Amboseli National Park
W e return to Amboseli in silence. On the other side of the Chinese road, a huge bull, with magnificent, perfectly symmetrical tusks, emerges from the trees. “It is Upendo [love in Swahili],” Soila says. “He has recognized the sound of the vehicle and come out to say hello.” Upendo lifts his trunk into the air and, swiveling it like a periscope, gives us the sniff-over, which indicates a certain level of suspicion. He detects strange male testosterone in the vehicle and hears the excited clicking of cameras; flapping his ears with a parting snort, he quickly backtracks into the thicket. “He is telling us, ‘I’m fed up with you guys. No more pictures,’ ” Soila explains.
There are still a few hours of daylight to watch the elephants in the park. The rains have come, and with all the newly flushed grass they are able to congregate in extended-family groups of 70 or more. We observe one group twisting up bundles of grass with their trunks and stuffing them into their mouths. A full-grown elephant needs to eat about 300 pounds of vegetation a day. They can live to 65 or more and, like humans, reach sexual maturity in their early teens.
Babies are running between the legs of their mothers, trying to suckle some milk from their teats. Two two-year-olds have locked trunks and are having a tug-of-war. A randy bull in musth—Hindi for intoxication—is hanging around the periphery. It was here in 1978 that Cynthia Moss’s colleague Joyce Poole discovered that musth is not a disease, as it had been thought to be, but a phase of up to five months in the reproductive cycle of bulls during which their testosterone levels can shoot up 100 times above normal.
Constant little dramas are going on in this group. An eight-year-old bull, still a mama’s boy dependent on her milk, lets out a wounded bellow as his mother, having a newborn to feed, tells him with a jab of her tusk to shove off. Elephants are highly emotional. Whatever they are feeling, they let it out immediately, and the histrionics are over and forgotten in a moment, lasting no longer than the cloud formations that are constantly coming apart and re-forming overhead. There is no guile in pachyderms. They are highly sentient, totally alive to what is going on, fully in the moment in ways we are only beginning to understand. They can pick up the rumble of a distant thunderstorm seismically through the soles of their feet, and family groups a mile or two apart keep in constant touch with an assortment of far-carrying infrasounds too low for us to hear. No one really knows what they are saying or thinking. Scientists are only starting to talk cautiously about “empathy” and “neurocognition.”
Soila says that each elephant has its own personality. “Some are talkative, some are bad-hearted, some are stupid,” she says. “They are very much like us. Sometimes when I am watching them, I forget that I am working. I forget that they are elephants and I am human.” But elephants are not human, of course. They are something much more ancient and primordial, living on a different plane of existence. Long before we arrived on the scene, they worked out a way of being in the world that has not fundamentally changed and is sustainable, and not predatory or destructive. We have been in close association with elephants from the beginning. The few dozen humans who left Africa may have even followed an elephant trail, but the proboscideans are on a distant branch of the tree of life, closer to manatees and aardvarks than to primates. It is amazing, really, that something so antediluvian and unlike us is still here. This is the feeling we get as we are watching these elephants. They are what they are, and they put things into badly needed perspective. The world needs them. We need them.
I have been in running contact with elephants for 30 years, but only on this six-week reporting safari am I beginning to understand the wavelength they are on. I have already had communication breakthroughs in the last month with three elephants, moments when “Adam’s wall,” as the barrier between us and animals has been called, seemed to come down. The first was in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, where I spent a few days with a 28-year-old Zimbabwean ivory orphan named Bubbles, who was raised from the age of two by an animal trainer named Bhagavan Antle. “Bubbles is my oldest and most devoted friend,” Antle told me. He trained her to be an entertainment elephant—she has been in Doctor Dolittle with Eddie Murphy, the second Ace Ventura movie, and a Janet Jackson video.
I went swimming with Bubbles in the Intracoastal Waterway, and she kept playfully hoisting me out of the water with her trunk and tossing me over her head back into it. She is totally habituated to humans and “doesn’t get along with other elephants at all,” Antle told me. “When I’m not on the property, she guards it like a pit bull. Even the staff can’t get close to her.” The two of us rode her into the forest, where every few feet she would snap off a branch of wax myrtle and stuff it into her mouth. “The world is her salad,” Antle explained. He said that Bubbles could recognize the sound of his pickup making its way home through the rush-hour traffic, and that she always recognized a guest who had been there before and gave him or her special attention, and over the years she had done her routine for tens of thousands of them. “Bubbles is an ambassador of what is being lost, and she takes her job very seriously,” he told me.
Bubbles’ eyes especially got to me. Screened by thick black lashes, they were dolorous, humorous, knowing, forgiving, the eyes of an ancient sage, a highly evolved being, the eyes of Einstein.
As the sun sets in Amboseli, the clouds break and we catch a glimpse of Kilimanjaro’s summit cone, coated with new snow. All the elephants head for the swamp in long single-file columns, huge convoys making their way across the timeless savanna toward the vanishing point, as they have been doing for eons, “as if they had an appointment at the end of the world,” Isak Dinesen wrote in Out of Africa.
Trying to intercept an ivory shipment is like trying to guess what dish the bean is under in a shell game, Sam Wasser, a Seattle-based conservation biologist, tells me. Wasser has developed the ability to sequence the DNA of a piece of seized ivory, which is the only way to find out where in Africa it is actually from. This is a hugely important tool. The ivory in a 2006 seizure in Hong Kong shipped from Douala, Cameroon, for instance, turned out, by DNA sequencing, to have come from neighboring Gabon. This was the first inkling anybody had that there is widespread poaching there; Gabon had previously been regarded as a success story. Wasser was also able to determine that 60 percent of the ivory going to Asia in 2009 was coming from Tanzania, and that Zambia was—and is—another major source. This was explosive information when it was presented last May in Doha, Qatar, where Tanzania and Zambia were petitioning the Convention for International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) for permission to sell their old ivory stocks. His revelation of the extent of the poaching in these two countries was instrumental in getting their applications quashed