I have elephants on my mind today. Last night when we were trawling YouTube it threw up a mesmerizing BBC film about the desert elephants of Mali’s Sahel. It was made back in 2001, and followed a research project that involved fitting radio collars to 8 elephants (a very tricky pursuit) and tracking them and their herd over a 700 mile migration route, from water source to water source, as they crossed the desert lands of Mali and Burkina Faso. A subsequent trawl on the web suggests the research is ongoing under the auspices of Save The Elephants. The film is well worth viewing, and this is the link to the Daily Motion version: The Lost Elephants of Timbuktu 2001.
I’ve written about the Maasai Mara in other posts. Here’s an excerpt from a piece that was long-listed in the Brandt Travel Guide competition ages ago:
Dances with warriors
Night on the Mara River – darkness wraps round, close as a Maasai’s blanket. It is cold, too, on the river’s bend. We press closer the campfire, our white faces soon roasting red. No one speaks. There’s too much to listen for. A hyena whoops across the water? It sounds close. It sounds unearthly, sending shock waves through vulnerable bones – mine, conjuring packs of predators, out there, circling our ring of light. And even as I think it the Maasai are on us. Six warriors, spears in hand and naked to the waist. Their leader tosses his ostrich-feather head-dress that looks like a lion’s mane. He is fearless. He is lion.
Then the singing starts, a nasal falsetto that resonates through time and space – the winds’ whine through Mara grasses. The Maasai girls trip lightly into the firelight, their wraps like flames – yellow, red; close-cropped heads hung with beads; chins jutting forward as the crescent necklets – tiny beads so patiently strung – rise and fall on skinny chests. The moran start to leap – higher, faster.
Their dance fires the blood as it was once meant to in the days when the young morani proved their courage by killing a lion; but we see the collecting box left discreetly in the grass. These kids are from the nearby settlements, but before I unravel the question of exploitation – theirs or ours – the dancers pounce, dragging us into a conga, pastoralist-style. I let the Maasai girl take my hand. She’s about fourteen years old and she is boss. After all, this is her land – the big skies and the rippling oat grass, and our small camp in the outer reserve remains there only on her clansmen’s say-so. The hand that grips mine is small and hard.
So I follow her, graceless in the rhythms I cannot fathom, wend with the snake of dancers on and round the camp. The dancers know we’re squeamish and should not be put at risk, so we stray no further than the firelight’s edge, never crossing the bounds of the vast out there.
And of course, being on safari, and staying at a luxury, tented camp, we have been taken to visit the vast out there. We went earlier that day and naturally, being tender wazungu, we ventured only in daylight, with the rising sun at our back, and we went, not on foot, but in the Land Rover whose solid sides we were sure would protect us from too much closeness with the wilderness.
copyright 2019 Tish Farrell
I have no recollection of taking this photo. I came across it yesterday in a pile of ‘to scan’ shots that had been lurking on my desk for a while. How could I not remember this marvellous scene – elephant family against Maasai Mara backdrop of the Oloololo Escarpment? Not only that (and I know elephants are short-sighted) but the one left-of-centre, possibly the matriarch, seems to be looking straight into my lens. And the ears are out, which is not usually a very good sign. Fortunately, though, the trunk is not up. When that happens, swift retreat is definitely called for; an angry elephant can flatten a truck.
We must have driven on and left them to their peaceful browsing. Time is of the essence; it takes a lot to fill an elephant every day – 300-400lb (135-180kg) of grass, reeds and tree parts (grass is their preferred food and they actively deforest areas to encourage grasslands, which may explain the broken tusk) and 30-60 gallons (135-270 litres) of water. A full time job then, seeing to those creature requirements.
For more about elephants see the previous post.
copyright 2018 Tish Farrell
Daily Prompt creature
The fervour of elephant love should never be underestimated. Look like a threat to an elephant child and death will surely follow. But in peaceful surroundings, and from safe quarters, the way a matriarchal group shepherds and protects their young is marvellous to behold. The header photo was taken in the Maasai Mara in 1999 from a safari truck, but the account below is of a scene witnessed in 1992, one night at Kilaguni Lodge in Tsavo West national park. Some of you will have read this piece before, but then I think it’s worth retelling. You can’t say too much about elephants, can you:
Night comes swiftly in the African bush but never quietly. As the sun drops behind the Chyulu Hills, so the pipe and whirr of frog and bug ratchet up a few decibels. It is like a million high tension wires being pinged and twanged. If you listen with both ears it can drive you mad. Likewise, if you allow yourself to succumb to the night’s sticky heat and the hypnotic scents of thorn flowers, then do not be surprised when the sudden scream of a tree hyrax stops your heart.
