Friday, June 20, 2014

Slow Dance of The Elephants

The Aberdare Experience

Aberdare Ark is a modern-day machaan, except that it is a building (shaped in an ark) with all amenities afforded to tourists for a comfortable stay! It sits next to a natural salt lick in a clearing within the lush Aberdare tropical forests of Kenya. The Ark has a viewing gallery in the basement where one is level with the waterhole, a terrace which gives one an overhead view and a mezzanine lookout which is barely clear of the tallest elephant’s height!

When we reached the Ark it was approaching sunset, a perfect time for animals to congregate at the waterhole before they called it a day. An elephant parade was lined up, with some African cape buffaloes blending in, almost as though to welcome us. In the awed hush all we could hear was the odd rumble and rustle, an overwhelming assertion of life! Unlike other safaris where we encountered elephant herds browsing and feeding from time to time and took pretty pictures, the Aberdare experience was one to watch elephant behaviour and bonding, intimately, in their natural habitat.

From the terrace, I spotted a cow with a calf huddled by its side; other young ones came to caress and pet it, all the time ensuring that it was well-flanked and protected. Two juveniles from different clans came upon each other, touched and twined their trunks, and indulged in boisterous play for a while. One of the young adults had something hanging loose at the end of its trunk; it took me a while to figure that the trunk itself was mutilated and a part of it was hanging by a lip! It seemed like an old wound and the mammal was able to adapt it beautifully despite the deformity.

Elephant herds of varying strength were trooping in and out of the thicket to the waterhole. One of the young male was wounded with blood oozing from its face. You could see, it was desperately seeking attention and commiseration from others, like a little child. It would go close and try to touch every other elephant that came out of the bush. I was shocked to see that it was being shunned by one and all! To my mind it seemed like a case of adults chiding, “I told you so”, for “not listening” to sane counsel! Or maybe there was some other explanation that we have no way of knowing.

As the day wound to a close, I shifted my observation post to the open balcony by the path where the animals had to retreat into the thick vegetation. There was an embankment of boulders - two feet wide - below the balcony to keep the elephants from straying too close. Every time an elephant approached my side and passed by, it would, unfailingly, lift up its trunk sniffing my presence. But their reactions were different. Some were wary, some baulked and some actually bolted, timidly, tail in the air. I wondered how much of my olfactory signature was imprinted on their memories and if I were to encounter them out in the wild would they recognise me!

The jumbos had called it a day and all the resident tourists too retreated to their cubby-hole cabins for a doze. Being claustrophobic, I had to wait out the night somehow. Somewhere around 2 or 3 at night, I must have drowsed only to be awakened by a sixth sense. I went to the balcony to gulp in fresh air just in time to see a faint trickle of pearly grey masses coming out into the open. In the still moonlit night, for the next hour and a half, a slow dance-drama unfolded - for my eyes only - leaving me completely dazed.

A matriarch with a calf, few females and some sub-adults began confabulating by the pool. Soon the calf lay at its mother’s feet to rest and three-four grown-ups stood in a semi-circle forming a protective cover. 

The mater moved away closer to the water’s edge, sniffed the wind, and kneeled down as though checking the depth of the pool with its probing trunk. It tore away the grass growing at the edges and gobbled it. Soon it had rolled onto its side, raised its trunk, and was contorting its body! My first impression was that this animal was sick; that it might have a tummy problem. For an instant it almost seemed like it was in throes. I hadn’t seen anything so bizarre all my life! The matriarch wallowed and writhed as the herd watched respectfully from a distance, not breaking her trance.

She then strode back to its family by when the calf was up and rejuvenated. Then a slow, deliberate, rhythmic ritual ensued… trunks entangling, twining, and feeling each other. The entire herd stood still in a wedge formation with its trunks touching. After a long while, the formation turned inside out with the bottoms now jostled together. Was it a family get-together where they were narrating stories and anecdotes, trading notes and even, joking?

The calf and the sub-adult were left out of the loop, surprisingly, left unprotected behind their backs! When the calf attempted to pry from behind, curious, the matriarch without so much as a look gave it the boot sending it scurrying out of the charmed circle! With no perceived threats and comfortable in the privacy of their circle, they could now afford to keep the pesky young ones out of their adult “bedroom” conversation!

The herd stood in varied patterns and formations (interminably, it seemed!) and changed positions at intervals. If that one hour could be filmed, fast forwarded and reduced to a 15- 20-minute clip, then I would be witness to a rhythmic gyration, a slow ballet.

Was it a spiritual ceremony or a cult ritual? Or I wondered if the herd was mourning having heard and read so much about elephant’s graveyards and death rituals.

Benson, the in-house naturalist, discounted it saying that in the 40 years of the lodge’s existence no elephant had died or was buried there. He had this to say: “Elephants are highly evolved social creatures and with a lot of research being done on their memory and behaviour, scientists haven’t finished yet. I would think we haven’t begun yet.” 



The news item of the barbaric slaughter of Satao - a rare bull with nearly 50 kg of tusk (each) grazing the ground – by poachers caught my eye and made my heart bleed. Visions of African Elephants - tuskers and matriarchs, calves and juveniles – that I had seen in the diverse ecological habitats of Kenya - from the plains to the forests - swam in front of my eyes. Satao was a Tsavo bull and it was here in the vast historic savannas of Tsavo that I had my initial tryst with the species Loxodonta Africana.


