In November last year, I had the wonderful privilege of attending the elephant training course at Tierpark Hagenbeck in Hamburg, Germany, the first European elephant school.
The school has been open for eight years and I attended the 9th training season, which only occurs once a year. The standard of the training is very high and offered numerous opportunities for personal growth. The training included both theory and practical work. The practical part of the course was done on site at Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo.
"Getting close to elephants was the best thing that has ever happened to me and I was very excited, particularly because there was no boundary and it felt so good." - Carol Thobela-Mabaso is videographed next to Mogly the elephant.
Elephant trainer Alan Roocroft (left) with Carol Thobela-Mabaso from the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa (centre) and Alice Masombuka from Johannesburg Zoo.
Dr Stephan Hering-Hagenbeck, Executive Managing Director of the Tierpark Hagenbeck, sponsored three staff members from African institutions to attend the course. The institutions were the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa (Carol Thobela-Mabaso), Johannesburg Zoo (Alice Masombuka) and the Uganda Wildlife Education Centre (Alex Droma). We were the first students from South Africa and Uganda to attend the course.
The lecturers were well versed in working with elephants. They included doctors, vets and professors from all over the world. It was a lovely surprise to learn that the lecturer who dealt with elephant translocations, J. J. Altena, was from South Africa.
The lecturers were extremely knowledgeable about their subjects and I found it interesting that all the questions asked by the students were answered by lecturers who had practical experience relating to that particular issue, as all of them are keepers themselves. Their experience is unbelievable and they are requested to assist zoos throughout Europe in elephant management.
Only 15 learners attended the course. We were divided into three groups, and each group was given an opportunity to do a presentation about what they had learnt in theory and practice. Different scenarios were given to the groups to resolve as part of the evaluation.
Of elephants and teamwork
The group had ample opportunity to interact with the elephants as well as with the Tierpark staff. I found the energy around me invigorating. Teamwork was very important to enable us to complete our tasks effectively. I found that there was a natural bond between the students, as if we had known each other for a long time, resulting no doubt from all of us having a common passion and goal to learn more about elephant management. The topics discussed in theory were followed or supported by practical work; presentations were followed by practical demonstrations.
The outcomes of the course were to know and understand the importance of enclosure design; how to plan an efficient facility with regard to elephant management; the difference between "free contact" and "protected contact" with elephants and the advantages and disadvantages of each; medical care and husbandry of elephants; the effective training of elephants and the dangers associated with it; diet and feeding behaviour; elephant wounds and the healing process; diseases of importance related to elephants; translocation of elephants; and elephant corridors.
Once in a lifetime opportunity
I would like to thank the National Zoo for giving me a once in a lifetime opportunity to attend the training, as well as the Tierpark Hagenbeck Zoo whose sponsorship enabled me to attend this life changing training course. I would also like to thank all the lecturers, who came from all over the world to make sure that the training was a success. They have had a positive impact on my life and on my profession as a conservator. I will always value and honour their assistance.
Carol Thobela-Mabaso, Department of Conservation, NZG
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