Elles in the night
## I’m currently on a mini-holiday in the Minnesota wilderness (Boundary Waters Canoe Area). As I’ve lately been missing long mornings on the porch watching Serengeti wildlife, and Margaret wrote a recent post on one of the all-time most-watchable animals out there, I thought I’d share a story of a late-night elephant encounter from my first year in the field. I was in the car with Candida, a Lion Project Field assistant, and Philipp Henschel, a lion researcher for Panthera who has spent years working in west Africa, and the man who taught me how to camera trap, when we came across this…#
As we hurtled along the gutted road, we came face to face with a herd of elephants paying their respects to a fallen buffalo. At first, in the murk of night, we thought they huddled around one of their own, and concerned silence fell upon us. Ellies, for as aggressive as they can sometimes be, have earned our admiration and careful respect. They seem to me intelligent and emotional creatures; where they are not persecuted, they tolerate the roar of our passing engine with a casual glance. But they are supposedly nearsighted to the point of legal blindness*. In heavily hunted areas we are sometimes charged by a protective female, but as we hold our breaths and brace for impact, they stop their charge short and listen…but give up and turn away. If we remain downwind in silence we are invisible…or so we hope.
The elephants tonight are agitated as they mill around the buffalo. Philipp tells us that ellies often investigate death in the forests where he’s worked. In an eerie display of some sort of cognizance, they seem to recognize that something is not right and come to look at fallen creatures. When they come across the bones of one of their own, he says, they pick them up and carry them away. It is sad and scary and moving and beyond my comprehension, what must be going on in the heads of these big, gray, lumbering beasts.
The two tour vehicles that are blocking the watering hole eventually pull away, and the ellies step forward to drink. They cluster close, pressing together side by side. Hesitant lions slowly creep back to reclaim their half-eaten kill, and the matriarch whirls around, her ears flaring, watching the lions in a silent stand-off. The air is still. It is thick with tension and heavy with the severity of the moment. One ill-timed thud against the car window or a frightened squeal from any of us, and we could incited a rampage. Silence is imperative and we hold our breaths as the ellies file past within inches of our landrover.We can almost feel their fear and my heart twists as I wonder what it must be like to stumble blindly through a blurry world, sensing death and its bearers all around you lurking in the hazy shadows and around every corner. As they disappear into the acacias, we hear a long, lumpy-sounding elephant fart and giggle nervously. We can breathe again.
We drive closer to the buffalo carcass and watch the lions return. In the faint starlight, we see that an adult female has already resumed her demolition; her whole head disappears inside the opened belly to rip solid tracts of muscle from the ribcage. We fumble for our headlamps and cameras; I look around optimitistically for an onslaught of hyenas. I have yet to see them challenge a lion kill, and begin to question the feasibility of my research plans. The subadult males pad around our car, their massive paws falling silently in the sandy soil. They are full, and are now studying us. Our windows are open, as always, and we glance around with slight unease – where did the two subadult males go? Suddenly we hear a loud chomp from the back of our vehicle. Fearing that they’ve gone of one of our tires, and hardly in any position to fix a flat, we frantically turn the car ignition and pull a few meters forward. In the sideview mirror, we see a lion trot into the darkness with our plastic tire cover dangling from his teeth. Candida’s jaw drops. We are not quite sure what inspired them to steal such an inedible adornment, but it is late and we have company coming that night. So we chalk the loss up to a casualty of the field…and as we drive home along the corrugated dirt road, we remind ourselves that at least we are better off than the buffalo.
*Elephants do have pretty bad vision, but it’s not as bad as I believed it was on this ominous night at the buffalo kill.