En route from Mombasa to Nairobi early in our Kenya sojourn, we decided to take a detour into Tsavo territory. Tsavo National Park is Kenya’s largest, divided into East and West, East being the wilder and less frequented of the two.

In the lazy noon hour, the park seemed devoid of animals though the bush was buzzing with birds. We had almost given up hope after a few hours when the elephant parade began! Being intimately acquainted with the Indian elephant, which is grey-black, the first sight of (brick) ‘red’ elephants was truly exceptional. It is Tsavo’s rich volcanic soil, ochre in colour, which gives elephants that distinctive hue when they wallow or bathe in mud.

In the blazing equatorial sun, we came upon a “nuclear” family trying to shield them under/near a sparse shrub, barely managing to tuck their heads in! That classic sight was a testimony to the species’ qualities of tolerance and accommodation of others.  

Much later, when we visited Tsavo West, the trails we followed threw up elephant hooves, intermittently, but not their owners. Bare boles of acacias stripped of leaves and twigs stood as signs of elephant ravages, but the perpetrators of carnage were nowhere in sight. That is how it is in Tsavo country, the excitement lies more in the suggestion than in the spotting.

After hours of following the red dirt tracks through the acacia-commiphora woodlands all we could see was a herd of elephants walking into the horizon. Should a small herd of elephants walking away into distance - a pastiche at once of mundanity and mystery - be any less thrilling than an elephant at close quarters posing for a photograph? For me, this is a more intimate portrait, almost as if the elephants were leading me into their private domain, if only I exerted my imagination and followed them there.



It was March of 2009; the year of drought in Amboseli. Nyika or African bush is largely treeless and hence can be punishing in its natural elements at the best of times. In such a parched landscape, the scene that stayed with me was this: a long-shot of lumbering herd of elephants with young ones in tow cutting through the simmering heat of the dustbowl in search of water. 

This family would have to walk for miles to get to the receding water sources and it would have to do it as fast or slow as the pace of the youngest calf. We, who simply reach out for bottled water or a can of coke in the middle of nowhere, to wet our lips or soothe our parched throats, cannot even begin to imagine the herd’s predicament. The poignancy of the scene lay in the realization of that harsh reality of life in the wild.

As the herd approached our vehicle the calf buckled under sheer exhaustion and lay down to rest: the clan simply stayed put in some sort of protective formation. They stood freeze frame for what seemed like an eternity and we waited with bated breath to see what would happen next. As my son interpreted the scenario, the calf that was resting was the unlikely king, and the family of adults, the servile subjects who had to wait it out. I felt as though the earth had stopped spinning and that instant was IT… for the elephants there was no past, no future; the essence of existence was the present moment – poised between life and death.

The elephant herd would pause for as long as it would take the calf to regain its energy before resuming their long march. We, however, had to move on so as not to overstay safari propreity and had no way of knowing the fate of the calf or of the clan. But, possibly, the entire family would have had to go without water longer than their tolerance threshold, or perhaps I was underestimating their patience and endurance.


The sight of an imposing lone tusker is worth more than a pride of lions (so to speak!) and we were lucky to see one at a distance near the Olokenya swamp. (Later through the film “Elephants Memories” by Dr. Cynthia Moss we got to know that this was the legendary Dionysius). 

The mammoth, his tusks tending to ground, emerged out of a thicket like a chimera. Surprised or simply gauging our mood as we were trying to sense his, he stood there looking directly at us. Even from that distance we could feel his brute presence, a colossus striding the earth like royalty. Suddenly, contrary to its nature, it darted into nearby bushes and simply vanished before our eyes. It was as though the mask had been ripped off his face and the blinkers off mine as I realized how vulnerable that lone ranger was. No companion, no family, no herd – a persona non grata eking it out in an unfriendly world.



Even as we had started on our game drive in Lake Manyara National Park in Tanzania, two young frisky elephants feeding by the roadside blocked our path. I was consternated at the sight of one of them fanning its ears menacingly and for once the cocoon of our vehicle seemed vulnerable. What a contrast, I couldn’t help comparing, with Ian Douglas Hamilton’s (Lake Manyara was this elephant-expert’s playing field) bravado in undertaking the hazardous task of photographing elephants with ears spread out, for identification, at times crouching on trees or even on foot!

Not wanting to antagonise them, the driver backed off. Finally, they slipped into the thicket clearing our way. Back at our resort, the hotel staff was emphatic that no game strayed in there as the lodge was outside the National Park, though we had seen some bushbuck stroll below our balcony.

By dusk, after the game drive, elephant blockade fresh in mind, we sauntered into the lodge chatting away walking up to the room. Fellow lodgers - a couple – waved a hello or so we thought; instead they greeted us, saying: “Look there, by the (swimming) pool… Elephants”!

My heart stopped beating as I saw two grey apparitions appear over the curve of the hill. They walked towards the same direction as us, parallel to us, the lodge rooms dividing our paths. Our friends turned to their room leaving us alone to decide our fate. Silently, we kept walking, praying, and managed to reach our rooms safely.  The wind Gods had aided us. 

From the first floor balcony, just in time, we caught a herd of three, including a calf, within whispering distance! I shudder to think, what would have happened if our family of three (me, my husband and son) had come face to face with the elephant trio.


It was much later in Kenya’s Aberdare forests that I was lured into the secret universe of the elephants where I was witness to their legendary bonding.  

Read Slow Dance of the Elephants