Conversations in the Spirit of Nature Connection

The Voortrekker Project.
Dedicated to the memory of the great elephant elder of the Namib desert, who was known as Voortrekker, a name which means “the one who leads the way.”

Over the next few months I will hold a series of online Zoom conversations with lovers of the natural world – photographers and writers, naturalists, conservationists and spiritual leaders. We’re going to speak about our inner connection with nature, share personal stories of powerful encounters with animals and the wild, and explore the profound sense of meaning this gives to our lives.

These conversations, lead by the heart, aim to raise consciousness of our innate, spiritual connection with our fellow creatures and the natural world – just as the world’s indigenous wisdom keepers have always known and taught.

I will speak with the wonderful elephant researcher, Dr Laura Brown, of Desert Elephant Conservation, who has spent 15 years studying the desert elephant families of Namibia and knows them intimately.

One of the world’s outstanding nature photographers, Staffan Widstrand, a National Geographic explorer and co-founder of Rewilding Europe, will show his magnificent images and speak about Rewilding, which is restoring species and habitats across Europe.

And Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg, a leading ecological voice within Judaism, will share the beautiful spiritual teachings on our intimate connection with the whole of creation.

I call this series of conversations The Voortrekker Project, after the great male elephant elder of the African Namib desert, Voortrekker, pictured above.

Voortrekker was named for his leadership of his community of desert-adapted elephants in northern Namibia. Around 2000 he appeared unexpectedly in the dry river valleys of northern Damaraland, where elephants had all been killed in the violence of war and poaching. Voortrekker had crossed hundreds of kilometres of bare gravel plains with few sources of food or water to reach these valleys. He spent weeks exploring the riverside trees and bushes, and he dug wells with his feet and trunk to reach the water sources that ran beneath the surface.

Then he disappeared. Months later, he returned, leading some small family groups of females and young. He had inspired them with trust and confidence to follow him on the arduous trek into the new habitat he had discovered.

When I met Voortrekker in the Namib, I knew immediately that he was a rare and beautiful being: a conscious presence in the person of an elephant. Elephant elders like Voortrekker – male and female – have vital roles in their communities. They are the teachers, guides and mentors for the young. They are the holders of ecological memories, the ones who show the way to others.

In June 2019 Voortrekker was shot dead; somebody had paid to kill him as a trophy. A person utterly ignorant of who he really was – this great elephant elder, who cared for others in his community and was carrying the life wisdom of elephant-kind into the future.

As I write this now, on the 22nd of September 2020, remembering Voortrekker’s violent death, few things are more essential than the healing of our broken bonds with our fellow beings, and the planet itself. From my own experiences with the elephants, and with great whales, wolves, bears and many others, I know that there is wisdom, and conscious presence, in our fellow creatures which can help lead the way back to authentic relationship with the natural world – relationship founded on love and understanding, that rises naturally from the heart of our humanity.

Eleanor O’Hanlon in Namibia, land of the desert elephants. Photo Stephen Pope

Eleanor O’Hanlon

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