Italian couple falls in love with Kenyan elephants

Adriano Ghirardello and his wife Giovanna enjoy one of their weekly visits to Tsavo National Park. The Italian couple has lived in Malindi since 2001.
When Adriano Ghirardello and his wife Giovanna first set foot in Kenya in 1980 as love-smitten tourists from Italy, they were swept off their feet by the country.

The lush vegetation, vast virgin lands and the wildlife were just too much for the retired vehicle salespeople used to high fashion and fancy cars back home in Milan, Italy. Adriano quickly made a mental note as Giovanna gave him that knowing smile.

They vowed that one day, the endless charm, boundless horizons made up of pristine and primeval nature would be their retirement home.

Decades later in 2001, they bought a home and settled in Malindi at the Kenyan coast.

They have never looked back. They have explored nearly all parts of Kenya and interacted with Kenyans from all walks of life.

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Adriano, 69, says he has had the privilege of meeting former presidents Daniel arap Moi, Mwai Kibaki and the current Uhuru Kenyatta.   

I meet the couple in their lovely home and they say they can never get enough of the Kenyan topography and its warm people.

“For me, it was like love at first sight. My wife was equally blown off by the beauty, the smell of the forest, the open sky and the escape from the increasingly oppressive constraints of modernity.

“Indeed, I remember her saying something like Kenya was as if God had just finished stitching the landscape,” Adriano recalls.

Undying love

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The two met while working in Europe and they believe fate brought them together because of their undying love for wild animals, especially elephants.

“While I was young, I was fascinated by exotic animals and I would dream of changing into an animal of the Savannah, while my husband says he was seduced by the Tarzan films,” Giovanna opens up.

For his dedication towards conservation of wildlife at the Tsavo National Park, Adriano was made an honorary warden by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) in 2017.

He says it is a great honour, which inspires him to do even more. They visit the park at least twice a week, helping the wardens and tour guides in taking care of ecosystem.

After noticing animals suffer due to dwindling pasture and water sources, the couple has helped construct more than five dams in the vast park.

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“The first dam was opened in 2007 and the impact has been huge. When we visit Milan and other European cities and tell the story of Kenyan wildlife, many people are very excited. We must do everything possible to sustain this ecosystem,” Adriano says.

After their visits to the park, they prepare reports on the state of wildlife, tour guides and visitors then share the information with KWS directors every three months.

Adriano says confidently that he is a stakeholder in Kenya’s efforts to conserve the wildlife and he would not trade that with any amount of financial wealth or luxury back in Italy.

“Kenya is my home now and I would never change that for anything in this world. Kenya has given us a refreshing beginning and a big break from the monotony of so-called civil life,” he tells Sunday Standard.

He urges all Kenyans to jealously protect the nature and avoid situations that heighten the never-ending human/wildlife conflict.

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“Let KWS, concerned Government agencies, donors and well-wishers do their part, but every Kenyan has a role to play,” he says.

Giovanna adds that she was immediately taken in by the gentle giants of Tsavo, hence the cameras, note book and pen in hand whenever they are out in any park across the country.

“Nothing beats observing, listening to and understanding animals’ behaviour. Elephants are so smart, complex, loving, powerful and funny too. I could spend my whole life watching them,” she says.

God Tsavo

Their love for elephants has been captured in a book titled Sons of the God Tsavo published last year.

In the book’s introduction, Giovanna writes that while she is not a professional writer or photographer, the compilation and production of the book was out of her desire to share her experiences in the wild, especially with elephants.

“Every picture taken is part of me. It has an emotion in it that I have tried to stop with a click; a different light, particular behaviour, the bond between calves and their mothers,” she writes.

The episodes described in the book took more than three years to put together.

She says the photos give them that sensation of living in prehistoric ages, when animals moved freely in big groups.

She describes how the matriarch elephant is at the centre of ‘family’ life, dictating when others eat, drink, play, sleep or move from one place to another. She captures the intense love mothers have for their calves and how the bond is maintained.

Giovanna says elephants’ behaviour has not changed in thousands of years and it should inspire in human beings what trust, respect and love should be.

“Every time I set out on a game drive to search for elephants, I feel like I am going to meet my long lost relatives and people that I love deeply.

“This is because jumbos are loving beings,” she says.