South African tour leaves Canmorite wanting more

By: Dave Whitfield

  |  Posted: Thursday, Feb 09, 2012 06:00 am

Cassie Evans with Harry in South Africa.
Cassie Evans with Harry in South Africa.

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When it comes to wildlife, there’s big – as in the elk, moose and bears which we’re familiar with in the Bow Valley – and then there’s really huge, massive, block out the sun big.

For Canmore’s Cassie Evans, 19, five weeks spent with the largest land mammal on the planet was an unforgettable experience.

Her five weeks in early winter were spent with elephants in a park near Knysna, South Africa, where she assisted with a behavioural study designed to gauge the effect of tourists on the park’s dozen pachyderms.

Organized by British travel agency Oyster Worldwide, Evans’ trip and work with the elephants already has her looking forward to another tour.

“They (Oyster) were awesome, especially for somebody going on your first big trip. We had bunkhouses, did our own shopping and cooking and worked Monday to Friday, so we had weekends off.”

The work at the elephant park involved monitoring them, “to see how they reacted to tourists,” said Evans, “whether they were excited or stressed out.”

Unlike in the wilds of Africa, the animals in the park were orphans or former circus elephants, said Evans. “But they are still pretty wild, it’s just that they’re allowed the freedom of the park and can live free.

“There are eight volunteers at a time, with PhD students and the park director. The park is really huge and beautiful, about six hours from Cape Town. It was probably the best time I’ve had in my life. Sometimes we followed one elephant for a whole day, just to monitor their behaviour, sometimes we monitored herd activity.

“But we worked closely with the elephants on a daily basis.”

At the park, tourists are taken afield in vehicles, where they are allowed to interact with the elephants, to a degree, including by having photos taken with them. Having a photo taken with an elephant is a thrill, said Evans, whose photo of herself and Harry was a highlight of her trip.

“Everything there was pretty much a highlight, but having my picture taken with Harry was an amazing experience. He’s a massive animal and it was truly incredible to be that close to him.”

Oyster Worldwide offers international tours dealing not only with wildlife, but with teaching, conservation, childcare, skiing, sports and medical work.

“It’s a U.K.-based organization,” said Evans, “and a lot of the volunteers were from Germany or England. When I looked at their website, I saw you could work with animals or kids, for example, but when I saw South African elephants, I was sold.

“I’ve always wanted to work with animals, so that sealed the deal.”

While work with the elephants was rewarding, Evans said the entire region is beautiful and worthy of touring, which she did little of. “That’s why I want to go back. I worked full-time for a summer to go there and I want to study animal behaviour or veterinary assisting in B.C., but I’m hoping to go back to the park in October, for longer next time. Next time, I’ll tour around more.”


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