Horizons and the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust, host a weekly group of approximately twenty school children who interact with our wildlife ambassadors such as Sylvester the cheetah and Judge the vulture, and discuss the challenges with human wildlife conflict, poaching and poisoning. These children also get the opportunity to interact with the Wild Horizons’ elephant herd, and gain a unique insight into elephant behavior and the challenges being faced by wildlife throughout Africa, as we believe that education forms a vital part of our conservation efforts. Annually over a thousand schoolchildren are transported to our facility, and treated to an educational interaction.
It is amazing to see the shy and inquisitive nature of the children who have so many questions about the wildlife they live with. Many of them have misconceptions, often as a result of experiences they have encountered in their daily lives, and all of them are curious to learn more! During the discussion on wildlife a vital part of the conversation touches on tourism and the importance wildlife plays in bringing tourists, and therefore jobs to the local area. There is nothing more impactful than when the children see the animals up close and you can tell that the moments will last a lifetime. Ultimately these children will be responsible for the long-term sustainability of wildlife populations and natural resources. By working with children from a young age we aim to change people’s negative perceptions of wildlife.
SYLVESTER CHEETAH AMBASSADOR
Sylvester is an orphaned cheetah but by no means a pet – he is a habituated ‘Ambassador Cheetah’ who has had a fascinating journey. Sylvester was orphaned when his mother and siblings were killed by a lion. Fortunately a game scout rescued the cub and left him in the care of a National Parks warden and his wife. Sylvester was just two days old, his umbilical cord attached and his eyes still closed.
As Sylvester grew, he needed a home where he could have the space he desperately needs as a young adult cheetah. Release attempts with cheetahs in the past have mostly failed as these animals don’t survive unless they’ve been under the care of their mother for the first two years of their lives, being taught how to hunt and fend for themselves. Being on the endangered species list, the National Parks & Wildlife Authority of Zimbabwe has been involved with his welfare from the outset and have entrusted Sylvester’s care to the VFWT.
Sylvester’s home is within the Victoria Falls National Park, where he has a team of handlers who ensure his every need is met. As a “cheetah ambassador” he and his team are focused on educating local school children and visiting tourists on the plight of endangered animals. Cheetahs are the most vulnerable of the big cats, and their numbers in the wild are sadly decreasing. With conservation projects and educational programmes on the rise, hopefully these beautiful animals will start getting the help that they so desperately need.
WILD HORIZONS ELEPHANT SANCTUARY
Wild Horizon’s involvement with Elephants began in 1992, when the company was offered 4 elephants in need of a new home. ‘Jock’, ‘Jack’, ‘Jumbo’ and ‘Miz Ellie’ were orphaned in culling operations in the 1980’s, which was the recognised means of population reduction at the time. These 4 elephants had been sold to a local farmer, and after spending a few years on his farm they had outgrown the property and a more suitable home than a commercial farm was needed for them.
The Wild Horizons Wildlife Sanctuary was created, close to Victoria Falls, and in a very short time the reputation of the Sanctuary as a safe haven for elephants in distress was established.
As the Wildlife Sanctuary developed, more elephants that had suffered the same fate arrived on the property, as word spread. All these animals were juvenile orphaned elephants aged between 8 and 12 years, and were in need of rehabilitation and a safe refuge to call home. The National Parks and Wildlife Management Authority had also accepted the Sanctuary as the place to send orphaned or injured elephants, and in a very short time, the Sanctuary was inundated with elephants in need of rescue.
It has always been the desire of Wild Horizons to return as many elephants as possible to the wild, and in this we have had both successes and failures to date.
- In 2002 we decided to move a herd of 5 elephants to Pilanesberg National Park in South Africa, where they furthered the educational and guest interaction work started in Zimbabwe. 2 calves were born to the female of the group and in 2015 we decided that this herd was ready to return to the wild. A suitable reserve was located and the 7 elephants were successfully released back into the wild where they have no further interaction or involvement with humans. We continue to monitor these elephants daily by satellite communication.
- Of the original herd of elephants we had been entrusted with 4 elephant bulls, which have also been released into Hwange National Park as well as the Matetsi Safari Area within Zimbabwe.
- A further 5 elephants are on a “soft” release programme within our Sanctuary property where they have no further contact with humans and are encouraged to avoid buildings, vehicles and people. Once satisfied that these animals will not seek out habitation they will also be released permanently into the wild.
Of the remaining elephants under our care, 8 are used to educate guests and conduct safaris, raising funding for the continued operation of the Sanctuary, with the remaining animals being juvenile orphans which have been entrusted to us by our Parks Authority. They follow the rest of the herd in their daily activities.
There will always be injured or orphaned elephants as a result of human-wildlife conflict and the Wildlife Sanctuary will continue to play a prominent role in this regard, whilst ultimately striving to ensure all animals within our care eventually return to a wild existence wherever possible.
Source: Wild Horizons