By Myrtle Ryan and Peta Thornycroft

This week three Zimbabwean elephants proved that rhinos and elephants can form close bonds, and that elephants do mourn. 

Gruesome pictures flashed around the world this week of the three black rhinos shot by members of the Zimbabwe Army, dressed in camouflage uniforms and carrying AK-47 rifles. Each rhino had had a guard, but they were assaulted during the attack at Imire Safari Ranch in Wedza last week.

When elephants Mundebvu, Makavusi and Toto were taken to where their former rhino companions Amber, DJ and Sprinter were buried, they reacted in almost human fashion, touching and supporting each other and showing obvious grief. While elephants have been known to behave in such a fashion around remains of their own kind, people might be surprised to find them behaving in the same way around rhinos, which are sometimes treated with animosity.

 According to Johnny Rodrigues, the chairman of the Zimbabwe Conservation Task Force, since the attack, money has been pouring into a special fund set up by the Travers family – the owners of Imire.

Rodrigues said: "Four armed poachers dressed in camouflage uniform assaulted and tied up the rhino guards and opened fire on the three adult rhino in their pens." All three were killed. Imire is one of the few privately owned conservancies left in Zimbabwe and its rhino breeding programme has attracted international donor support.Rodrigues expressed "utter shock, horror and disbelief" at the killings. He said over the past 20 years the Travers family "have lovingly reared and bred these animals", successfully releasing 13 black rhino back into Matusadona National Park. 

'The elephants were passing sticks to each other' 

"The three rhino were dehorned six weeks ago to make them less attractive to poachers. Nevertheless, the poachers tried to hack out the few centimetres of new horn growth from one of the rhinos before being frightened off."

John and Judy Travers appealed for funding for a reward to anyone giving information leading to the capture and conviction of those who had slaughtered the rhinos.

DJ, Sprinter and Amber were used in a breeding programme to successfully reintroduce endangered black rhino to the Zambezi valley. All were brutally killed, leaving a seven-week-old calf, Tatenda. Amber was due to give birth to her calf this week.  Speaking about the relationship between the animals, Nicola Roche, a family member, said the elephants and rhinos often walked around together. At night the rhinos were kept in the boma while the elephants slept outside. "They [the elephants] must have been very aware of the shots and screams [of the rhinos]," said Roche.

She said Judy had told her how the elephants had reacted when taken to the rhinos' burial spot two days after the incident.

"Something like this affects everyone and everything," said Roche. "The elephants were passing sticks to each other and Judy said you could see their tears running down their faces."  She said Amber and her foetus were buried under a beautiful msassa tree – where she was born.

On reaching this spot Mundebvu (who is herself in calf) dug down for about one metre to try to reach her former companion, constantly letting out screams and shrieks as the other two elephants supported her.

This article was originally published on page 1 of Sunday Independent on November 18, 2007