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If you are traveling to Zimbabwe to see Victoria Falls or go on safari, you absolutely must visit Wild is Life, a unique wildlife sanctuary in Harare. Seeing baby elephants rescued from the brink in their Zimbabwe Elephant Nursery (ZEN) will be one of the most special and heartwarming experiences of your life. Wild is Life is my favorite thing to do in Harare, Zimbabwe. Since it’s located 20 minutes from the city centre and three minutes from the airport, it’s the perfect day trip from Harare .
Zimbabwe Elephant Nursery (ZEN) – the best thing to do in Harare
Driving in, I could barely contain my excitement when I glimpsed a boisterous elephant calf tossing its tiny trunk around and leaning into its handler. Laughing and attempting different maneuvers, he unsuccessfully tried to entice the playful baby elephant to return to its cozy enclosure. Unbeknownst to me, I’d soon get to see this adorable five-month old elephant calf, Limpopo, up close.
After learning from expert elephant rehabilitation pioneers, including the renowned Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Kenya and Lek Chailert’s Elephant Nature Park in Thailand, Roxy Danckwerts opened ZEN in 2014.
Having long admired and supported the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, I relished the opportunity to visit a place modeled after Dame Daphne Sheldrick’s groundbreaking work at her elephant sanctuary.
FUN FACT: Did you know Dame Daphne is the individual who discovered which milk combination worked best to sustain orphaned baby elephants after years of trial and error?
To learn more about her incredible legacy, I highly recommend reading her memoir, “Love, Life & Elephants.” “The Elephant Whisperer” is another heartwarming true story of a South African man who rescued and cared for a herd of rogue elephants. I’m excited to check out the sequel “An Elephant in my Kitchen.”
Orphaned baby elephants are fragile
As soon as the tiny calf, Limpopo, trundled around the corner, our group uttered a collective gasp, oohing and ahhing at the small elephant dutifully following his two handlers. The tiny hairs covering his head and legs glowed beautifully in the dappled sunlight.
After discovering three day old Limpopo stuck in a canal, ZEN airlifted him to the elephant nursery. Providing companionship and love 24 hours a day healed his emotional wounds and allowed him to grow from 211 pounds (96kg) to 375 pounds (170kg).
Witnessing the relationship the handlers have with him is incredibly moving. Given how sentient and intelligent elephants are, they can immediately detect if someone isn’t dedicated and committed. As such, selecting and training these caregivers is critical to the sanctuary’s ethos and mission.
FUN FACT: Did you know that elephant calves are tiny enough to fit under their mother’s bellies until they are six months old? This shields their delicate skin from the sun, keeps them warm and allows them to easily nurse.
Baby elephant playtime helps them heal and learn
Engaging their curiosity through playtime is an essential part of the healing and learning process. Limpopo alternated between prodding his handlers from behind, precariously balancing his front legs and trunk on a big ball and then unsuccessfully trying to sit atop it. Watching these comical toddler behaviors made us all belly laugh.
A manic “little” package, he enthusiastically ran around the yard, shoving his favorite leaves in his mouth while alternating between various enrichment toys.
Soon after, he trotted over to his handlers, affectionately touching them with his tiny trunk and hanging it over their shoulders. Not realizing his size, he would then try to plop into the handlers’ laps, resulting in laughs from all of us.
Elephant rehabilitation and release
Since ZEN’s ultimate goal is to release rehabilitated elephants back to the wild, integrating the youngsters with the elephant family is an important part of the process.
Watching six elephants emerge from the brush with their handlers to indulge in their afternoon feeding is heartwarming. Intent on gorging on cabbages and leaves, they quickly dispersed and began gobbling up their favorite snacks.
ZEN’s very first rescued elephant, Moyo, which means “the heart,” now serves as a nurturing matriarch to the elephant herd. Arriving to the center in February 2014, weighing only 123 pounds (56 kg), she has grown and blossomed into a leader within the herd.
To supplement the younger elephants’ diets, they are given eight bottles per day filled with a personalized baby formula made from Isomil S26. Despite the fact that most elephants in the nursery are weaned from bottles by age three, five-year-old Moyo hasn’t been keen to forego her bottles yet. To satiate her desire, they fill her bottle with water rather than milk.
Moyo dotes on Coco and Unity, the two youngest elephants. Sadly, Coco is still traumatized after seeing her mother hit by a bus and butchered for bush meat. In addition to the handlers and Moyo’s constant care and contact, the other elephants, Jack, Marcy and Kora all provide moral support.
At night, heat lamps and blankets keep all the elephant sanctuary residents warm in their enclosures. Limpopo is free to wander and seek comfort from the other elephants.
ZEN elephants return to the wild
After graduating from ZEN, elephants will move to a secured 33,000 hectare (127 square miles) property near Victoria Falls. ZEN hopes to reintegrate them with wild elephant herds. Interestingly, wild herd acceptance can take up to six years. Eight staff will ultimately reside at that property to assist with care, transition and reintegration.
