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Happy elephants who work voluntarily

These elephants live free range in a reserve that also includes wild populations, and they remain... read more

Reviewed 4 weeks ago
gmw725
,
San Marcos, California
Superb and very well organised

I’m not sure why the previous reviewer has been so forensically over critical, to be honest I had... read more

Reviewed September 12, 2019
mikedD3003IN
,
Bewerley, United Kingdom
via mobile
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Reviewed 4 weeks ago

These elephants live free range in a reserve that also includes wild populations, and they remain at Shearwater voluntarily; one of them joined the wild herd, and they have made no effort to bring her back. What do the elephants get out of the deal? In exchange for easy work at most 2 hours per day, they receive great rations including melons, hay, etc., and a comfy bed at night. They aren't chained, and their training is through positive reinforcement. They were all rescued as youngsters after their mothers died (either from poaching or due to drought). They were raised by their handlers. They are now supported by the foundation, who originally intended to release them, but they were too friendly to humans and attracted to villages, which is a death sentence to an elephant, so they had to be brought back to the sanctuary. They are now used for rides, to support themselves, and to raise money for solar-powered watering holes to be placed in critical areas to prevent the deaths of other elephants so that no more elephants are orphaned. All in all, it's a great program, I think. We felt good about what they are doing (then again, I have a horse who works an hour a day in exchange for room and board, so I'm comfortable with the concept). The alternative for these elephants was death. The one elephant who is living with a herd returned for a few nights the week before we were there. They fitted her with a tracking device because they want to know how she is faring (and also to make sure she is not putting herself at risk with human contact). They hope to learn from her in hopes of benefiting the other elephants. She left again to rejoin the herd on her own accord.

I recommend this activity. Don't hold back because you're worried about the ethics. We asked a lot of questions, and as nearly as we can tell, these people are top notch, and working hard for the benefit of the elephants to keep them happy and healthy, and do the best they can for them.

Date of experience: September 2019
Thank gmw725
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Reviewed September 12, 2019 via mobile

I’m not sure why the previous reviewer has been so forensically over critical, to be honest I had lost the will to live before finishing reading the review. Some people need to understand that this is Africa not their own country and maybe stay at home!!!

Anyway, our experience here was fantastic, there is clearly a very close bond between the animals and their handlers and the animals are clearly very happy and well cared for. Our guide Tendai was a lovely chap and very informative as was our driver Thabiso. A great ride (very comfortable) followed by a great breakfast. We bought two foot print pictures as it’s good to patronise as much as possible as this benefits the animals. Don’t think twice, if you want an Elephant experience, book it here!

Great respect for all you do to keep these amazing animals safe and happy.

All the very best
Mike and Elaine

Date of experience: September 2019
Thank mikedD3003IN
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Reviewed August 27, 2019

The activities we did with Shearwater were good, but the company is so unorganized, it's hard to believe it's one of the two largest in Victoria Falls.

Trying to contact the company to book with them took a few days, as their website doesn't always work. Finally I got hold of them through e-mail. We wanted to book the Land of the Giants Combo, which is a rhino game drive paired with an elephant ride at a lower price than booking each individually. They were both half day activities, so we assumed we were booking a full day activity with the combo. Shearwater's website changes frequently, but at the time a rhino drive was 4.5 hours at $132, and the elephant ride was about 3.5 hours with the price changing from $195 to $150 to a couple other things, and there was no time listed for how long the Combo would last, but we assumed it would be around 7 hours. Shearwater sent an invoice for $190 each.

You can only pay with a bank transfer, and then you have to fax Shearwater a copy of it. The fax wouldn't go through - something was wrong with Shearwater's number - so we e-mailed a scanned copy and were told by Shearwater they would confirm receipt. Two weeks later we still hadn't heard anything, so I e-mailed again. They said the transfer had been $10 short. My bank confirmed that the full amount had gone through, so I asked to see a receipt from Shearwater. They sent a second invoice for $10, saying it must be bank charges. We had already paid $30 above the transfer amount in bank charges, so I asked to see a receipt from their bank, not one they had typed up in their own office. Two weeks later, Shearwater responded, saying the $10 had been bank charges, and they would forgive it this one time, but the invoice says that customers are responsible for paying bank charges. This is true, but then Shearwater needs to tell customers what that amount is. I can pay my own bank's charges and did, but neither I nor my bank have any way of knowing what charges Shearwater's bank might apply. It is Shearwater's bank, and their responsibility to inform customers what fee to send. If I hadn't asked to see a bank receipt, I would have spent another $30 sending Shearwater $10, only to have their bank take that amount as their fee again, and still owe Shearwater $10 - which is nuts.

I asked Shearwater to send an itinerary for our day with them. Instead of the full day we expected, our schedule was:
5:30 pick up for rhino drive
7:30 breakfast
8:30 elephant ride
9:30 transfer back
This was only four hours instead of seven or eight (currently on their website they now have a time listed for the Combo, and it's five hours). Instead of a 4.5 hour rhino drive, we'd only be getting a 1.5 hour drive. Booking the Combo didn't save money - it shorted us on time. It probably would have been better worth it to book the two activities separately at a higher cost and get the full day out of it.

