Curious Questions: What’s it like to keep your own elephants?

Elephants may look prehistoric but they’re sophisticated, says the Duke of Bedford. He spoke to Octavia Pollock.

It was before dawn when the first elephants arrived at Bedfordshire’s Woburn Safari Park in 1997, after travelling for 40 hours from India. For the Duke of Bedford, it was a magical moment: ‘A crane lifted the crates off, we opened the doors and they just walked off, trusting and happy.’

Tarli was born to Damini and Raja in 2014 and ‘aunts’ Yu-Zin and Chandrika ‘all teach manners and reprimand bad behaviour, telling Tarli right from wrong’. They certainly have deep conversations. ‘I hear them talking,’ says the Duke, ‘a great rumbling that goes right through you.’

Duke of Bedford with his Elephants

Credit: Richard Cannon / Country Life

The females will go for a walk every day, meeting people, showing off their strength and agility. Only Raja lives in a separate enclosure: ‘Bulls aren’t reliable. When they come into musk, they can be dangerous, so we never run the risk.’

Of the female elephants, Damini is the most skittish — ‘she’ll wind the others up’ — but they’re all amenable. When Tarli got herpes, aged four: ‘The team was up with her 24/7 for a month and vets around the world were talking about her. She was stuck with a needle twice a day, which none of us would like, but she was such a good patient. She helped herself get better.’

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Duke of Bedford with his Elephants

Credit: Richard Cannon / Country Life

Indeed, elephants are noted for their intelligence: ‘They may look prehistoric, but they’re sophisticated. We hide food around their enclosure and, if we put medication inside a melon, they’ll stand on it very gently to break it apart and eat it all except the pills.’

For something so huge, it’s strangely easy to lose them when they’re camouflaged against tree trunks. ‘You can be 50 yards away and not know they’re there until they rip off a branch to eat,’ notes the Duke.

‘Their feet are like incredibly soft leather and they walk gently, like a big cat, so you can hardly hear them coming. They’re bulky, but not clumsy.’