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.” 


1 comment:

  1. I have heard that a lot of animals have been ruthlessly poached in the Aberdares. Especially elephants and lions. And from reliable sources.

    Wish you filmed this dance of the elephants.