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Four-ton elephant is real giant of South African soccer

By Hamilton Wende and David McKenzie, CNN
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True football giants
  • Orphaned elephants play with footballs at Knysna national park
  • Park rangers say the balls help the animals' cognitive development
  • Wild elephants in region were believed to be extinct, but a few still exist
  • Behavioral patterns suggest park elephants communicate with wild elephants

Knysna, South Africa (CNN) -- The real giant of the World Cup isn't Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka or Lionel Messi -- it's Namibia, a four-ton orphaned elephant with serious dribbling skills and a placid temperament unlike many of the stars on the human fields.

At the Knysna Elephant Park in South Africa, orphaned elephants have been kicking a soccer ball for years. This year the playing pachyderms have gotten into the spirit of the World Cup. It's not just fun and games, though.

"It's cognitive development therapy for them," says park manager Greg Vogt. "Soccer and playing with the soccer ball brings in an element in the relationship between each of the handlers and the elephants. Every elephant is an individual, a specific personality and every handler has his own personality."

There are a dozen orphaned elephants in the park, all of different ages, but all young animals. They are all from traumatized backgrounds, separated from the comforting and essential relationships of the herds in the wild, they now form bonds with their human handlers. Each elephant is a distinct individual and the rapport with their handlers takes years to develop.

Khulumani Moyo is one of the handlers who has looked after Namibia for some time now. He knows all the elephants and cares for their well-being. "Here they are enjoying a second life," he says. Then he points to Namibia with particular pride. "As you can see it is healthy, he is happy here."

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An important aspect of these young elephants' healthy development is the free range environment in which they are allowed to roam.

"They never cause problems with the surrounding farmers," Vogt says, "because they know the food source is here. They are not going to leave the park to search for food."

There is an irony here in that the surrounding forests were once home to one of the largest free-ranging herds of elephants in the country.

The destruction of their habitat and hunting in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, decimated the herds, until the Knysna elephants were believed by many to be extinct, their existence being regarded as little more than a local myth.

Recent sightings, however, coupled with DNA analysis of dung samples found in the surrounding forests confirm that a tiny population of elephants still roam the forests. Estimates range between four and seven individuals remaining hidden deep among the tall trees.

"There are definitely elephants there," Vogt says. When asked if there is any communication between the orphans and the wild elephants, he nods his head.

"There are a number of behaviural patterns that have been recorded on elephants communicating. On at least two occasions we have noticed our elephants assuming the posture for long-distance communication."

The relationship between the orphaned elephants in the park, and those few remaining in the wild is not clear, but in the park they are using soccer to build stronger bonds between human and elephant and to learn more about how these animals understand the world around them.

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