The final baby was the one who got me. Barely three and a half feet tall, the smallest and struggling to keep up, he intermittently trudged and trotted mightily at the end of the line. It was late afternoon and they were coming in for the evening. Some plodded slowly, ears hanging. Hungry and tired after playing outside, the baby elephants knew their stalls, keepers, and foot-long bottles of milk awaited.
But the last little one was tiny, recently orphaned by poachers and almost too young to survive. He had been saved a few days earlier by keepers from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, a rescue haven for elephants. We were visiting the facility at the beginning of our Kenya trip.
We watched as he went into his stall to the soft croons of his assigned keeper. The baby wore a grey blanket with red stripes. He was a little confused and a little scared. But he knew his bottle and greedily set to sucking. We all grinned, delighted at his hunger. While he ate my family walked around and met a resident warthog, who acted like a dog.
Our group wandered among the elephant babies, marveling at their tree-bark skin and soft trunks that danced like reeds.
But I was stuck on the youngest. I stared at his large eyes, hugely fringed with lashes. I was in love. For a wild moment I considered buying a swath of land on the Masaii Mara and building a reserve. He could live there with us. Then the keeper spoke. Did I want to meet him?
Elephants remember. Lore has it that they remember for the rest of their lives. The keepers believe this. They believe it the way we believe the sun will rise every day.
The way elephants meet others is to exchange breath. Did I want to exchange breath with the baby? He hadn’t met many people, but we would see how it went. I moved close and let his trunk explore me for a few moments. Then I took his nose and pulled it to my mouth. He was so gentle. I blew into his nose, once and then again. For an eyeblink everything stopped. Then I felt a strong, blown puff of air against my face. Only one, but it was solid. He knew me, accepted me. He wanted me to know him.
I was the only one chosen that day by the baby.
It was sleepy time, time for him to lay down with his keeper.
Regretfully I left.
We walked among the small buildings meeting the denizens. The baby rhinoceros had two horns and skin in accordion folds on his sides and neck. The warthogs ate the choice branches we held out to them. It seemed impossible that their tiny feet could support their porcine bulk.
During our three weeks in Kenya we stayed off the tourist path, excepting only the Mara. We visited the Samburu, a cousin tribe of the Masaii. We saw their warriors and young maidens. We watched them dance. The warriors’ eyes were hostile and their weapons at the ready.
Our trip finished in Tsavo, the remote and resource-poor park famed for its maneless lions. The lions in Tsavo have to work hard, much harder than those in the Masaii Mara. The Tsavo lions are lean and large. They are also more canny, more alert, and seemingly more hungry. We never saw them lying, like their Mara cousins, meat-drunk and dead to the world on their backs with their tails lazily flicking. These lions were paying attention.
Tsavo is also the realm of the elephant. And their lives too are difficult. The Tsavo elephants have been savaged by man and by nature. They have no defense against either. The elephants are alpha animals, huge and powerful with big tusks. They are intelligent, live in matriarchal families and tribes and hold barely understood troves of elephant lore in their minds. But before man they are lost.
The Greater Tsavo Conservation area holds Kenya’s largest population of elephants, currently 11,000. Although 40 years ago there were 45,000 elephants, the cruel arithmetic of over population created a natural die-off. Tsavo is one of the few places in the world where elephants can grow huge tusks that reach to the ground. After the herd built up again, poachers descended and once again decimated the animals. The poachers are now a deadly threat, killing almost 10% of the population each year. This gene pool is dying.
Elephants have complex social lives. Elephant mothers dote on their children, and the senior matriarch is responsible for the entire clan. An old and weak elephant slowly fades from malnutrition and dies surrounded by its family. The body is buried under sticks and leaves. Elephants seemingly mourn their dead. They have been known to walk for months holding the bone of a deceased family member.
We drove to a remote area of Tsavo where we would camp. We passed elephant families companionably eating or standing in the river. Mothers tended to young ones. Many older individuals had seen poachers and had watched family members brutally murdered, heads hacked open for their ivory tusks.
Some elephants assumed defensive or aggressive postures as we passed. They stared at our vehicle, rigid, ears alert and sometimes flapping in anger. They were clearly agitated; the family would stand close as we passed. Our guide said that wild elephants should not be overly aggressive, but that this population, which had seen so much man-created carnage, remembered. They remembered it was people, two legged beings who came in jeeps or small planes who had massacred them, and it was not safe for us to be on foot.
Through the days in Tsavo I came to feel strongly for the elephants, as I had done for no other species throughout our travel. Not the lions whose bellicose roars shook the air, the stunning cheetahs, the many leopards we were lucky to see time after time. Not the hyena or the zebra or the multitudinous ungulates.
The elephants were the wise ones. Their eyes spoke of long lives lived in that dry and multisplendored land. Of births and deaths and pain and loss. Of triumph, of power. Of being the greatest of all creatures, heavy headed and puissant. Of being powerless against a bullet.
It was hard to leave them. I felt pain.
Soon the baby would be a toddler, and then an adolescent. In a few years he would begin to mingle with the wild herd. They would take him on jaunts and at first he would return to his haven. But then, on one special day, he would walk away and not come back. He would find his place in the wild, where he was supposed to be.
In my loss I knew that I would remember his breath, the strong, warm puff on my face. And I hoped that he would remember the breath of me, for the rest of his long, long life.
Afternote: I have fostered a number of baby elephants at the Sheldrick Trust. Dr. Dame Daphne Sheldrick sends superb email newsletters about their work and my fosterees, including dramatic descriptions of baby elephant rescues. http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org