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My favorite elephant in the world.


The world’s appetite for ivory has, for years now, been the driving force behind the catastrophic decline in Africa’s elephant population. This problem is well documented and the struggle to stop it has been very public. What has been much less obvious is the accelerated rate at which the battle is being lost. A recently completed census revealed that Africa’s elephant numbers have declined by a full 30% over the past seven years. It seems that conservationists and wildlife lovers are overwhelmed with bad news on an almost daily basis, but this statistic is particularly unsettling. It confirms the possibility that the extinction of the species is, mathematically, not far distant. There are many angles to this tragedy, all of them ugly. There is the unfathomable but pervasive belief in parts of Asia that ivory trinkets are more valuable than elephant lives. There are the corrupt government officials who look the other way, turning a blind eye to the incessant slaughter and reaping enormous financial benefit in so doing. And there is the grinding poverty that forces people to illegal poaching to ensure the survival of their families. The challenges are huge, and there are no simple answers.

A couple of months back, there was another elephant story in the news that reflected the plight of the species in microcosm. Big Tim, the great patriarch of the Amboseli game reserve, was struck on the head with a large rock and pierced through the ear with a spear, the tip of which was embedded in his shoulder. Tim worked his way to the headquarters of the Big Life Foundation, a non-profit outfit dedicated to the preservation of elephants in southern Kenya. By all indications he had deliberately sought out humans who could assist him. He was sedated, treated, and up and on his way back to the Amboseli marsh in fairly short order.


Big Tim in company with an elephant family en route to the marsh. Notice how he towers over everyone else.

Big Tim happens to be my favorite elephant in the world. I’ve been fortunate to spend many hours in his company over the years. He is huge. He is majestic. He is approaching 50 years of age, and his prodigious right tusk almost scrapes the ground with every step. It’s well documented that elephant families are matriarchal and males are expelled from the group when they reach sexual maturity. But Tim is always welcome to travel in company with the ladies and their families. He is unassuming, unpretentious and laid back. A scientist friend recently described him to me as “one cool cat.” Based on personal observation, I’d say that description is impeccable. The only time I’ve seen him even remotely perturbed was for the purpose of disciplining a younger bull who was stirring up a bit of a ruckus. He is the benevolent, slow-moving preserver of the peace at Amboseli. He is known and loved throughout Kenya. His portrait even adorns an entire wall in the baggage collection area at Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi.


Note the elevated area high on the right flank. This was where Tim was wounded with a poisoned spear.

Prior to this past February, I’d seen Tim most recently in November of 2014. At that time he was moving even more slowly than usual as he recovered from a poisoned spear wound high on his right side. After seeing news articles on this year’s attempt on his life, it occurred to me that the assaults and injuries he’s endured are in many ways emblematic of the attacks on the elephant species writ large. Some examples, like the random list below, are obvious.

• There have been multiple attempts on Tim’s life. Like the rest of his kind, his existence is at risk at all times and his enemies are relentless.
• The danger to the Tim and all elephants is exclusively from Homo sapiens. No other species poses a threat to him.
• The risks are particularly egregious where traditional wildlife territories conflict with human settlements. This has been the cause of Tim’s two most serious wounds.
• Elephants are poached for their ivory, and Tim’s tusks are among the biggest in all of Africa. This potentially makes him one of the most valuable targets.

But the most important parallel between Tim and all African elephants is illustrated with precision by his visit to Big Life headquarters just a couple of months ago. Tim had, not for the first time, been severely wounded by human beings. As a sentient creature, he was sufficiently cognizant to seek help from those who could best deliver it.


The salient point is this: As humans represent the primary threat to the existence of the species, so do they also represent the only hope for its salvation. It’s that simple. It’s a matter of will and commitment. In light of the disturbing numbers published in the recent census and for the sake of Big Tim and all of Africa’s elephants, I sincerely hope we are up to this most difficult task.

Big Tim of Amboseli ….

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This blog has been offline for many weeks for a variety of weeks. Most significant among these was its recent transfer to a new web hosting company and a complete overhaul of the website to which it is appended. The blog is back now.

Mating lion pair in the central Maasai Mara.  This shot captures the PCS.

Mating lion pair in the central Maasai Mara. This shot captures the PCS.

