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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.

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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.

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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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I’m often asked if I have a favorite animal. The answer is “yes” … twice over, in fact. My favorite to photograph is certainly the plains zebra. There’s something magical about their patterns and the way they manage to be beautiful against any backdrop and in any light. They seem to pose with even the slightest movement … and in groups they’re incomparable. They are at their most photogenic when they’re draped across each other and staring curiously at the camera. They’re also spectacular when they’re in a tussle, competing for the attention of the ladies, pulling the flesh on their opponent’s neck and snapping at each other’s forelegs.

But my real favorite animal is the African elephant. They are the epitome of physical implausibility, with their enormous leaf-shaped ears fanning the warm air and their pylon legs extending down to flat-bottomed feet that are truly unique in the animal world. Then there’s the gray corrugated trunk that represents an almost incomprehensibly sophisticated assemblage of muscles … so flexible that it can pick up a pea from the sand and place it onto the tongue but so powerful that it can rip a young acacia tree right out of the ground.

But these attributes are peripheral to what really makes this the most majestic of all creatures. The love elephants feel for their family members is both deep and permanent, extending beyond life itself. Elephants routinely visit the remains of their loved ones, lingering for hours, gently holding and caressing their bleached bones. Unlike so many other animals, their existence transcends the immediate present. They certainly recall the distant past and, I think, consider and prepare for the future.

Elephant researcher Joyce Poole relates the story of a mother elephant that refused to leave the body of her dead calf, standing guard over it for hours in the African heat. Out of pity for the mother, Joyce temporarily abandoned the scientist’s unwritten code of non-intervention and drove to camp to bring water to the grieving mom. She filled a tub from her water cans and then drove a short distance away to allow the elephant to drink. She repeated this kindness twice more, until the mother elephant sprayed herself with the water, signaling that she’d drank her fill. Joyce then settled into her land rover to wait with the elephant. But after a few minutes, the mother elephant cautiously moved to the driver’s side of the rover, paused, and in an unmistakable gesture of gratitude, gently placed her trunk into the vehicle and across Joyce’s chest.

I was moved, but not surprised by this story. The eyes of the elephants are as expressive as our own, and their feelings are at least as deep. Many times I’ve seen those eyes filled with joy, and on at least one occasion I’ve seen them lit with extreme displeasure (this was on the banks of the Zambezi River on the Zambia side … a sufficiently noteworthy incident to merit its own post later on).

Each animal of the plains is unique and interesting in its way. But the elephant surpasses all others in my estimation … not just because of its physical magnificence, but for the strength of its love and the power of its intellect. They are and always will be my favorites.

Male Zebras fighting at Ndutu, Tanzania

Male Zebras fighting at Ndutu, Tanzania

Young elephants at Tarangire

Young elephants at Tarangire

Elephant Family at Amboseli, Kenya

Elephant Family at Amboseli, Kenya

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