Shad’s big adventure (part 1)

Its nose is much longer and stronger than mine although mine is better at picking up scent, its ears are much bigger and flappier than mine although mine can swivel, and its tail is much lengthier and bristlier than mine although mine can puff up when I’m startled.  You’d be hard pushed to find any similarities between my furry feline form and the gracious grey bulk of an elephant, but my fascination with these gentle giants from the elephantidae family go back a long way.  It could be the delicate balance of strength and gentility that intrigues me, or the emotional intelligence and supportive social activities of the herd that is so beguiling.  To satisfy my elephant infatuation, I watch nature documentaries on the television with John and I follow the stories of the Asian elephants rescued by the animal welfare charity Wildlife SOS in India.

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Most recently the story of Rhea, a 53 year old circus elephant kept chained to one concrete spot unless she was performing unnatural tricks for her ignorant audience.  Rhea lived with 2 other elephants called Mia and Sita for decades and would have formed strong emotional bonds with these elephants while they were trapped together in those miserable conditions.  Mia and Sita were rescued in November last year by Wildlife SOS and taken to their Elephant Care and Conservation Centre in Mathura near New Delhi but due to legal complications, Rhea was left behind.  Alone for 5 months without her best friends she must have doubted she would ever see them again but Wildlife SOS worked tirelessly and never forgot the promise they made to her to return and secure her freedom.  Finally in April the elephant ambulance made the 350km trip back to Tamil Nadu to rescue Rhea and reunite her with her companions.  I remember watching the video of that magical moment when she saw her ‘sisters’ again, their heads came slowly together and their trunks intertwined, eyes twinkling with delight.  The 3 elephants in these pictures are Mia, Sita and Rhea and they enjoy spending every moment of their days together as they recover from their years of sorrow and pain, deprived of food and water and beaten into submission.  Now they have shade and sand, food and veterinary care, and their own private paddling pool.

Most of the elephants at the Wildlife SOS Elephant Care Centre are taken for long walks every day by their keepers where they can be free to explore their surroundings and experience soft earth under their feet often for the first time in years.  Unfortunately most of the elephants have painful foot conditions that require daily treatment because of the abnormal lives they endured before.  Rhea would have spent years on her feet never being allowed to lay down which might be why I love to look at the picture of her laying by her sand pile with her 2 friends Mia and Sita beside her, able to relax and take a snooze for the first time in decades.  She snores by the way!

Looking after the elephants is hard work – preparing 25 kg of fruit and 100 kg of fodder per elephant per day takes an awful lot of chopping, bundling and carting around.  The keepers also hoist bunches of fodder up to the rafters to mimic the trees and the elephants love to stretch their trunks high to grab the juiciest bits.  Phoolkali puts the huge reeds of grass into her mouth with her trunk and strips the leaves off which she chews happily while she discards the tough stem.  She also enjoys sugar cane treats along with her walking buddy Asha who also loves peanuts.  Talking of peanuts, 6 year old Peanut (seen here with her devoted keeper) is the youngest elephant to be rescued by Wildlife SOS also from a circus, although many of the elephants were liberated from desperate lives as begging elephants or tourist attractions, being ridden by holidaymakers who clearly had no idea of the monstrous treatment an elephant receives in order to become compliant.  Now these magnificent and forgiving animals have a chance to be who they are, to get wet every day and flick sand on their backs and bellies, to chomp on thirst-quenching fruit and snuggle with their friends.

Shad does the West Midland Safari Park

Nothing melts the heart like a baby elephant as you can see from these lovely pics of Sutton, the first baby elephant to be born at West Midland Safari Park in its 41 year history.  At birth, African elephants can weigh 100 kgs and stand at 3 feet tall, growing anything up to 12,000 kg (14,000 lbs) and 13 feet tall at full maturity, making them the largest land animals on earth.  As John and I watched this little lad playing and bonding with his mum and auntie, I felt a huge sense of sadness at the fate of many of his cousins roaming the wilds of Africa.  Nevertheless, it was a privilege to see him flap his ears and practice using his trunk to grab branches and swing it in the breeze.  According to National Geographic, the trunk alone contains around 100,000 muscles and is used for lots of fun activities like smelling, drinking and trumpeting.  Sutton was very cute and put  smile on my furry face (metaphorically speaking of course) as I watched him gaze lovingly at his mum, copying her movements and sheltering under her tummy every time he felt shy.

 

 

The safari trail is a 4 mile drive that takes you through a range of habitats within the park which is situated in deepest Worcestershire.  The African Plains is home to a herd of white rhino’s who meander freely around their enclosure, munching on grass and hanging out with the zebras and giraffes that also live there.  The giraffes were so tall that I couldn’t see their faces without cocking my head sideways and lifting it up to a 90° tilt, but I had the chance to look them in the eye as they bent their 6 foot necks down to eat the food being handed to them by people in the cars.

 

 

The Wild Woods enclosure provides board and lodgings to an Asiatic wild dog called a dhole. These rusty red-coloured creatures are highly social animals and live in close-knit packs.  I admired their russet coats but was quite pleased that they were far enough away not to see me.  Being a pussy cat I could tell their canine instincts would have been strong enough to pick up my scent and I’m sure they can run pretty fast.  Although probably not as fast as the cheetah, the world’s fast land mammal capable of speeds of up to 70 miles an hour.

 

 

One of the most fascinating animals we saw was the Indian rhinoceros (also known as the greater one-horned rhino) with its segmented hide that looks armour-plated.  They made me chuckle because from behind they look like they’re wearing a skirt, hence the photos of rhino bottoms.  See if you can tell which one is the Indian and which is the white rhino.  Their prominent horns are unfortunately their downfall and many animals have been killed for this hard, hair-like growth which is used in traditional Asian medicines even though there is no evidence that it cures any ailments.  In this civilised and high-tech world, I find it barbaric and backward that some humans choose to hunt a species to the brink of extinction just to make money.  Despite protection and an international trade ban in rhino horn, it is still traded extensively throughout Asia.

 

 

Thankfully I cheered up when I caught sight of a fine feline specimen, the Sumatran tiger.  The Sumatran tiger is only found in the wild on the island of Sumatra in Indonisia and is another critically endanged sub-species of tiger.  It’s the only surviving member of the Sunda Islands group of tigers that included the now extinct Bali tiger and Javan tiger.  That’s why keeping these animals in captivity is essential so that they can one day become the breeding stock and gene-pool for future generations who will hopefully be returned to the wild as part of carefully planned reintroduction projects aimed at re-establishing a species in an area which was once part of its historical range and where it has become extinct.  I spotted some more big-cat cousins in the Realm of the Lions enclosure, an impressive landscape designed to imitate the savannah grassland.  It contains boulders, plants and a sculpted lion head rockwork from which a waterfall cascades into a pool below.  Check out the magnificent African lion sitting on top of the sculpture surveying her realm.

 

 

John and I had a good time at the West Midland Safari Park but we definitely chose the wrong day to go.  It was a Bank Holiday and the huge volume of cars on the safari made it difficult to get a good view of the animals.  There is a zoo section at the site but it’s really a theme park full of rides aimed at children more than adults.  However it was worth the stroll around the amusement park to see this amazing posse of hippos.  Normally having a reputation for doing not much during the day and coming to life at night, these hippos were busy waddling from one pool to the next, splashing each other, seeing who could submerge under the water the longest and showing off their teeth.  Their big shiny bodies seemed slow on the grassy bank of their lake but appeared graceful in the water where they all stood in a circle like they were having a good old gossip.