This Is What It's Like To Live Amidst The Elephants

This couple uprooted their lives to live on a reserve and protect the animals there. But having elephants as your neighbors presents a unique set of challenges.

September 30, 2018

4:56 pm

Around 16 million tourists come to South Africa every year to marvel at its array of natural splendors. While its impossibly white beaches and fascinating history are surely a draw for some, many have come for safari tourism. They clamor into vehicles and head to incredibly remote reserves, where they will drive around, eagerly hoping to spot all or some of the animals that live wildly and exclusively on this continent. After bush vacations ranging from one week to one month, tourists head back to cities or hop on planes to traverse back to wherever it is that they call home.

But what if the place you called home was the bush itself? What if managing one of those far-off reserves amidst the lions and leopards and giraffes was exactly the life that you chose?

That’s the case for Estie and Werner Taljaard, the impressive couple who manage the Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve (VLNR) in Limpopo Province, South Africa. Along with their two young children, the family calls the VLNR home.

While having a lioness for a neighbor might sound like a fairly magical life, it isn’t all beautiful views, perfect sunsets, and Disney’s "The Circle of Life" on repeat. The Taljaard’s nearest human neighbor lives 30 minutes away – and that’s only if the roads are cooperating. The nearest hospital is more than an hour away, which can be especially nerve-wracking with two little ones surrounded by a seemingly endless expanse of wild and dangerous animals.

We wanted to learn more about how a couple winds up living such a strange and unique life – and about the certain trade-offs that inevitably come with living the life that they do. And both Werner and Estie were more than gracious with their time. It might seem that, in the middle of nowhere, people have nothing but time, but Werner and Estie’s lives are much more jam-packed than many might imagine. The reality is that Werner and Estie’s primary job is to make sure all of their wild animal neighbors are safe, and that is no small undertaking.

The next door neighbors. (Courtesy: Estie Taljaard)

"Another day at the office."

Werner’s average day is split up between meetings with game scouts, going out on patrol to fix problems, and checking to make sure that everything is on the up and up while broadly ensuring the well-being of the entire reserve. He also helps set up logistics for the researchers and students that regularly undertake studies on the reserve.

But that’s just when everything goes as planned.

“Any normal day can quickly become a crazy day,” Werner tells us. “This is usually when a nearby nature reserve’s lion breaks out of their camps and our lions go haywire next to our fence. We have had elephants trampling the fence for kilometers on end, then you have to get the big giants back into the reserve and keep them there without having any electricity on the fence... Tracking and darting lions on a huge reserve also creates opportunities for creative solutions; while poacher and veld-fire alerts on nearby farms are a reality we face on a weekly basis. It is these incidents that force you to think on your feet, make decisions on the go, and adapt to the situation.”

Estie, on the other hand, starts each day by “downloading the GPS coordinates of the collared elephants and lions, figuring out what they are up to. Then it is time for administrative duties, social-media marketing, and working on reports.” This, in addition to managing the eco-tourism base camps available to outside guests, and homeschooling her two primary-school-aged children.

“Any normal day can quickly become a crazy day.”

Werner Taljaard

Different paths. Same Destination.

Werner says that the bright lights of the big city never called to him the way they sometimes do with others. He grew up in a rural community and he wanted to continue living off the land, specifically in a way that incorporated animals. Estie, on the other hand, had an entirely different career path before uprooting for the VLNR. She was the editor of a regional newspaper, having started as an assistant in the graphics department and worked her way up. It was a fitting career for a woman who had spent her whole life voraciously consuming media. Born in Middelburg, a town in the Eastern Cape of South Africa, Estie's fondest childhood memories were going to her local library and packing into her family's Volkswagen every Friday night to make a pilgrimage to the nearby drive-in movie theater.

So how did this reporter and this aspiring game manager end up together?

They actually met in a fairly regular way, given the thoroughly irregular nature of their current life together: at a New Year's Eve party. In 2001. Estie couldn't take her eyes off of the man she described as a mysterious and handsome farmer boy. That is when both of their lives took an unexpected turn.

