But it was not until I returned to Africa as an adult and on sacred journeys that I met with the full majesty of these creatures. At an elephant sanctuary in South Africa, I had a close encounter with a 20 year old orphaned male and his Zimbabwean keeper. Being able to stroke the elephant and to feel his presence skin to skin, his trunk on my hand and even to my mouth, I felt both the strength and incredible tenderness.
Seeing my love of this connection, the elephant's keeper, a humble Shona man, filled with the pride of his traditions, shared stories of the ancient elephant migrations. I don't recall his name, but his face and the impression his gentle wisdom left in my heart will stay with me forever.
He told of how, in the time of his grandfather, large herds of elephants would travel huge distances year after year on migratory paths stretching the length and breadth of the continent. He even witnessed the last of these pilgrimages as a child, despite the interference with the migratory paths created by the incursion of the white man and wars, roads and national borders.
The Shona elder told how his village would keenly await the time when the elephants would pass through their village. They would have huge celebrations when the first ones arrived; the village would go out to greet them, first the shaman performing ceremony, then the human elders giving the elephants food and putting flower garlands around their necks and behind their ears. The elephants, who could live as long as the oldest humans, would recognise their two legged friends, greeting them individually and trumpeting hellos and felicitations.
Sometimes the elephants would stay a day or two before continuing their migration. Their dung would be collected for both sacred purposes and to nourish the crops. On their departure, the village would throw a wonderful send off and anticipate their reunion on the return journey hoping to meet the babies to be born. This would continue village to village the length of Africa - two and four legged coming together as sacred friends.
The migrations, of course, enabled the elephants to find better food and weather but really they didn't need to travel that far and wide. The journeys carried a deeper sacred purpose, an intentional treading of the songlines exactly as the first Australians did for countless generations and would still be doing now. It was a spiritual connection with the earth to replenish the energy of the earth and heighten their own connection with the earth and the cosmos. It was an embodied prayer and a massage for the meridians of our mother.
I have often heard of the whales and the elephants as the knowledge keepers of the earth but as heard, rather than experienced, wisdom. While visiting the White Lion Conservation Trust in Timbavati South Africa one year, meditating in a sacred dry river I was gifted a vision or shamanic experience showing how some of the great mammoths evolved into blue whales during a past Ice Age and some back to elephants once more, an adaptation to their surroundings eons later. This may seem farfetched yet the fossil records validate this - we are not talking recent human history but time spans of millions of years. That is how long these creatures have been embodied without distraction, until now.
It is only in the last three generations that the elephants of Africa (and most animals) have had their habitats radically disturbed and in some cases totally destroyed. Survival of the species, the dedicated aim of conservationists, is vital but this is only the first step. If humans were on the brink of extinction I think creating a park to put me in would be great, but it would be a prison in comparison to my real birthright to roam free over huge expanses, guided by the divine within to do my sacred work of incarnation on the planet. So, too, for the animals and elephants, in particular. We and the earth, just as much as the elephants themselves, need them to perform their sacred function.
Recent urban growth in Southern Africa is greatly impacting on the natural habitat. As cities get bigger with ever-greater demand for material resources, elephants are being pushed from their homelands into smaller and smaller reserves. And with the many civil wars and conflicts that have raged, they have witnessed and been subjected to extreme violence. In an attempt to control the elephant population in South Africa many have been massacred (I think the dissociated term is culled) and the remaining elephants rounded up like war refugees together on reserves.
One such place was Pilaansburg National Park. There the gamekeepers found that the young male elephants began exhibiting antisocial behaviour. As they grew bigger and more boisterous, the female elephants were forced to push them out of the herd for fighting them and attacking younger siblings. Orphaned males behaved even worse, forming their own packs, marauding and destroying their surroundings and even attacking humans.
Eventually, the gamekeepers caught on. They had been killing all the older males as they were too big to transport and considered a danger. But these older males were role models showing the young male elephants how to behave and keeping them in line when they hit the teenage years and began to challenge the mothers and aunties for physical dominance.
After a few years of introducing the old tuskers (as old male elephants are called) normality was restored. The "boys" would still challenge but were kept in line and initiated into manhood and responsibility for their strength by the older males. The keepers also no longer lumped together groups of young orphaned males, but instead had them adopted by the female herds who would raise them until they were ready to leave and become adult males.
Through this the park rangers discovered what they could have learned from many an African elder if they had been prepared to listen - that the herds have very strong social bonds made up of just the women and children with occasional interaction with the men and that they function with great harmony. Each elephant has her place in the leadership ladder; they recognise each other and sing out with specific trumpet calls – names - to greet each individual and, just as with many indigenous tribes, all the mature females look after the young as their own with older sisters learning and taking on increasing responsibility.
The challenges affecting the elephant populations are no different to our own - and the solutions are also the same.
For several years now I have followed elephant rescue projects with interest - the Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, others in Asia and then about a year ago I was contacted by two women from Zimbabwe. They were healing practitioners who had both been touched by the plight of the elephants in their country when, under the darkest years of Robert Mugabwe's reign, the starving populace were forced to shoot wild animals for meat.
The two women travelled to Gonarezhou (meaning place of many elephants) National Park in the country's south, with the intention of bringing healing energy to the great matriarchs of the earth. What unfolded amazed them. They had incredible interactions with the elephants, becoming quite close to one particular herd. What unfolded was beautiful beyond their expectations because it was the elephants who began healing and teaching the women.
Despite the trauma the elephants had suffered they could heal themselves by coming into balance with nature and reclaiming their societal structure. It was the Western women who were conflicted and unbalanced (although less so than most no doubt) and the elephants in subtle ways began to communicate their ways and facilitate connection to the earth for the women.
It is nature that needs to heal humans, not the other way round. If humans so destroyed the balance on earth that human life was no longer possible, in time the earth would heal and life in all its diversity would return.
Our job is to humble ourselves at the feet of nature and hear her call, receive her healing balm and surrender to natural law. And the elephants as the great emissaries of the mother, the great matriarchs of earth, were showing the women this, reaching out in a hope that they could show the humans the right way.
At 26, following a “shamanic intervention”, Jeremy closed his business and left London to visit sacred sites and elders, later creating Transformational Tours and SacredFire.
When not roaming mother earth, you will find Jeremy at home in Byron Bay's hinterland, playing with his children and planning the next adventure. firstname.lastname@example.org