Meet the family saving Zimbabwe’s wildlife

Here at Love Nature we—to state the obvious—really love nature.

That’s why instead of just presenting you with the latest and greatest wildlife news, we’re also helping out behind the scenes, supporting amazing groups worldwide that are working to preserve the diverse and spectacular array of life our planet boasts.

Wild is Life, a Wildlife Sanctuary in Zimbabwe, is a prime example of the kind of animal superstars we partner with in this aim, transforming from a backyard hobby farm (of sorts) to a full-on sanctuary over the course of the past 18 years. We caught up with Jos Danckwerts, son of founder Roxy Danckwerts, to find out just why Wild is Life is so special and what we can all do to lend a paw, hoof, or trunk to the cause.

Hi Jos! Can you tell us why, and how, your mum began what is today Wild is Life?

My family lives on a farm just outside of Harare, most agricultural with a few small animals. Things began when my Mum rescued a duiker, a small antelope; soon we were also rescuing squirrels and many other types of small animals. During the early 2000s there was a lot of violence surrounding the land invasion crisis, and we were very fortunate to still have our farm.

Many people were driven from their land, and because my mom had gotten a good reputation for taking in baby animals in trouble, some of these people began to give us their animals for safekeeping. In 2001 we got out first lion, from there things grew exponentially. Now we have more than 100 animals from 15 species, raising and releasing as many as possible and continuing care for those we cannot. My mum did all this out of passion. There was certainly no plan for things to get as big as they are today.

Can you explain what is meant by the sanctuary’s one-by-one philosophy?

Conservation efforts in Zimbabwe and Africa, and really worldwide, are most concerned with a species as a whole, not individuals in the same way we see humans. It is very important to do this of course, but my Mum has always had a connection to wild animals and always had this idea that is important to recognise animals as individuals. Yes, big populations need to be protected but also each animal needs to be treated, and respected, as unique.

When did you decide to open to the public?

In 2007 we chose to start taking in visitors, we had gotten to a state where we had so many animals, and a lot of big animals. It had become impossible to fund our animals’ care purely from the farm. Also Zimbabwe was going through an economic meltdown and there was huge inflation. When it got to the point we were close to not being able to afford to feed the animals any longer, friends suggested we open to the public. You have to understand this is where we live, this is our family’s homestead of 80 years, and so we had kept things pretty personal.

But when we realised allowing visitors to see our animals and learn about the challenges they face would allow us to become sustainable we chose to go with it. We started by simply letting people sit on our veranda, have a cup of tea, and take in the experience. Now we’ve elaborated on this afternoon tea but still keep things very personal— with small group guided tours of the grounds and guests can interact with some animals. We also serve some fantastic food. Not a lot has changed all in all, but now we’re a proper operation.

Photo courtesy of  Wild is Life
Photo courtesy of Wild is Life

How did you move into elephants and the founding of the nursery—ZEN— Zimbabwe Elephant Nursery?

Mum always loved elephants, and while at school she had done projects on them. As children we used to go on safaris just to see elephants, they’ve been a family passion forever. We’d been following the work of the David Sheldrick Trust, and knew Zimbabwe has some of the largest remaining populations of elephants left in the world, which in many ways have been neglected compared to other places like Kenya.

We began to talk with the national park system about just how many orphaned elephants there were out there, thanks to humans and other causes. After two years of talking and discussing the countless orphans on the ground not getting help, you must realise the state of bureaucracy in a place like Zimbabwe, we finally were given permission to take in our first elephant in February 2014.

Mojo was our first rescue; my mum got a call from someone in Lake Kariba claiming they’d spotted a very young elephant very clearly alone and in distress. We got clearance and flew up with a pilot and vet and sure enough, found a very, very tiny baby elephant, only around 60 kilos when a newborn should weight 90 kilos. We still don’t know what happened that lead to her stranding but she quickly became a part of our family. She was raised from a few days old to now—a two-year old living with other elephants and loving her life.

Since then we’ve gotten four more orphans from varied circumstances all over the country. Our structure is built to house up to 10 babies at a time. Our herd is made up of elephants between two and five years and acts like a proper group, spending most of their day exploring our grounds together and the bush land on our neighbor’s farm. As we’re speaking they’ve just come back from a full day out, ready to settle in for the night.

Here’s a tricky question—any favourite residents?

Oh, that is a hard one; I live in an animal paradise!! Probably my favourite however is Pickles, a young female warthog. She was rescued horrible trauma—poaches killed her parents and then hunted her down with dogs and in the process suffered a broken tail. They kept her hoping to sell her. While she cannot lift her tail during sprints, something warthogs are so well known for, but she is amazingly perceptive of people. She can instantly tell whether you like or dislike her or when you’ve become irritated with her. She is really an attention hog most times, and when visitors are here we usually have the pen her up or she’ll run from guest to guest demanding food and the spotlight.

Aside from Pickles there’s our giraffe, Missy, who is such a sweetheart. Oh, and recently we got a very rare and secretive tiny type of antelope called a grysbok. She’s just beautiful and we call her Dixie.

Photo courtesy of Wild is Life
Photo courtesy of Wild is Life

How about a favourite release story?

Last year I helped release a pair of hedgehogs on the periphery of Hwange National Park. This release was special for me because the fate awaiting these hedgehogs before they came to us was certain death. They’d been purchased by a witchdoctor or traditional healer, who intended to use them in some form of magic.

When they came to us they were in bad shape, covered in mange and very, very thin. But we cleaned the pair up, spent around six months getting them fat and healthy, then looked for a good release spot, one filled with many other hedgehogs and protected. While we didn’t collar them, we’re satisfied they’re happy and well. Given the pair was a male and female, hopefully they’ve now got little hoglets running around with them.

Some residents at the sanctuary are awaiting a safe release site, and so securing good, safe locations for reintroduction has become a big goal for us. Right now we’re working to nail down two separate release spots, ensuring anti-poaching efforts are in place so we can confidently release more animals, especially those targeted by hunters, poaches, and sensitive to human conflict.

In fact Dixie was actually noticed by one of our team of 10 working in one of these proposed regions. After they’d spent a few days observing to make sure her parents were in fact, out of the picture, and noting that she was frantically calling out and becoming sick, called me and I came up to get her. Once we got her back we got her straight on the bottle and started to turn things around for her.

What’s next for Wild is Life and ZEN?

Our future plans and goals are big. First and foremost we need to complete our three-part elephant project. Part one is complete, the nursery. Now we need to get safe release spots secured and set a base nearby to make sure our orphans are given the chance to mingle with bigger elephants and eventually a full, wild herd. Then the third part of plan is something we call Elephants and Ecosystems, promoting the protection of both elephants and the place they are still left.

Photo courtesy of Wild is Life
Photo courtesy of Wild is Life

How can people help out?

People can help out in a few ways. Most importantly they can come visit us. We say seeing is believing—and we’ve got a lot to show. Internationally we’re working more and more on ways people can become involved in what we do. A few weeks back our elephant foster programme opened, which for a $50.00 contribution comes with a certificate of adoption, access to a private Facebook group that we fill with updates.

Lastly, besides from just visiting us, people should really consider taking a trip to Zimbabwe to take in the amazing landscape and wild life in it. As a nation we have a bit of an identity crisis, but the reality is we still have a lot of our wildlife intact and now is the time to protect it from things we should be moved past, like poaching. The ways things are now…this won’t last.


If you’d like to know more about Wild Is Life and what we’re doing to help this great organisation, please take a look at our Causes Page