So what did Estie think when Werner propositioned her with a career opportunity to live in the middle of, well, nowhere? “To be honest, at first I felt like a giant baobab tree who had to pull out her roots and be re-planted elsewhere,” she confides. “It took a few days of introspection and prayers for me to be comfortable moving to such a remote place.”

Ironically or maybe fittingly, Estie now says that the extreme remoteness that had unnerved her about moving to the VLNR in the first place is now her favorite part about it. She has recently taken up bird spotting and identification as a hobby. “My binoculars, camera and notebooks are glued to my side,” she tells us.

There are days when Estie misses the simpler luxuries in life. Things like, "the daily newspaper delivered on my doorstep, a store-bought cappuccino, bookstores and the accessibility of a doctor on call…" The voracious reader has not been to a proper bookstore in many years, but she has made do with online shopping. Life on the bush necessitates many improvisations.

Werner and Estie enjoying a night out (Courtesy: Estie Taljaard)

Parenting in the Bush.

But choosing to live on the VLNR as a couple is very different than choosing to do it as the parents of two little ones who would be coming along for the ride. There are real dangers out here, threats that aren't lost on Estie or Werner.

"Obviously with the dangerous game, one cannot simply go outside the electric fence for a quick jog," says Estie. "Then there is always the possibility of a venomous snakebite. The hospital is an hour’s drive away. We teach our children to always be aware of snakes and scorpions, and they have to know what to do in case of an emergency."

But both Estie and Werner are quick to emphasize that growing up on a reserve is far from a bad place to experience childhood.

"I was not worried about moving my family to such a remote location, as the remoteness can be both an advantage as well as a disadvantage," Werner tells us. "We decided as a family to move to VLNR. Living and having your children growing up in this type of environment is an absolute privilege."

Estie, who never boasts, proudly confides that both of her children have "become quite the little explorers and conservationists I had hoped they would." Werner emphasizes the once-in-a-lifetime experiences that present themselves on a fairly regular basis. Like the time they went on a drive to get cellphone reception and stumbled upon two cheetahs on the side of the road feasting on a fresh warthog kill. "We were able to sit and observe them for almost an hour in their natural environment." In other words: not exactly what most 8-year-olds get to see on their commute.

"Obviously with the dangerous game, one cannot simply go outside the electric fence for a quick jog. Then there is always the possibility of a venomous snakebite. The hospital is an hour’s drive away. We teach our children to always be aware of snakes and scorpions and they have to know what to do in case of an emergency."

Estie Taljaard

A tough reality.

The stakes are higher at VLNR. Werner and his team are trying to protect a huge number of animals, elephants among them. And the fact of the matter is that they're doing a really good job. Too good of a job, in fact. By maintaining fences and enforcing exhaustive security, the VLNR has managed to keep its elephants safe. Elephants with plenty of food and water that aren't under the constant threat of poaching do what most animals do: they procreate. And they do it rapidly.

It's natural to wonder why this is a problem. Aren't elephants under constant attack? The problem with having too many elephants in a reserve is that elephants can be incredibly destructive animals, and when their numbers become unmanageable, they can destroy entire ecosystems -- making the areas they call home ultimately uninhabitable both for themselves and the many other flora and fauna in that habitat.

This is where Moving Giants came in. Helping re-home 200 elephants from the VLNR to neighboring Mozambique is not a small task and it's not one that Werner or Estie take lightly. They are some of the unsung heroes of this undertaking, and living their lives with the elephants next door has made them especially sensitive to the problem. Estie is particularly sad to see them go. As the person in charge of tracking all the elephants movements, she can see what areas they prefer to eat in, where they're playing and quickly identify patterns in their behavior. It's not hard to understand how intimately you come to know these animals when your job is to track their every move. Werner's connection to these animals runs just as deep.

For the first capture, these two were the first awake. Both eager and sad to give their gargantuan neighbors a proper send off as they headed to their new home.