Elephant orphanage

Is poaching a major problem in Kenya? You hear and read conflicting reports. By most accounts it has come down in recent years. In absolute numbers, you get a sense of it only when you visit the elephant orphanage in the outskirts of Nairobi, run by the David Sheldrick Trust. The wildlife service of Kenya partners with many private trusts and agencies to counter poaching, of which the Sheldrick trust is one. Once a day the orphanage allows in a limited number of people to watch their wards being fed.

We walked between the pens to the area set aside for the feeding. The doors looked extremely sturdy, but it is not clear to me that they would stand up to a determined adolescent elephant. I guess one can pen an elephant in a shed like this only if it trusts its handlers, and is willing to stay inside. The pitchfork leaning on the wall probably meant that there was straw inside. It all looked like a place which I would have liked to peep into, but the doors were firmly shut.

The elephant babies ran into a clearing prepared for them when it was time. It was absolutely clear that they looked forward to this outing. Large bottles of milk had been kept ready for them, and they were gone in no time. The smallest of the lot went straight for a bucket of water instead, and stayed glued to it. It reminded me of a child who doesn’t realize it is thirsty until it sees water.

Milk, water, branches, balls, and mud pools. These were the things that had been set aside for the kids. Milk and water seemed to be the first priorities. The ball? I wondered whether it would be an elephant’s favourite toy. It reminded me of the time when, as a kid I’d sat in the front row outside a circus ring and had to duck under a football kicked by a baby elephant. Here the elephants kicked it now and then, but it was largely ignored. I guess my childhood visions of herds of elephants playing football on the plains of East Africa were baseless.

What did the elephants like most? I knew the answer already, of course. They like nothing better than to wallow in mud and blow dust over themselves and each other. After they had fed, gnawed at the branches, and drunk water, they went straight at the mud pools like a bunch of exuberant children, trying to push their way into it. The smallest one stayed overtime since it had difficulty hoisting itself out. I’ve seen documentaries of adult elephants helping babies to climb out of pools. Orphaned elephants can die in many ways, not just by predation.

Failing light, vultures’ delight

There is a legend that elephant dispose of their dead in secret burial grounds and that none of them has ever been discovered.
— Beryl Markham in West with the Night

A thin layer of clouds crept over the sun, and I cursed my luck. It was just before the golden hour, and the light, instead of turning a brilliant gold, had turned watery and hellish. But then, as the wind turned, and a stench of rotten flesh hit my nose, I looked around and saw this tree full of vultures. What a moody and atmospheric shot this was, I thought, perhaps just right for the cover of a book on the Mongol invasion of the world, or perhaps the Black Death. But what we saw, as Stephen turned the Landrover upwind towards the source of the stench, was something totally unexpected.

The story of Tarzan of the Apes involves an elephant graveyard and its treasure of ivory. We know today that stories of elephant graveyards were just myths. But even the scale of a single dead elephant boggles the mind if you ever come across it. Every species of scavenging bird we’d seen in the Mara triangle seemed to be here in large numbers. As we watched a large white-backed vulture emerged from under the skin of the cadaver. It was clear that we had arrived very late. The mammal scavengers had already come and gone. The stench told us that bacteria had started breaking down the flesh. After the birds, insects would arrive to clear the little that remained. The elephant had almost completed the cycle of nature, returning its flesh to the rest of the ecosystem.

Watching elephants

One of the pleasures of visiting Amboseli national park is that you get to watch elephants at close quarters. We came on a large herd which was hanging out in a marshy area close to lake Amboseli. Their normal routine was interrupted by our arrival; two adults closed up against a baby playing in the mud (featured photo). But these herds are used to tourist vehicles. They watched us for a while, and then decided that we posed no immediate threat.

The baby was unconcerned. It continued to play in the mud. We’ve seen young elephants enjoy mud so much that they sometimes refuse to leave with the rest of the herd, protesting as much as a human child who has to leave a playground. This little one had no eyes for anything around it, and continued to stamp about in the mud for as long as we were there.

Young males in these herds often like a mock fight. I’d not seen how the chase which you see in the photo above began, but FONT said that it had to do with the younger one repeatedly provoking the older. This led to a short chase which ended with the young one stopping and turning to face the older one.

The fight continued with a bit of trunk wrestling. I’ve seen young Indian elephants trunk wrestling, and this seemed to be exactly the same behaviour. The trunk wrestling did not lead to any violence but continued for quite a while.

Herds of elephants are almost impossible targets for predators, but that does not mean there is no watch. We’d already seen that all the adults were alert to intruders, but there were a couple who were clearly perimeter guards. The tusker in the photo above was one of them. You can see from the elephants in the background in all these photos that this herd was quite large. None of us counted, but it was certainly over twenty individuals.

I saw some of them go into a defensive huddle suddenly. It is interesting how they gather together with all the young ones in the middle and adult defenders facing out from the core. I was slow to figure out why the group had gone into a huddle.

It turned out that another group had broken out of the trees on the far side of the road. I’ve not read of tribal conflicts between elephants, but I guess that any social animal will be on guard against strangers. The previous day I’d watched two groups of elephants cross each other’s paths, each taking care never to come too close to the other group.

The new herd which had arrived was small, two young, one juvenile, and three adults. They crossed the road and carefully skirted the group we had been watching. You can see how they walk in a file with the young ones as well protected as possible even while walking. I know someone who had once worked on the social life of Indian elephants, and much of his doctoral work had consisted of measuring distances and angles between elephants in photos taken from the air. When you watch elephants in the wild you begin to appreciate why this method may be useful.

Thar she blows

One of the easiest things to figure out about herds of elephants is that they tend to move in a straight line, except when geographical features come in their way. You can see this very clearly in the featured photo. Nothing in their ecosystem seems to deter them. The best wildlife guides in Kenya have honed their judgements about how close to the path of a herd of elephants you can park without disturbing it. When you get a little too close, elephants become protective of their young, and may stop moving. A little closer still, and unpredictable things can happen. Anthony was a wonderful judge and several times brought us to a hair’s breadth of the “personal space” of a herd on the move.

This is the reason I fixed my sight on this lone tusker on a near collision with a wildebeest. Two different herds of elephants were on the move, in opposite directions, throwing up a lot of dust. The elephants figure out a course which avoids the others long before there is any chance of them coming too close to each other. The wildebeest that you see in the photo above was placidly chewing the cud in the middle of the movement of many elephants. I saw zebras constantly shifting their positions, often minutely, turning to keep an eye on the nearest beasts. I could see that the bull was going to pass too close to it for comfort. A zebra or a human would have backed off long before. I began to wonder whether the spatial reasoning of wildebeest is so much finer than a human’s that it had figured out that the elephant would miss it by a whisker and a swish of the tail.

No, this wildebeest was no Pythagoras. In the usual style of wildebeest, it had just forgotten to look around. It was only when the thump of the elephant’s feet could not be ignored that it scrambled to its feet and began to bolt. But the elephant had seen it already, and adjusted its motion minutely to pass by without a confrontation. This caused a different knot of wildebeest to scatter suddenly. Wildebeest are the jokers among antelope, but elephants seem to know this.