A few months ago I got elephant snot on my arm. Normally, any sort of mucus in my general vicinity is quite appalling. I can’t even stand to be around myself when I have a little sniffle. But in this case, I was pretty impressed about it all. An elephant, in all her majestic elephant glory, had just chosen me to be her Kleenex. How cool is that? Ok, it was a little gross too.
This wasn’t any old elephant. Well, to be truthful, I’m not sure of her age. But what made her groovy was that she had a job to do. Not the circus-esque balancing on a ball type of job, nor the hauling things around sort of job usually forced upon elephants – her job description was fairly straight forward. “Be an elephant.” She was doing a great job, snot and all.
I met her in Zimbabwe at a conservation centre called Imire, a 10 000 acre greenspace dedicated to protecting wildlife, particularly rhinos, but many other species too. Conveniently ‘Imire’ means ‘the meeting place’. And that’s what you get to do here, meet these animals with very important jobs – being themselves. In order to create a feeling of stewardship and care for these creatures great and small, people should see what makes them so darn impressive. So the giraffes get to mill about and graze, looking all content about life. The sables show off their race car like paint jobs, all sleek and sexy. The elephants rip down huge branches for a late morning snack. The zebras make you ask ‘black with white stripes, or white with black?’ The warthogs trot by looking as ridiculous as possible inspiring you to burst into the Hakuna Matata song.
The rhinos on the other hand make you feel like a horrible, predatory species as they expose their clipped horns, looking slightly embarrassed about it all. In an effort to keep them safe, the folks at Imire trim their horns rendering them undesirable to poacher-assholes, but trust me, they’re still pretty cute. When the hippo crew come trotting out of the woods to get a look at you, it’s impossible to think for a second about hurting them. It took every last bit of willpower I had not to hop off the wagon and go scratch them behind the ears and offer up a belly rub. These guys are in good hands – Imire is teeming with armed guards, surrounded by tall razor wired fences, and on a pretty serious lock down. The reason – in 2007 three black rhinos, one pregnant, were murdered for their horns, a devastating loss for Imire, and the endangered black rhino population.
There are a couple of animals here who are a little bit confused. Well, perhaps a lot confused. They have clearly mixed up their job description. Nzhou, is the elephant who has been at Imire the longest. She’s well established as the boss of the herd. Except, the subjects of this monarchy are all water buffalo. Nzhou arrived at Imire after her parents were killed by poachers. There were no other elephants there for her to pal around with, so she simply immersed herself into the water buffalo clan – learned their language, became fiercely protective of them, and nurtured the little ones. She was one with the water buffaloes. When more elephants were introduced to Imire, Nzhou had no interest in joining them. They would call to her, invite her to join in their elephant games, but she would have none of it. She was far too water buffalo for any of that nonsense.
Tatenda, a black rhino, is also a wee bit confused. He believes he is a lap dog. I simply cannot do his story justice, you should watch this sweet video about him, and his pals the warthog and the hyena. (Have tissues handy… happy and sad tears) Tatenda spent his early years with John and Judy Travers, the masterminds behind Imire, after his rhino family was poached. They took him in, literally. The rhino roamed through their home, shared Sunday brunch with them, ate their flower beds and generally kicked up a joyful fuss. Really, watch the video, you’ll get see a warthog blow milk bubbles.
That’s how Imire works – a delightful blend of conservation, education, and elephant snot. You’ll meet an absolutely dedicated team of people who are wholeheartedly committed to the preservation of these animals. You can even volunteer here, or simply spoil yourself and stay in one of the gorgeous rooms at the lodge. It’s not an authentically wild safari, but you’ll be certain to spot oodles of animals as you putter along riding a wagon pulled by a farm tractor. There are a number of stops along the way where the wildlife will emerge from behind rocks and trees to say hello and show you how fabulous they are. And if you’re really lucky, an elephant just may wipe her nose on you.
Check out Imire’s website for oodles more photos and handy information on their offerings. The history of Imire is an entire story itself – a family run operation, our guide Anyway was born there and shines with pride as he tells you the stories of conservation.
A huge thank you to Ethiopian Airlines who got me to Zimbabwe. If you’re pondering a flight, within Africa or around the world, I think you’ll be impressed by this top notch airline. With cushy new planes, excellent hospitality, and robust service, you’ll arrive at your destination ready for adventure.