Elephant Adventures at Camp Jabulani

When Lente Roode of South Africa received an urgent plea in 2002 to rescue 12 trained elephants that were threatened by political turmoil in Zimbabwe, she immediately obtained trucks and personally led the convoy. She has never been able to refuse an animal in need, taking in orphaned and injured cheetahs, rhinos, lions and many other African species.

Camp Jabulani allows eco-travelers to take elephant-back safari tours of the local wildlife. © Courtesy of Camp Jabulani
Camp Jabulani allows eco-travelers to take elephant-back safari tours of the local wildlife. © Courtesy of Camp Jabulani

It all started when a neighbor gave her an orphaned cheetah cub to raise on her father’s farm near Kruger National Park when she was just six years old. “I love the gentleness of the cheetah,” says Roode. “It is the weakest of the big cats, and will be the first to disappear.”

Lente married Johann Roode, and in 1985 they bought land adjoining her father’s farm. In 1990, the couple instituted a no-kill management plan for the charismatic wildlife on their 32,000-acre Kapama Private Game Reserve.

Good News Cheetahs

When the Roodes inquired about purchasing two cheetahs, a breeder asked them to take on his entire stock of 35. They agreed, and asked the well-known veterinarian and cheetah expert from the University of Pretoria, Dave Meltzer, to help design the enclosures, nutritional regimen, veterinary care and breeding registry. Cheetahs have been forced into a genetic bottleneck with just 14 gene strains, so breeding must be carefully coordinated, Roode explains.

The couple opened the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre as a nonprofit organization to the public in 1990. They support the operation through tours, a gift shop, a restaurant and game drives. Over-populated species are sold to other reserves.

In 1995 the Roodes built an advanced veterinary facility and took on captive breeding of endangered species such as the African wild dog, black-footed cat, blue crane and ground hornbill. “Helping endangered species survive is vital for the future,” says Roode. “We have to fight for wildlife.”

As the facility’s reputation grew, requests came in to help injured animals and abandoned babies. “I can’t say no,” says Roode. She explains that the center rehabilitates and releases as many animals as possible. More than 50 cheetahs have been released in the wild with radio collars.

But renown can also attract the wrong kind of attention. In 1991, poachers gunned down two young rhinos at the center for their horns—one just 1.5 inches and the other four inches long. “I was devastated,” says Roode. Now a 15-man anti-poaching unit protects the reserve.

Even with careful preparation, releasing animals back to nature doesn’t always work. Jabulani, a resident elephant, was only a few months old when he was abandoned and wound up at the center. Later efforts to integrate the youngster into the reserve’s wild herd failed. When Roode got the call about saving the trained elephants from Zimbabwe, she hoped they would welcome Jabulani. Thankfully, the matriarch, Tokwe, adopted the young pachyderm as her own.

Vacation with Elephants

To support 13 elephants plus a large staff of trainers, the Roodes opened Camp Jabulani in 2004, an exclusive, luxury safari lodge that balances the impact of tourism with the demands of conservation. Unique wildlife experiences offered to guests include elephant-back safaris and the opportunity to interact with cheetahs and other species at the Endangered Species Centre. “There’s nothing like viewing plains game while riding atop an elephant,” says Roode. “They walk so softly in the bush.” The elephants are trained with a reward system and housed in immaculate stables.

Camp Jabulani has six thatched-roof cottages with a deck and stone infinity- edge plunge pool overlooking a river. Inside, each cottage features a stone fireplace, cement-and-straw walls, a soaking tub, bronze elephant sculptures and luxurious linens. Filtered river water supplies the bathroom and soaps are biodegradable. The main lodge is filled with fine antiques, wildlife art, and a massive table set with china and crystal. A stay at the camp gives guests not only a chance to see wildlife, but to interact with it personally and to support it directly.

Now solo since the death of her husband, Roode is focused on fundraising. She promotes cheetah sponsorships, plans benefits and builds the organization’s trust fund. “I fight for the survival of these animals,” Roode says. Rates for Camp Jabulani start at $1,180 double occupancy per night, including meals, game drives and airport transfers.

KATHLEEN M. MANGAN is a widely traveled ecotourism writer.