Huddled around the campfire on the first evening, a gentle breeze added the slightest chill to the air as winter slowly gave way to the impending heat of summer. The stars shone bright, lighting up the sky like a million fireflies, and a tiny duiker crept over to the waterhole to take a nervous sip. As if moved by some unspoken force, the five “Ndlopfu Gogos” – selected from a local community by our partners and the programme coordinators, Elephants Alive – transitioned into song. It was a slow, dream-like sound that suited the moment perfectly, casting all who listened deeper under nature’s spell.
Seemingly called by the beauty of their musical prayer, a herd of elephants emerged cautiously from the bushes, displacing the duiker mid-drink. The grannies (gogos) finished giving thanks in their native tongue before moving closer to the boundary fence and the elephants beyond it. No words were exchanged amongst them, as, enraptured, they appeared immersed in the magic moment. Despite having lived their long lives just a few kilometres from the Kruger National Park, today was the first time these women had seen a live elephant and had the chance to experience Kruger’s magic firsthand.
With many conservation and community projects specifically focussed on South Africa’s rural youth, Koru Camp was delighted to partner with Elephants Alive and host their Ndlopfu Gogos programme. As their team explained, these women rarely get the chance to leave their village, let alone experience a trip such as this. For them, these jaunts into nature are a beacon of light that morph into a constant talking point in their daily lives. Whether it’s seeing their first lion on safari or dancing in the drainage line with Joel, for two joyful days the camp is filled with endless smiles, laughter, and song that permeates the hearts of everyone present. For this reason alone, the Ndlopfu Gogos programme is a firm favourite here at Koru.
There is a second motive, however, for bringing these village ambassadors into the bush. The team at Elephants Alive is working with specific areas suffering from human–wildlife conflict. Some of these villages are so ravaged by poverty that there is not even running water, let alone a school or healthcare facility, and subsistence farming is the key to their very survival. Imagine, then, losing an entire year’s crop in a single night. Instantly, the fragile future of elephants would be of little concern and these vulnerable, poverty-stricken communities may fall into the trap of predatory wildlife criminals.
As the matriarchal backbone of their societies, Elephants Alive’s mission is to empower these very gogos to become a point of moral guidance. By sharing with them the beauty and benefits of their natural heritage – from which, until now, they have been separated through poverty – the grandmothers can influence their communities and engage them to join the fight to protect our wildlife. Much like their wise elephant counterparts, the gogos are wise matriarchs that can lead their families to a different way of thinking.
In a region where the economy is overwhelmingly dependent on wildlife tourism, conservation is a vital cog in the sustainable recovery of these rural communities. Only through collaboration with all parties can we hope to alleviate poverty and protect the wildlife for many generations to come – something that is embodied in the ongoing partnership between Koru Camp, Elephants Alive, and the Ndlopfu Gogos. As Elephants Alive states: “Boundaries are broken when the wise meet the wise. Minds are opened and hearts are touched.” On that note, here’s to empowering wildlife communities and breaking even more boundaries together!