Everything else between birth and death seems to be happening. A little calf calls pitifully for its mom, who is only 50 yards away. An older juvenile who is trying to snag some milk from its mother’s teat lets out the wounded awooga protest call as she pushes him away.
Two young bulls are sparring, fencing with their tusks. Two big bulls are staring each other down like prizefighters before the first-round bell. It looks like there’s going to be a major rumble in the jungle, but they back away. Real fights are rare in the bai. One of the Agaves, as Andrea named this family, is having a snooze on its feet. “They have such weird sleeping patterns,” she says. “They only need three hours of sleep. Some don’t seem to sleep at all.” I wonder if this has anything to do with the elephants’ enormous, convoluted hippocampus—the part of the limbic system that plays major roles in long-term memory and spatial navigation. Humans need eight hours to delete (or file away) the hundreds of thousands of sensory impressions we absorb unconsciously and consciously in the course of the day. But elephants have this huge engine, this enormous hard drive which can store much more information than ours can and also accounts for their famously prodigious memory.
A bull in musth, whom Andrea doesn’t recognize, enters stage left and advertises his sexual state with a big, strong, low, pulsating roar. Scanning the bai for estrous females with the Jacobson’s organ in his mouth, he picks up on Aurora, who does a little come-hither shuffle, and he starts to follow her around. The other females watch with interest. “The musth male guards the estrous female for a day or two,” Andrea explains, “and when they finally copulate, the other females send up a nuptial chorus, a screaming cacophony of rumbles. She can be inseminated by more than one bull. You never know the father of the calf. A couple of years ago Hilton comes in and heads right for a musth bull who is guarding Leila and drives him off, and while he is chasing him, meanwhile, a little bull, Caligula, copulates with her. He seizes the opportunity, zooms in on that little window. This is known as sneaky-fucker behavior.”
Katie Payne—an expert on whale and elephant vocalizations who strung up the bai with microphones and did the pioneering research on elephant infrasound communication here in 2002 and 2003—tells me, when I ask if she thinks elephants can sing, that an estrous female who has been mated by a young male and is looking for someone bigger and fitter will produce this powerful, low, melodious rumble that can last 45 minutes. This is one of the many things that we haven’t found out yet about the elephant tribe: these sounds they make that are too low for humans to hear and carry much farther than their audible vocalizations—are they some kind of secret language (an idea that has seized the popular imagination) or just an extension of the audible sounds, the low part of a graded sequence that echoes the same message?
“I’ve gotten a lot of solace from the elephants,” Andrea muses. “They’re probably the best friends I have. People are the scary ones.”
Of particular concern are the Sudanese poachers, who are descending on Bayanga and were just routed and scattered by government troops, who took two casualties, and the logging camps encroaching on the reserve, whose workers are living off locally poached bushmeat, including elephant. “I feel there is a compression going on,” Andrea tells me. “The bai is chockablock with elephants,” swarming to their last and only sanctuary.
The day shift begins clearing out, and the night shift—a different crowd, many of whom have had brushes with poachers and are nervous about being out in the open in broad daylight—is coming in to get its mineral fix. So ends another day in the bai —nothing earth-shattering, nothing worthy of the evening news, just another day at play in the fields of the Lord, the usual sound and fury, signifying nothing.