At Mufwe Lodge, I watched the younger elephants get up from a nap. I could see how the baggy skin around their knees gave them the flexibility to kneel on their back legs to a standing position much like the loose skin on my elbow that seems to have too much excess skin when my arm is extended allows me to bend it until every wrinkle disappears. But it was the older elephant’s eyes that touched me. Now and then one would look directly at me with those clear, dark brown eyes lined with lush eyelashes, and our eyes would meet. I felt a stronger sense of connection than I do with most other animals. I wished we could talk, mother to mother, but I also knew if we could, we would share stories about the responsibility of motherhood knowing her job was much more demanding, filled with more threat and required more vigilance than mine ever could.    


Over lunch, Carol Van Bruggen told us about her first trip to Africa in the year 2000. Like me, Carol dreamed of seeing Africa, and Steve took her to Zimbabwe, South Africa, and Botswana for her birthday. Hoping to see abundant wildlife at Lake Caribe in Zimbabwe, they found lodges empty and poorly staffed. Zimbabwe's economy was in shambles from decades of political turmoil. In 1965, Prime Minister Ian Smith declared independence from Britain under a white-minority rule. There was a lengthy guerrilla war led by the Zanu party which, in 1980, elected Robert Mugabe as prime minister for seven years. Mugabe then declared himself president, holding that position for 37 years. Mugabe's military helped keep him in power. Instead of pay, government soldiers had free license to slaughter as much wildlife as they wanted. People who took over the dairies and farms killed and ate the livestock because they didn’t know how to manage them.

In the 1990s, Mugabe implemented a land redistribution program that rewarded his supporters and forced many white farmers off their land, leaving them no home, livelihood or even a passport, and by 2013, every white-owned farm in Zimbabwe was taken over or confirmed for future redistribution. British tourists, who comprised a large part of Zimbabwe’s tourism, stayed away in protest of Mugabe’s ruthless treatment of longtime white farmers. Mugabe had little regard for preserving wildlife or lifting his country’s people out of poverty. In 2017, a  coup d'etat installed Emmerson Mnangagwa, nicknamed the “Crocodile” for his brutal and cunning reputation. Today, Zimbabwe’s economic problems leave few resources to protect wildlife, especially elephants.

Currently, the Zimbabwe government sanctions the sale of baby elephants to China. Elephants that are too young to leave their mothers perish in great numbers on the long trip to a country far from home where they have no family or herd. They find that nothing is familiar and they are destined to live in zoos for their short lives.

In 2001, when Carol and Steve returned to Zimbabwe and found the situation even more depressing, a friend suggested they visit Zambia, which is known for its walking safaris, and that’s when they fell in love with the people and the wildlife in the Luangwa Valley.

Written by Patricia Cole

An Africa Hope Fund board member for 7 years, Pat is a writer and a conservation activist. After traveling to Zambia, she became dedicated to helping Africa Hope Fund provide education to the next generation of Africans and ensure their future by protecting wildlife. Find Patricia on Facebook and Twitter, or on her websites www.writepatwrite.com and www.patmcole.com.

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Carol Van Brugen