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Monday November 16 8:16 AM ET Orphaned South African Elephant Adopted By Sheep

Orphaned South African Elephant Adopted By Sheep

By Ed Stoddard

HOEDSPRUIT, South Africa (Reuters) - They make an improbable couple as they amble side by side down a dusty lane.

Mother and adopted son are both four-legged and herbivores, but that's where their similarities end.

Abandoned by his biological mother in the wild, Jabulani, a two-year-old elephant, has found a most unlikely maternal figure -- ``Skaap,'' a female sheep.

``Skaap is very good with young wild animals,'' said Lente Roode, the South African owner and director of the Hoedspruit Breeding and Research Center for Endangered Species.

``When we bring an orphaned or injured animal from the wild to here they are very stressed. Skaap has a calming influence on them,'' Roode said.

Skaap, whose name is Afrikaans for sheep, has forged a special bond with Jabulani, who was brought to the center as an infant almost two years ago.

``He was stuck in the mud at Phalaborwa, which is a game reserve run by a mining company,'' Roode said. ``We pulled him out and waited for his mother to return, but she didn't, so we brought him here.''

``And Skaap has been with Jabulani since day one.''

The pair are now inseparable, spending virtually every waking minute together.

``She's always there and she's always friendly, even if he pushes her,'' said Roode.

Jubalani, whose name is Zulu for happy, has three full time human minders who feed the 250 kg (550 lb) animal his regular dosage of milk -- every three hours, as he is a rapidly growing boy.


Skaap has helped soothe the nerves of a variety of other orphaned animals, including white rhinos and water buffaloes.

Large herbivores were not the center's specialty when Roode began setting it up in 1988. Its initial focus was on the breeding and preservation of the world's fastest mammal -- the cheetah.

``I had a pet cheetah when I was a girl growing up on a farm and I've loved them ever since,'' said Roode as she stroked one of her big cats.

She is especially proud of her clan of rare king cheetahs, which are not a separate species but have a recessive gene that produces striking black horizontal stripes along the animal's back instead of the regular spots.

The privately-run center, in South Africa's northern province near the Kruger National Park, also has a pack of ferocious wild dogs, only a few hundred of which remain in the wild.

Feathered inhabitants include three injured white storks and several ground hornbills, which have been pushed to the brink of extinction.

The center also boasts what Roode calls her ``vulture restaurant,'' a shallow pit where the carcasses of animals that die or are culled in nearby game parks are left to rot in the sun and feed the local population of vultures.


Many of the animals brought to or born in the center are eventually set free in the wild.

Roode hopes to release Jubalani early next year in the neighboring Kapama game reserve, a 13,000 hectare (32,120 acres) park that has a herd of more than 20 elephants.

``We hope the herd will adopt Jubalani. Experts have told me that there is a 90 percent chance that they will take him in,'' Roode said.

She said that his trio of human keepers and Skaap will go into the bush with him to see him off -- just in case the herd rejects him.

If it accepts him, Roode has no doubt that the parting of sheep and elephant will be a sad farewell. But there will be other motherless elephants for Skaap to work her maternal magic on.


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