Elephants Aren’t Just a Job, They’re Family for Wellington Jana

Spending your days in charge of half a dozen elephants can be rewarding but also physically and mentally demanding. Wellington Jana, Elephant Manager at Abu Camp in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, can’t imagine doing anything else.

Jana spends his days “raising” his second family, tending, training and feeding a herd of six female elephants at the camp.

The safari camp attracts dozens of visitors every year seeking out the beauty of Botswana and its wildlife. Owned by Paul Allen and managed by Wilderness Safaris, it focuses heavily on elephant conservation.

“I don’t call it a job. It’s part of my life,” says Jana.

Since Abu Camp started, nearly a dozen elephants have been returned to the wild thanks to handlers like Wellington and their work to rehabilitate them. One of their most famous elephants, Naledi, made her film debut last year in Vulcan Productions Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale, that can been seen on Netflix and has been adapted for broadcast on PBS’s Nature series.

We asked Jana what it’s like to see Naledi grow, how he manages the herd and what it’s like to live a life among the elephants at Abu.

This is a pretty special place. What do these elephants mean to you personally?

“With this Abu herd, they are just as good as a part of my family. So I’ve got an elephant family and then back at home a human family. I don’t call it a job. It’s part of my lifestyle. I love them. I don’t know whether they love me, as well. But with Naledi, we are good friends. She knows we are the ones who take good care of her. We’ve been taking care of her since she was little after she lost her mom, so we have become part of her family, also. There was a time where Naledi had become a bit confused. She didn’t know if she was a human being or an elephant. We ended up showing her the right family. Now she’s an elephant, although she keeps on coming back to us.”

You mentioned Naledi, the baby elephant featured in the Vulcan Productions documentary Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale. As her caregiver and human family member, what would you like to tell people about Naledi?

“We are all glad, the entire Abu team, not just myself, to have raised Naledi. After at some stage we thought she wasn’t going to make it, now we are glad she is going to make it. So we are all wishing her the best. That she won’t have any problems at all. Maybe one day, she will become a big elephant and make a decision whether she would like to stay or leave the Abu herd and go and be a wild elephant and start her own family in the wild.”

How do you take care of elephants? Tell us about how you actually care for the herd here.

“We try to keep it as natural as possible. During the day, they are free ranging. Then in the evening, we take them to their enclosure where we supplement their diet with branches from the wild or other food. We have a vet on standby about a 30-minute flight from here. If we have a problem, he will come and assist us. They are free to go and come back. With these elephants we give them two options: Either they leave and go be wild elephants. Or stay with us. But at the moment, there are no signs of anyone who would like to leave. They seem to be happy to be here with us because they are being taken care of. They know exactly where home is. They also feel safe in the enclosure with no disturbances from hyenas, lions or other elephants that could come and bother them.”