But we are not going mad. And our hearts are just fine. We think we have cracked this Africa lark. Well sprayed with insect-repellent, all accessible parts covered as can be, anti-malarials ingested, it seems safe to sit out on our veranda at Kilaguni Lodge and do some night-time big game watching.
Below our room is a barren stretch of red volcanic earth, and a water-hole lit up by two search lights. The illuminated circle that the lights create is like a stage set. It seems we are seated in a mysterious wildlife theatre waiting for the cast to appear.
The contrast is disturbing. By day, this self-same set is furnace red, littered with volcanic spoil; it is the haunt of the cadaverous-looking marabou storks and the occasional zebra. By night, all is softer, surreal. You feel you might dissolve through the light into perpetual darkness; for out there the night goes on forever, doesn’t it?
And so we go on gazing at the scene. It takes some time to realize that small groups of impala are emerging from the gloom. Their stillness is mesmerizing. Perhaps they are not there at all.
The impala are wary. You can almost see the charge of anxiety ripple through the herd. We hold our breath and stare into the dark behind the lights.
And then we see them – black hulks gliding through the thorn trees. Elephants. They have come so silently, walking always on tiptoes, their heels cushions of fat to muffle their footfalls. Slowly they move in from the bush. Even in the dimness beyond the pool, their hides glow red, irradiated by the igneous dirt they have blown over themselves.
In the wings the elephants pause. It is hard to say how many are there. After a few moments two peel away and the rest of the group retreats again into darkness. Two large matriarchs now head for the pool. At the water’s edge they part, and in matched strides stake out the water-hole from opposite directions. There’s an angry trumpeting when an impala fails to withdraw fast enough, and only when the entire bank is clear do the elephants go down and drink. Yet they have hardly taken a couple of gulps when they move back and take up guard duty, one at each end of the mud bank.
We are transfixed. We cannot fathom the plot, but note that, despite the elephants’ aggressive stance, there has been a concerted gracefulness to their routine. It crosses my mind that the great choreographer, Balanchine, once made a ballet for elephants. Now we see they have dances of their own.
And so we wait.
Slowly the rest of the group reappears, moving as one in the tightest huddle. As they enter the spotlight we understand. Tucked safely between the legs of four large cows are three infants. Like precious celebrities surrounded by an escort of heavies, the youngsters are guided to the water. There, with tiny trunks they cannot quite control, they drink their fill. The whole thing takes only a few minutes. Then, with this life-and-death task accomplished, the sentinels re-join the group, and the small herd leaves as silently as it came, melting into the backdrop.
For the rest of this piece see earlier post The Tsavo Big Game Show – It’s A Dangerous Pursuit
copyright 2018 Tish Farrell
Well, it had to be done didn’t it. This week Ailsa’s theme is BEHIND, and this was the first photo I thought of, taken in the Maasai Mara years ago. It’s been a while I think since I last posted it, and bears a re-run.
Also as behinds go, you can’t get much bigger (or wrinklier for that matter) than jumbo-size, and the elephant babe looks so sweet, standing behind its mama. I thought everyone might like an aaaaah moment.
The thing is, they are noiseless as they move, their footfalls cushioned by pads of fat behind their toes. Of course there are the low frequency stomach rumbles that maintain lines of communication across the herd, but we weren’t close enough to hear those. Or maybe we were too intent on our own stomach rumbles. We had driven out of the Mara River Camp at first light, after only a 5.30 cup of tea. Breakfast was still a distant prospect when we found ourselves among this large, slow-moving herd.
