An Elephant’s Eye View of South Africa
By David Cogswell
September 20, 2012 11:45 PM
Lente Roode was a child living in South Africa when her family got the cheetah. “I can see from the pictures that I was about 5 or 6,” she said. A cheetah was hunting a neighboring farmer’s sheep and the farmer shot it. Then the people realized the cheetah was a lactating mother. They looked around and found a tiny baby cheetah hidden in the brush. That’s how Lente Roode ended up growing up with a cheetah. They named it Sebeka. Lente had the friendly cheetah until it was about 15 years old and she was 21.
Lente’s father, who owned a car repair business in Pretoria, bought the 2,000 hectare farm adjacent to Kruger National Park in 1949. “It was just bush,” Lente says. “We kept cattle and sheep for income. We had Afrikaaner cattle, with big horns to protect them from the lions and cheetahs. In the evening we would take them into the boma, a circle made with sticks, to protect them.”
Lente’s grandfather had left Germany during World War I and settled in South Africa. Her father was an Afrikaaner born in South Africa. Her mother was a nurse. The family would spend long weekends and holidays in the bush, making the six-hour drive from Pretoria.
In 1985, Lente and her husband, Johann Roode, bought the adjacent farm. She decided she would like to have two or three cheetahs for the farm. “I contacted Desmond Varaday, author of the book ‘Gara-Yaka’s Domain.’ He had used Sebeka for illustrations in his book. When I phoned him, he had big financial problems and he begged my husband to buy all 35 cheetahs. So this is where it started. We didn’t plan it. It was planned for me by God.”
Lente had wanted two or three cheetahs. She ended up with 35, a breeding center. It came to be known as the Hoedspruit Cheetah Center. Lente’s husband bought other adjacent plots until they had grown their holdings to 16,000 hectares, which became the Kapama Game Reserve. Today it is operated by Lente and her two children. “We went from cattle and sheep to tourism,” she says.
They opened the gates to the public, put up a sign to attract visitors, opened a curio shop and brought people in for a three-hour tour around the grounds. They experimented with marketing and found that word of mouth worked best. Later the Internet augmented the word of mouth. They also got good publicity from TV documentary wildlife films that were shot in the reserve. Tourism created an income to sustain the family, support the cheetah center and create jobs for locals.
Lente’s cheetah center was contacted by the government’s nature and conservation bureau and asked if it would take in some wild dogs, another endangered species. From there, the cheetah center took in other endangered animals, including African wildcats and baby rhinos whose parents had been poached. The center transformed into the Endangered Species Center. “And then one day there came a little elephant,” says Lente. “And my life changed.”
The elephant was stuck in the mud and had been abandoned by its family. “It was just three months old,” Lente says “We just saw him and got him out. We thought his mother would come, but she didn’t. This was 1996. He’s now 16 or 17 years old. We hand-raised him. It’s difficult to raise an elephant. We didn’t know what to do. No one knew. Rhinos and lions we knew, but not elephants.”
They named the elephant Jabulani, which means “happiness” in Zulu. “We wanted to release him to the wilds, but the herd wouldn’t accept him,” Lente says. “He didn’t know he was an elephant. When he saw elephants, he charged them. They didn’t understand why this cheeky little elephant was charging them. They wanted to kill him. So we had to keep him.” Jabulani was home for good.
They decided they needed more elephants to keep Jabulani company. “You cannot have him on his own,” Lente says. “He follows you around and if you went through a door, he would follow and break the door.” In March 2002 the center acquired 12 more elephants from Zimbabwe, which was undergoing political turmoil at the time.
“They were not safe,” says Lente. “They were tamed for elephant-back safaris, but the area was taken over by soldiers.” After the center took in the elephants, it started to build a camp, which they called Camp Jabulani, which they opened in 2003. They built six chalets that accommodate two people and one villa that accommodates a family. They built it to such a high standard of quality that in 2007 they were invited to join the Relais & Chateaux collection.
“I’m so proud of that camp,” says Lente. “Now we have visitors and we give them an experience of elephants. They go on elephant-back safaris. Jabulani is always at the front. He won’t let any other elephant go ahead of him.”
David Cogswell is executive editor covering tours and Africa and the Middle East for TravelPulse.com.