We depart from the Sarova Lodge (the glories of which are discussed in an earlier post) at 0830 on September 10th. It’s about 40 miles to the Mara River and the Serena Lodge, and the transit is fascinating, as always. Just a few kilometers from our destination we stop to observe another mating lion pair sprawled in the grass by the roadside. Photographing lions in this mode is not difficult, but some patience is required. They average 2 to 3 “events” per hour (24/7) for an extended period … sometimes 5 or 6 days. The “events” are brief … 10 seconds or so, and generally only minimally interesting. The key to a good photo is capturing what I refer to as the Post-Coital Snarl, or PCS. Unfortunately for the female, the male appendage is actually barbed and its withdrawal is always painful for her. At the conclusion of each “event” she predictably turns on the male and growls her displeasure via the PCS. The male, not to be intimidated, usually responds with a much deeper and more frightening PCS.

The migration in the late afternoon ... Maasai Mara September 2009.

The migration in the late afternoon ... Maasai Mara September 2009.

The guides are correct about the location of the wildebeest … the migration is here in astronomical numbers. On our first afternoon in the central part of the reserve we visit the banks of the Mara River and observe a column of wildebeest queuing to cross. They carefully survey the river, the rocks and the crocodiles and then very prudently change their minds. As the day winds to a close, a gorgeous sunset illuminates the hills, accentuating the beauty of the migration in the red glow of late afternoon. I tell Kevin that there’s no place on earth I’d rather be at this moment. The beauty of the Maasai Mara at this time of year, and in this light, completely defies all descriptive powers.

Part of a 2 male coalition ... just finished feeding on a wildebeest.

Part of a 2 male coalition ... just finished feeding on a wildebeest.

Early the following morning we find two lions ripping up a wildebeest carcass. This is a coalition of older males … apparently well past their prime. Their manes are dark and the coloration of their noses indicates that they are in their later years. They were probably pride males at one time, but were supplanted by an even more powerful coalition. Long gone are the days when these lions sprawled in the grass while their lionesses worked to kill. But they are physically imposing nonetheless, and based on their round stomachs and the size of the wildebeest carcass, it’s fair to say that they are still very effective hunters.

Wildebeest running the crocodile gauntlet in the Mara River.

Wildebeest running the crocodile gauntlet in the Mara River.

At about 10 a.m. on a bright morning David places us high on the banks of the Mara River. Sure enough, a dark line of wildebeest forms on the horizon and works its way to the water’s edge. As always, the animals take the time to assess the danger and make a few false starts, but eventually they take the plunge (see my blog post dated 29 July 2009 for more on the crossing procedure). The river is very low this year because of the extended drought, and at no point do the animals have to swim. This actually gives them greater mobility and facilitates their ability to evade the river’s most dangerous predator. Within a few seconds, however, a large crocodile glides to within just a few feet of the splashing wildebeest, and then actually invades the column. It makes repeated lunges at the wildebeest, but never manages to take one. Finally, a yearling attempts to leap over the croc and is captured in mid-air. The croc turns downstream, the prey clamped firmly in its jaws … the confused wildebeest struggling to keep its head above water. It bawls pitifully until more crocodiles converge and end its torment. About twenty minutes after the last animal struggles up the bank on our side of the river, a single female wildebeest re-appears at the river’s edge, looking back at the opposite bank. She stares upriver, then down … and then safely re-crosses back to the open plain where she stood with her lost calf about half an hour ago.

Wildebeest in motion.

Wildebeest in motion.

Wildebeest graze and loiter without form or design. But when they move from point A to point B, it’s always done in a column … and at times that column can extend for many miles. Their instincts are admirable if not incredible. As they coalesce into a long line it’s difficult not to wonder what’s happening behind those flat faces and dull eyes. One of the tens of thousands must assume a leadership role, the others must unspeakingly acknowledge the leader and fall in behind, and then the whole column must magically move in the direction of more nutritious grasses. And season after season, year after year, decade after decade, millennium upon millenium … it all seems to miraculously work according to plan.

David Muteti and me at the Mara Serena Lodge.  Photo courtesy of Kevin Woisard.

David Muteti and me at the Mara Serena Lodge. Photo courtesy of Kevin Woisard.

A friend of mine – a photographer — recently told me that the Maasai Mara is his favorite place on earth. I think I agree with him … and I will be a repeat visitor for as long as I have the time, resources and health to do so.

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