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Jambo Bwana 9: A Week with Elephants


This wild, single-tusked elephant watched us each day at the mud hole but kept his distance.

Wednesday, June 29
Ithumba Camp
Tsavo East National Park
Makueni, Kenya

There are several groups of elephants here this morning, and competition for lucerne is fierce among the orphans. At one point, a favorite called Orwa gets pushed completely over while shuffling for hay, and he trumpets bloody murder before he uprights himself and calm is restored. “Here Comes the Sun” is on the jukebox in my head as old Sol pops out along the horizon, and we get to spend quality time watching the amazing and wonderful Wiva being attended to by her matrons and mother.

The scene at Ithumba relocation unit at dawn. Here comes the sun.

Baboons are squabbling as the elephants come in to the waterhole, and they quickly scatter. I get some time to talk with Benjamin, who tells me that when he was young, he was afraid of elephants coming into his tribal village. It’s really hard to believe, given that he is one of the most knowledgeable elephant experts alive, a man who is able to walk with elephants, converse with them and, sometimes, help heal their wounds. (Later, I read in the Sheldrick monthly updates that when another ex-orphan had a baby, she brought it up to the stockade, and all the elephants allowed Benjamin into their circle to check it out.)

Benjamin Kyalo heads the Ithumba Relocation Unit, a man who walks with elephants. Benjamin, and the other keepers of the Sheldrick Trust, are truly heroes in the battle to save the species.

People like Benjamin are on the front line trying to save these animals, if that is possible. He is key to the understanding that we need to make between humans and these animals who, despite our many differences, are more like us than any species, except perhaps dolphins and orcas. He is an amazing guy, and I feel privileged to be able to spend several days with him in his unique world.

It’s the last full day at Ithumba, and while we’re out at the water hole, I stand beneath the amarule tree that is the closest we can get to the big wild bulls that gather at the water hole. Benjamin is explaining that a bull we’re observing is about 50 years old, and it pops in my head that this animal was born when I was in college and Richard Nixon was president. We spend a half hour observing each other. Truly incredible. What does this fellow know? How many children has he sired? How many of his family has he seen shot and killed? He seems to be saying, “If you only knew, dude.” Someone points out a wild elephant that allowed Benjamin, after rejecting him one day, to put salve on an abscess on his back. The wound is still visible but healing. I am stirred to my very soul.

And I am just beginning to understand what Dr. Croze wrote me all those years ago. I’m seeing everything he said in action: “Let’s just say that elephants are right up there with the higher apes and whales and dolphins: a complex, fluid society, based on individual relationships and networking served by systems of communication that work along several dimensions, including something very close to a spoken language; high intelligence, both native and that learned from the social group during a childhood as proportionally long as humans; demonstrated insightfulness, compassion, altruism, low levels of tool making, evidence of self-treatment and herbalism, and, quite likely, consciousness of self.”

He was absolutely right.

The wild dogs are back in the afternoon, and we get a perfect view of them this time as Benjamin explains their tactics. Elephants don’t like African wild dogs, who do like baby elephants if they can manage to grab one. There are dozens of videos on YouTube of this phenomenon. The two canines, as gorgeous as they are devious, are skirting the edges of the herd, which brings individual elephants out in their direction, running and trumpeting and trying to scare them away.

Young elephant adolescence is similar to humans -- about ten years under the care of the matrons and herd.

The dogs are much faster than the ellies, and their goal is to perhaps dissemble the herd enough and get everybody riled up and running so they might have a better chance to grab Wiva, the baby, or isolate another younger one. Benjamin says the tactics might work with a larger group of dogs or a smaller group of pachyderms, but not with this herd.

Sure enough, as the dogs continue to raise hell, individual elephants take off after them, with a powerful trumpeting sound that shakes the valley. Finally the entire group heads off in that direction bellowing after the dogs. Wiva is learning a lot, and at one point she runs out ahead of her matrons to help scare off the dogs. See Wiva in action against the wild dogs here.

A while later, we catch up with the herd in the Rover as they stand scattered along the road after chasing the dogs off. One of them swings his trunk and follows us for a bit, and some of the others emit loud trumpets as we pass. See this happening here.

Our last Sundowner at Ithumba. Kilimanjaro is again in the distance to the Southwest. Watch a video of the sun setting that night. A dik dik casually walks the grounds. Birds leap and chatter as the clouds move in from the east.

The view for our final Sundowner.

Our journey concludes here. Watch elephant videos from our trip here.

1 comment

1 Jambo Bwana 8: A Week with Elephants — Jukebox in My Head { 07.10.17 at 2:34 pm }

[...] elephant journey continues here. Watch more videos [...]

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