The next day all the preparations start. The specialised relocation trailer that my father had had made is brought out again, and its lock repaired. Adriaan is called and asked to be available the following day. Samuel keeps a track on the herd’s movements and—as if they sense Neema’s presence—they keep moving steadily in our direction. Jabu and I spend one last bitter-sweet day with Neema while Aunt Christy takes photos of us kicking balls, rolling in a muddy pond together and feeding her her last few bottles of formula.
On the day of Neema’s release, Uncle Rob and I are again the first to awake. We sip our tea on the stoep, marvelling at the streaks of orange and red that sashay across the sky, more beautiful than either of us have ever seen. To me it’s like Noah’s rainbow, a promise from God that he will care for Neema.
There is much debate between Uncle Rob and Adriaan about whether they should sedate Neema for what will be a stressful journey for her, but in the end they decide not to. It is important that she isn’t sluggish when she re-joins the herd; she needs to be able to keep up with them.
Jabu and I try to coax her into the trailer with a bottle of milk, but she is too anxious to co-operate and eventually several men are forced to wrestle her into it. Neema calls to us in that half-grunt-half-trumpet way of hers, but all we can do is stand outside the trailer and try to soothe her with our words before clambering into Uncle Rob’s truck. Adriaan, with Samuel and the tracking device, lead the way in his land rover. Four rangers follow him in another vehicle, and Uncle Rob’s car brings up the rear with the trailer. Jabu and I press our faces to the window, trying to keep sight of Neema, but the dust kicked up by the convoy makes it almost impossible. We stop every fifteen minutes or so to check on her.
After almost an hour Samuel radios to tell us we are close to the herd and will have to leave the road, so we swing to the right and into the dry veld, forced to reduce speed as we bump and jar over the un-even ground. How terrifying this must be for Neema. Jabu and I squeeze each other’s hands tightly. “It’s alright, Anna,” she whispers but she is biting on her lip and I know she is worried and scared too.
It’s another fifteen minutes before the radio crackles to life again.
“We have a visual on the herd, Rob,” Samuel’s voice says. “They’re on the other side of the water-hole, but the drop here is too steep. Adriaan says we’ll need to reach them from the southern shore.”
“Copy that. I’ll keep following you,” Uncle Rob answers.
Jabu and I press up against her window. I can see patches of blue water between the bushes, but it is only when there’s a clearing in the foliage that I see three elephants standing on the far shore of the water-hole. Uncle Rob slows the car and scans the area.
“Look to the left,” he points. “The rest of the herd must be just behind that hill where the dust is. They’re just arriving. That’s good. It’ll be easier if they aren’t on the move.”
It takes us a while to round the stretch of water and then descend to the water level. We reduce our speed to a crawl, afraid to frighten the herd. One or two of the larger elephants turn and look in our direction, but most of them seem unconcerned with our approach. There are nine elephants at the water’s edge now. They are drinking or spraying themselves and—the smallest two—are rolling in the mud.
We edge to within a hundred and fifty metres of them, but daren’t go any closer. We can’t be too near to the herd when we unload Neema from the trailer.
“Right, let’s do this everyone,” Uncle Rob says softly into the radio. Everybody knows their part in the plan. The cars have been parked so as to shield the trailer from the herd’s view. Samuel, Uncle Rob, Adriaan and another ranger quietly move to the trailer to unlock it. The remaining three rangers watch the herd, dart guns and rifles ready for an emergency.
Uncle Rob had wanted me and Jabu to stay in the car, but it was another battle he was destined to lose. The bond that has formed between the three of us requires a proper farewell. He has, however, laid down some conditions. We are only allowed out of the car once Neema is off the trailer, and only if no elephants have moved closer.
We peer anxiously through the back window as the men open the trailer. Adriaan climbs in to check Neema’s condition as the others start untying the ropes holding her in place. It is then that Neema starts to thrash around in fright. She tries to pull away from Adriaan and lets out a high pitched cry.
In that instant, Jabu and I forget all of Uncle’s Rob’s warnings. We push open the car door and jump to the ground, covering the short space around the trailer in a few moments.
“Neema. We’re here. Don’t be scared!” I say through the bars separating us.
“Rob,” a voice hisses through the radio. “Two of the elephants are moving towards us.”
Read the final part of Orphaned Grace
WWF is one of the organizations leading the rhino conservation drive in South Africa. Here is a short video on one of their inititiatives, the Black Rhino Range Expansion Project (BRREP):
[youtube_sc url=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pTWPg_8sK78″ title=”Rhino%20Conservation%20in%20South%20Africa”]