First posted to Huffington Post on January 31, 2013.
One of the Trust’s keepers comes to me. “You Carl?,” he asks in a near-whisper. “When the elephants leave the tourist area, follow me.”
I am in Kenya walking in the bush, researching a new book on the lives of animals. Young, orphaned elephants surround me. They are moving and munching, moving and munching. “So, we will follow,” says Julius Shivegha in a gentle voice.
The mission here: bring these elephants from near-death to weaning, then to move them to a half-way facility in Tsavo National Park. There, over remarkable weeks, the orphans will go on daily walks that will switch from keeper-led to keeper-followed, until the orphans begin drifting and sifting into the wild elephant community, begin staying out nights, and eventually achieve full integration and the social interdependence that typifies normal elephant independence.
Many of the wild elephants they will meet are themselves graduates of this very project who visit regularly. The graduated orphans often welcome the newcomers. In Tsavo’s famed vastness live thousands of elephants as wild as any anywhere. And as threatened. Poaching is a problem there as everywhere. Nothing’s guaranteed.
Here, starting as one brown mass, two dozen elephant orphans fan further into the bush. Munching. One of these orphans was two weeks old when found with his wounded mother in Samburu. After being shot, she’d escaped poachers. But she was dying. After veterinarians spent a couple of days trying unsuccessfully to stabilize her, they euthanized her. The baby came to the orphanage.
Now nine months old, Barsilinga walks over and stops next to me and Julius. He reaches his tiny trunk up to Julius’s mouth. Julius takes it and obliges, blowing into it playfully. Barsilinga lets his little trunk go completely limp, the elephant equivalent of a puppy rolling over so you can rub its belly. In response, Julius rubs Barsilinga’s trunk vigorously between his hands, like a baker forming a piece of dough into a baguette.
Because he was so young when he was found, Barsilinga’s the most confiding of the orphans here. Often when I turn around, Barsilinga is right next to me or, more accurately, right next to Julius, who I am next to.
Quanza comes by. Her story had moved me to tears even before I’d arranged this trip. Photographer Nick Brandt had made a stunning portrait of Quanza’s whole family, the “Q” family of famed Amboseli Park. The photo had made it into the New York Times. In the image, the dynasty stands magnificently, lined up behind the wise old matriarch Qumquat, one of the best-known elephants in Amboseli region. Twenty-four hours after Brandt made the photo, poachers killed the whole family and hacked open their faces for their tusks. All except little Quanza here.
At more than a year old at the time of the attack, Quanza’s mind was formed enough to bear the imprint of the terror and confusion. That was just three months ago.
“She is still very agitated,” says Julius. And she shows it by being pushy, shoving her weight around. Quanza butts little Lamoyian, who bellows in surprise. “Don’t push the baby!,” Julius sternly admonishes with a wagging finger. Julius speaks directly into Quanza’s ear like giving a directive to a child that has misbehaved in public. With his hand he steers her head away from the littler elephant.
And like some kind of odd new pastoralists, like shepherds in a time when all nature is crying out, we step along protectively with our elephantine flock, moving farther up the hill.
Munch. Rip. Munch. Rip. They eat continually. Think Jurassic Park, but warm-blooded.
Julius gently pulls bits of grass, delivering small bunches into Barsilinga’s swinging little trunk. I scratch the baby’s side and press my hand against his ribs, and he sends a rumble vibrating up through my arm. I slide my hand alongside his head, under his folded ear. It’s warm under there.