Their hopes of survival had looked slim after the traumatic start to their lives. But the orphaned baby elephants thrived and grew up strong thanks to their rescuer’s incredible love, care and attention.
So when the day came for Roxy Danckwerts to say goodbye to Bumi, Moyo and five others she has rehabilitated and raised at her elephant nursery, it was a bittersweet moment.
There were poignant final cuddles and pats on the trunk as she fought back tears before they set off to their new home 700 miles away.
At the same time, she knew it meant the elephants were finally taking one step closer to her dream of seeing them return to a life in the wild.
Miss Danckwerts accompanied them every inch of the way as they were transported from the nursery run by her charity Wild Is Life (WIL) in Harare, Zimbabwe, to a reserve on the southern African country’s western border.
Moyo, the first elephant rescued by Roxy Danckwerts when she was just two weeks old
Miss Danckwerts with Bumi before being hoisted on a truck ready for the long journey to Panda Masui forest
It is a haven where they can learn to live independently, integrate with and eventually join established wild herds migrating through the area.
As these stunning photographs show, however, getting seven elephants — weighing a combined total of ten tons — there required a truly mammoth operation.
First, they had to be sedated by tranquilizer darts, then specialist teams monitored their breathing and heart rate before they were fitted with straps so they could be hoisted by their feet and lifted while hanging upside down — which experts agree is the simplest, easiest and quickest way — on to a flatbed truck by a crane.
Each was then driven on the truck to a ‘wake-up box’ where their sedation was reversed and they stood up, before being ushered into cages inside the 30-ton lorry which took them on the 17-hour journey to the Panda Masuie Forest Reserve, which is supported by International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW).
Bumi, a male aged three, was rescued when he was a month old in 2019. He had somehow got stuck among rocks and suffered severe sunburn in the searing heat. The Mail reported on his recovery at the time.
Bumi being hoisted onto a truck ready to head to Panda Masui forest where he will roam free
Moyo being loaded onto a truck ready to head to the forest where she will also roam free
After arriving at his new home on the 85,000-acre reserve, Bumi is pictured here enjoying a refreshing drink of water, flanked by Unity, who arrived at the nursery in 2017 after her mother stopped producing milk due to a drought, and Sienna, rescued last year after being spotted alone aged 15 months and suffering from malnutrition.
Moyo, a female now aged nine, was the first elephant rescued by WIL. She was days old and only knee-high when she was found stranded in water in 2014 during heavy rains. It was suspected she had been washed away while trying to cross a river.
It is not known what happened to the orphans’ mothers. Elephant calves can end up alone due to poaching, getting separated from herds or predator attacks, as well as life-threatening accidents, the IFAW says.
All the elephants that come to her nursery have a special place in Miss Danckwerts’s heart.
But she and Moyo formed a very special bond.
Moyo began to regard her as her mother — and also grew up to be a comfort to the other orphans which arrived at the nursery after her, taking them under her trunk and helping them to recover from their own traumas.
Miss Danckwerts, 56, hopes the closeness between her former charges will help them settle into their new home and adapt to life away from her and her team.
Bumi, centre, is pictured with two other elephants after the 22-hour trip across Zimbabwe to their new home near Victoria Falls
Miss Danckwerts saying goodbye to Moyo, the first elephant she rescued at her wildlife sanctuary
As they set off for the reserve, she said: ‘It’s a really bittersweet moment. I’m so glad they’re returning to a proper life in the wild.
‘But I’ll miss them all. It’s been an emotional rollercoaster. They’ve come full circle. I’m proud, happy and sad.’
Miss Danckwerts has rescued dozens of baby elephants since she founded her nursery, the first of its kind in Zimbabwe.
This is the third group to be transported by IFAW and WIL to the release facility. Dedicated Miss Danckwerts’s work will now continue as more orphans arrive at her nursery.
Doubtless, there will be many more magical moments to come which neither she — nor, of course, the elephants — will ever forget.
To support Wild Is Life-Zimbabwe Elephant Nursery and IFAW, visit wildislife.org and ifaw.org.