We didn't receive the e-mailed vouchers for the activity. A month later I e-mailed Shearwater (having found out from another company we booked with that vouchers were necessary) and got no response. I tried again two weeks later, and they sent an e-mail saying the vouchers were attached - they were not. I contacted them again and finally got the vouchers, which said they would be picking us up for the elephant ride from the elephant ride and not our hotel. Also, the elephant ride was now first, then the rhino drive. It took another week and a half to get vouchers that said we would be picked up from our hotel. Except now we were being picked up at our hotel for the elephant ride, driven back there, then picked up again for the rhino drive at 7:00. I contacted Shearwater, and they said that no matter what the vouchers said, the original schedule they'd sent was correct.

What actually happened was that we got picked up for the rhino drive, taken directly to the elephant ride at 8:00, rode for 45 minutes, had a brief breakfast afterward, and were back at our hotel before 9:30.

The rhino drive was operated by Stanley and Livingstone, and was good, though short and rushed due to Shearwater's schedule. For the elephant ride, it was just the two of us, each on our own elephant with a mahoot, though we saw a larger group of maybe ten that had gone before us. 45 minutes is a fairly good length for an elephant ride. I wouldn't want to do more than an hour - it's not too comfortable, but it's an elephant and they're not designed to be. I got to ask the mahoot I was sitting behind
lots of questions about elephants, and especially about these elephants. They're rescues from the 1980s and 2006 culls that otherwise would have been killed. They do two rides a day, and otherwise get to roam wherever they want, always with at least one mahoot following on foot looking after them. I asked, and was told that the elephants choose where to go, not the mahoot, as he's just there to guard them against poachers. When I asked if the elephants ever decide that they don't want to do rides some days, the mahoot laughed and said, no, they're well-trained. He said they're trained with positive reinforcement, but he did carry a stick, though I didn't see him use it. At the end of the ride the elephants have padded chains placed on one back foot while you feed them treats. This disturbed me a bit, but they said it was just for the feeding (and it was), explaining that if they didn't do this, the elephants would try to shove in and take each other's food, and that wasn't safe for anybody.

We'd done Wild Horizon's Elephant Encounter the day before and, when you feed those elephants at the end, they're put behind a wooden barrier and spaced out each with their handlers next to them. You get to touch the elephants more at the Encounter than on the Ride. Other reviewers have criticized the artificial feel of the interaction, and both felt rather artificial, but I found it very enjoyable to be able to interact with elephants when we'd been seeing wild ones in the bush everyday, and it has to be artificial - if you tried to get too close to a wild elephant, it would grind you into the ground with its forehead because it would see you as a threat. Physically interacting with an elephant and not getting squashed is by nature artificial.

Buying your elephant's footprint (done in nontoxic children's fingerpaint on paper made from elephant dung) cost $20 (WH was $25). You could also buy a disc with photos of the ride by a photographer who'd followed along on foot for $20. (WH also charges $20, or $30 for a USB.) They wouldn't let my friend and I split the cost of the disc, saying it was $20 for each elephant, so I said I'd just get mine. Looking at the disc at home, it has both our photos afterall, most are of my friend, and in the photos of me most are of the back of my head. At least the money went toward the upkeep of the elephants.

We booked the bridge tour through another company and Shearwater ended up being the operator. When the driver came to pick up a group of us, we showed him our voucher, and he drove us there. My friend and I were the only ones doing the bridge tour, while others were doing bungee jumping or the zipline, etc. The driver took us to a cafe and said we'd be meeting there when everyone was done. We waited awhile, then figured out we were expected to find where our separate activities were on our own. We had to leave our bags with the Shearwater staff. A guide playing one of the bridge architects harnessed up with us and took us along the catwalk under the bridge, and we walked back on top. It was a good tour. Back at the cafe, we couldn't find the driver. As a group, we all walked through the yelling touts back to the van. He wasn't there either, but had left it unlocked with the windows open, and a woman had let herself in. One man went out, and finally found the driver and brought him back. When we were dropped off at our hotel, the company we had booked through had called and left us three e-mails asking if we were alright. Apparently, the wrong Shearwater driver had picked us up, even after twice checking our voucher, and so Shearwater had mistakenly told the other company that we were missing.

The activities themselves were good, but it's hard to believe Shearwater is still in business when it seems to be so unorganized at every turn. I'd recommend booking mostly with a smaller, locally owned company like Discover Safaris, where you get personalized customer service and attention to detail so that everything runs smoothly.

Date of experience: August 2019
Thank Ace6of6Clubs
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Reviewed July 2, 2019

Be reassured these elephants are happy and well looked after. They only work for 2 hours a day, and do it for treats. They eat whilst they are giving rides anyway. The rest of the time they are trumpeting around a large reserve in a herd, with their trainers on guard. These elephants could not be release to the wild, and riding them provides money for conservation and anti poaching. It is expensive, but that means the elephants only have a 2 hour working day.

Date of experience: July 2019
Thank Toby P
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
Reviewed June 26, 2019

This was a really fun activity, and quite the adventure going from Zambia to Zimbabwe for the day to do it. Riding them was fun, but really just like riding a horse after a few minutes. The best part was the interaction with them afterwards. Everyone in our party absolutely loved doing this, and any reservations they had about doing it prior were completely erased. The elephants are very well treated and seem happy. We highly recommend this activity.

Date of experience: June 2019
Thank kparks66
This review is the subjective opinion of a TripAdvisor member and not of TripAdvisor LLC.
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