Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Elephant Day 2015

The African Elephant up close - almost posing for his photograph.
It is Elephant Day today. For quite some time now I have been banging on about the Elephant Crisis that is sweeping through Africa. Those damned Chinese ivory carvers and their clients combined with bad governance by African leaders are keeping the momentum going, fuelling poaching and illegal trade. The losers in this story are the elephants that are dying at a rate of 15 per day. It can’t go on.

So, besides Robert Mugabe and Jacob Zuma giggling and dismissing the frantic appeals by conservationists there is a large population whose concerns are more around filling their bellies and keeping starvation from their doors along with those who are filling their overfilled bellies and lining their pockets. And then there are those who, if they cared to listen, could perhaps be doing something more about this sad state of affairs.

Why should you care, I hear you say? Well, let me tell you a little story that took place only a few months ago. And maybe, after you have read this little story you will be motivated to care a little more, and care enough to add your voice to the growing numbers of objectors out there who are raising hell and together, maybe, we can stop this wave of destruction.

It is December, almost Christmas and it is hot in Limpopo, a northern province of South Africa. The air is thin and the little rain that is falling comes in short sharp spurts causing the paths and roads through the African bush to turn into mud traps just waiting for an unsuspecting vehicle to come on by so that it can suck its tyres deep into its folds and keep it there for at least a little while.

The Mapungubwe Reserve is a disappointment as far as wilderness experiences go. It is carved up out of bits of landscape that are disconnected and not easy to navigate. However, on a piece of the reserve there is a 4 x 4 trail that is given quite a lot of exposure in the media. It is to this trail that we head with our Jeep Rubicon that is a vehicle that defies bad terrain. In fact it eats up bad terrain for breakfast.
Breeding herds abound in this northern area of South Africa
Initial entry to the trail through an unlocked, unsupervised gate is relatively easy but it is not long before the rough terrain is evident. Navigation is slowed dramatically as signs are faded and have been pushed around by large animals that evidently don’t need any navigational help. The Jeep grinds along rolling over rocks and through little clearings. The sun is still fairly low on the horizon as we pass a lone bull elephant standing casually scooping up huge mouthfuls of long green grass. He is not near enough for a photograph and we move on.

We round a bend and in front of us we can see very definite evidence that the vehicle that had made its way on this track before us had fallen foul of one of those wonderful mud holes that suck you down and keep you tight within its grip. We get out of the vehicle to assess whether we can make it through the deep gashes that have been cut into the clay base. We decide that it would be advisable to gather some of the surrounding dead tree branches and to fill the previous vehicle’s tracks as it would give us a better chance at staying clear of disaster.

We start collecting bits of old branches and pressing them firmly into the soil when suddenly a deep rumble rolling out across the African bush reaches us. It is an elephant rumble, the kind that sets your senses alight and you realise that you are moving in someone else’s backyard. We exchange looks and decide that it must be the bull elephant we have just passed. By our estimation he was far enough away from us to give us time to work the trail and we carry on with our task. Throughout the fifteen odd minutes we labour the rumbles grow closer and closer. We jump back into the Jeep and start up the engine.

A bit of discussion, a bit of driving, a bit of sliding and we are through the mud hole safely. We smile in satisfaction that we have not got ourselves into trouble and we can progress knowing that we are conquerors of the bush. The track starts going up a small incline that is not much of a challenge for our vehicle and soon we are pushing the nose of the Jeep over the rise. However, it is only the nose of the vehicle that can go over the rise as in front of us, as far as the eye can see is a herd of around 100 elephants. It is a breeding herd with elephants of all ages and sizes and we are slap bang in the middle of the herd.
And here it is, the larges breeding herd I have ever seen.
Instantly, following the best advice we have had, we cut the engine and we sit tight. No sudden movements, no loud sounds and certainly no panic. The elephants glance our way and we note that they are watching us intently while they continue grazing. They lumber on slowly pulling up huge chunks of luscious green grass. It gives us time to start focussing on various individuals and I am lucky enough to be able to keep my camera in the window while getting fantastically close up shots. At no time do we see any indication from the behaviour of the herd that we are in any danger.
Surrounded by elephants one has to hunker down and not give rise for any alarm.
The matriarch comes ambling by with a tiny little elephant in tow, perhaps only a few days old. She is followed by what I assume is another one of her calves who is quite curious. A trunk is extended towards the open window of the car and we are “sniffed” for approval. The vehicle gets the same treatment all around the front bumper as the young sub-adult makes his way past us.
Just a few days old this little elephants ears are still very furry and pink. A privilege indeed to get so close to something so young and fragile.
At best this 4 x 4 trail we are following is judged to be a 5 - 7 hour drive and we are still at the start of it. We are worried we may not make it out off the trail before dark if we don’t get going. The elephants, however, are in charge of when we can make our move. We patiently wait for the larger part of the herd to move by before we start up the engine and reluctantly have to leave them behind.

My heart always beats much faster when I get so close to these magnificent beasts, their little rumbles fill the air around you and if you are allowed to sit in such close proximity to them you too feel a lot more special. It is a feeling that surpasses our normal senses, a feeling that is difficult to describe but it is a feeling that only Africa can give to you. With respect comes acceptance and if you respect these glorious sentient beings they will give you the room to be a part of Africa too.

So, on Elephant Day 2015 let us raise our voices in unison and let us ensure that this, our African heritage, does not fade out and disappear in the sands of time.

Do you want to learn some Elephant-Speak. Follow this link to National Geographic and get your headphones on!