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The largest land mammal wears a baggy gray suit and has more wrinkles than a botox doctor’s waiting room. They are not colorful. They eat all the time. They are family-oriented. They are not very vocal. They are actually a bit boring in many of our hyper-human ways of assessing things. But they are for many safari-goers (maybe) the coolest of the African animals. They are so human in so many ways – or perhaps we are so elephant in so many ways.
They are family oriented. They are gentle and slow-moving. They seem thoughtful (usually). The youngsters are often noisy and playful. The males wander a bit and the females are not unhappy about that. Adolescents are asked to move out and find their own homes. They are huge and daunting without seeming to be huge and daunting. They drink water by the gallon and eat hundreds of pounds of vegetation daily. Their droppings are huge and still rich in seeds and grass fiber that passed through the animal undigested. (Any Dung Beetle will tell you that there is still plenty of good food in there. In fires it creates a smoke that kills mosquitoes. The fibers can make a very nice paper. And so on…)
Research on African elephants has a long and wonderful (modern) history. Cynthia Moss at Amboseli in Kenya, near the Tanzanian border and Iain Douglas-Hamilton who studied elephants and elephant movement in the Lake Manyara area of Tanzania, were two of the earlier researchers. Cynthia’s work, and that of her crew, spanned decades as they looked at elephant families and impacts on the environment in a smallish national park. Iain and Oria Douglas-Hamiton studied elephants and their movements in Tanzania. Oria started Elephant Watch Camp in Samburu (northern Kenya). Saba, their daughter, ran the camp for many years . Another daughter Mara, has also remained in touch with the elephant research and family heritage. Saba continued with elephants and education. Iain and Oria worked together on books about elephants and the need for conservation: Among the Elephants and Battle for the Elephants.
Quite honestly Iain and Oria and the girls are a whole book on their own. Saba (7 in Swahili) is still raising money and appearing on BBC educational programs and Mara (Dudu -insect in Swahili) is doing the same. I knew the parents through many safari visits to the family home near Lake Naivasha in Kenya and enjoyed many meals and chats during those visits. Iain was a guy who probably enjoyed being outdoors, flying, and watching elephants more than he liked hanging out with visiting groups – but Oria was different. I always described her as a mix of Lady Di and Madonna; a bright captivating spirit and a wonderful hostess. And, one that also loved elephants and Africa. Over the years I got to know a few of Iain’s Samburu elephants, where he had a permanent elephant study camp. I rather enjoyed sitting up on the “roof” of the house talking with Iain; but that is not to diminish my time with Oria but rather a chance to both learn from Iain and get a break from the group setting. The story of the Naivasha house and Oria’s family is a book in itself. Her cousin wrote the Babar books for instance and much of their childhood has running with the local Maasai kids. Very very interesting.
I am beginning to realize that there are elephant people and elephant stories that will take more than one blog post – so let me get on with this one and continue with other elephant-topics in the future. Again I will use the captioning of the photos for the narrative .
The old “elephant graveyard” story is both true and false. The early Europeans who appeared on the African scene were simply killing animals, lots and lots of animals. Occasionally they would keep skins or tusks or bones, but mostly they just reveled in the killing. Before the Europeans the animals were modestly used for food by tribal peoples but rarely slaughtered. As a matter of fact elephants used to grow old and wear out their teeth. Once the teeth were pretty much gone they would head for wetlands and eat the moist succulent vegetation, eventually dying of old age. Thus there was an accumulation of tusks around these wetlands and thus rose the myth of an elephant graveyard. It was where many died but not where they headed intentionally to die. They headed there to live as long as they could. The flesh was eaten by scavengers and microbes and the bones chewed crushed and scattered by porcupines and hyenas; leaving the hard and tough tusks to accumulate.