A rare pangolin encounter – the world’s most trafficked animal
In addition to witnessing orphaned elephants being cared for by ZEN, I anxiously anticipated seeing their resident pangolin, Marimba. Given that pangolins are the most highly trafficked animal in the world, the chances of seeing one in the wild are extremely slim.
Watching how her handler cares for her and anticipates her needs melted my heart. If startled or scared, she would nestle under his arms where she felt safe.
Since pangolins need to forage 10 hours a day, caring for Marimba is a full time job for her handlers. Transporting her in a comfortable backpack, her devoted “ant gurus” seek out ant hills for her to eat starting at 6:30AM each day.
FUN FACT: Did you know a pangolin’s tongue is the same length as its body? (2 feet long)
After digging into the anthill with her claws, Marimba flicks her long tongue inside to extract the ants. Watching her walk is highly amusing. Despite awkwardly balancing on her back two feet and tail, with her front feet clasped and tucked under, she manages to move swiftly. Moving like this keeps her digging claws sharp.
Illegal wildlife poaching’s heartbreaking reality
Despite having no natural predators, pangolin populations have been decimated for unfounded Eastern medicine. Sadly, people mistakenly believe consuming ground up scales of the world’s only scaled mammal provides medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. Since their scales are comprised of keratin, the same as our fingernails and rhino horn, they have no proven medicinal value.
In Vietnam, people consume their meat as a delicacy while others drink their blood. In Africa, people serve them in restaurants or sell them roadside to satiate people’s appetite for bushmeat. Organizations like WildAid have launched a number of campaigns to dispel these myths and try to staunch the trafficking from Africa to Asia. In April 2019, Singaporean authorities discovered a shipment with 36,000 pangolins enroute from Nigeria. Hopefully, education changes behavior before this rare and exotic animal becomes extinct.
Of the eight species that exist, all are classified as threatened with extinction and two are critically endangered. Since Asian populations have been exhausted, traffickers are now poaching the African species. Given that 300 pangolins a day are being poached, it’s estimated that one million pangolins have been poached in the past 10 years!
Since they are much smaller than rhinos and easier to transport, they have become heavily trafficked targets. While their scales protect them from ant bites when eating, they provide no defense to greedy traffickers. When threatened, they roll into a ball to defend themselves. However, this allows poachers to easily pluck them from the ground and transport large numbers of them undetected. Learn more about the pangolin plight and trafficking in this National Geographic article.
After Zimbabwe National Parks confiscated Marimba when she was one, she came to live at Wild is Life. Given her attachment to, and dependence on, her handlers, she can never be released. Unfortunately, pangolins have never been successfully bred in captivity. Although Marimba is now 11, no one is certain of pangolins’ life expectancies.
Curious giraffes will enamor you
Gorgeous and lithe giraffes gracefully tower above you throughout the property. Wandering the grounds, they anxiously await the opportunity for you to feed them mulberry leaves. Leaning outside of their enclosure, they envelop the branches with their purple tongues.
Admiring their lengthy and lush eyelashes up close is a special benefit of this wonderful encounter. The proximity you are treated to is closer than that which you will experience in any of your game park drives. During our visit, we were overjoyed to see a shy two-week old baby giraffe peeking from behind her mother’s legs. Seeing her feed and then gallop around is a rewarding sight to see.
TIP: If it’s not windy, position yourself low and try to capture their reflections in the small lake where the ducks and geese are floating.
After feeding the giraffes, you’ll relax and indulge in a decadent afternoon tea with delicious scones and tarts. Your guides, Angela and Cath, will delight you with other endearing and entertaining resident stories.
Other wildlife encounters making this the best place to visit in Harare
In addition to the elephants, pangolin and giraffe, you’ll have the opportunity to see impala, kudu, lions, and hyena. Observing lions protesting when they received beef instead of their preferred horse meat surprised us all. Bellowing his displeasure, George, made his dissatisfaction known while Mambo chowed down on the treat.
Ending the day with champagne and canapés as the sun sets is the perfect way to end a visit to this extraordinary wildlife sanctuary. If you are lucky, a male kudu will hop over the fence to wander amongst you while you enjoy your treats and reflect on the amazing work the team does.
Wild is Life background
Visiting Wild is Life will touch you deeply. Roxy Danckwerts founded the organization in 1998 to provide a “safe haven for any lost, orphaned or injured wildlife.” Living by the mantra “One by One,” a dedicated team of animal care experts nurtures and rehabilitates animals in need. Since founding the sanctuary, the team has cared for 100 animals and 23 different species.
After learning about this privately-owned wildlife sanctuary through Lauren Bath, I immediately signed up to join for her inaugural Zimbabwe photography tour. Being able to glean insider perspectives from conservationists made this journey of a lifetime even more special.
How to arrange a Day trip from Harare to visit Wild is Life
- Cost: $95 cash/$125 credit
- Timing: 3 – 630PM, Tuesday – Saturday
- Location: 20 minutes from Harare
- Address: Provided upon booking
- Website: https://www.wildislife.com/index.html
- Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lodges in Harare
- Highlands House – this boutique property offers 15 rooms on a lovely property, including a tasty breakfast. Take advantage of the comfortable seating areas, pool and delicious dinners while you are on site.