They paid us no attention whatsoever. All we sensed was a wave of communal intention as they headed on through the thorn brush. In fact we were so beneath their notice, Daniel, our driver-guide, decided it would be fine to stop the truck and eat our picnic breakfast as the elephants moved on by. I remember thinking how incongruous it was to be standing out on the Mara plains eating a hard boiled egg while these majestic creatures slowly passed me.
This is not to say that elephants cannot be dangerous; sometimes murderous if they bear a grudge for some harm done them; or if the bulls are in musth. But nothing was amiss this day. It was like one big family outing, the epitome of good elephantine order wherein mothers and children always come first.
copyright 2017 Tish Farrell
When it comes to the survival of orphaned elephant infants, loving friendship is the only thing that works. Baby elephants need continuous loving, tactile affection as much as they need food. Without it they quickly die.
Kenya’s Dame Daphne Sheldrick, pioneer in elephant orphan rescue and rehabilitation, learned this the hard way. For years she strove to create a rich formula to substitute for mother’s milk. But in her efforts to keep orphans physically alive, she also learned that the emotional ties between baby and surrogate mother were crucial to the baby’s survival.
At her orphanage on the edge of Nairobi’s National Park she has developed an astonishing survival regime for all the young animals brought to her. Every orphan has its ‘mother’ i.e. one of the green-coated keepers seen in the photos. Every keeper is on full time duty with his charge, and this includes sleeping with the baby in its stall.
By day there is feeding, mud bathing and playing to be done. The blanket strung on a line in the top photo is there to simulate the overshadowing side of an elephant mother. The keeper feeds his baby, holding the bottle down behind the blanket. The babies are also wearing blankets – at 5000 feet above sea level, Nairobi can be cool in July when this photo was taken, and in the wild small babies would anyway have the constant warmth and shelter of mother and aunts.
The ultimate objective of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust is to re-introduce the orphans to the wild. This is a painstaking and precarious procedure, recreating communities in the absence of wild matriarchs who are the custodians of herd memory.
Tsavo East National Park is one of the main locations for the rehabilitation process. This is the park where Daphne Sheldrick’s husband, David, was warden until 1976. During their time together at Tsavo, the Sheldricks pioneered the rehabilitation of many wild animals that had been reared in captivity. On David’s early death in 1977, Daphne set up the Trust in his memory. Forty years on some 150 elephants have been saved, along with rhinos and other species.
If you want to read about the elephants in detail there are keepers’ daily diaries HERE. You can find out what is going on in the nursery with the youngest orphans, or discover how the adolescents are faring at various forest locations as they learn to live again in the wild. A study of dedicated friendship in action then.
If you are ever in Nairobi, then the orphanage is open to visitors for an hour each day. You can also donate to the Trust or foster an orphan. There are more details HERE.
And it’s a wise eye. A knowing eye. And it’s a privilege to have been allowed to sit and watch a great herd move by us and around us. So quietly. Measured footfalls. Moving across the Mara thornland. Infants. Adolescents. Mothers. Aunties. The big bulls. All moving as one. To their own rhythm.
Thursday’s Special: Eye contact
Elephant females and young spend most of their time in small family groups of ten to fifteen related individuals, ruled and guided by a matriarch. She is the equivalent of the institutional memory, and her role is to keep the family safe. These small groups gather into larger herds during the rainy season as they search for fresh vegetation. Adult elephants consume up to 400 pounds/180 kilos of vegetation a day. The two youngsters in the picture, however, will still be suckling – when they’re not busy playing that is.
Early morning in the Maasai Mara. Our last Christmas in Kenya, and we’re out on a family safari with my sister and co. Daniel, our guide from Mara River Camp is both driving and game spotting. The rest of us are not awake yet. And so when we find ourselves among a large herd of elephants, it is hard to believe. A waking dream, then.
Daniel stops the truck. And the elephants move by us as if we’re not there. It must be a dream.
Even so, we are soon aware – first of their utter quietness, and then of an all embracing unity of purpose. These dozens of imposing creatures are acting with one mind, moving as an elephant entity through the thorn trees.
We drive on a little way to an upland vantage point from where we can see across the valley. Daniel announces that this a good place to have our picnic breakfast. He says it’s all right to get out of the truck. I wonder at the strangeness of standing out in the African bush at Christmas, eating hard boiled eggs and croissants as elephants pass us by.