Elephants are like us, but better, says Daphne Sheldrick. They share consciousness and emotions, elaborate communication and memory, and family and social ties similar to our own. In fact, elephants share more attributes with us than most other animals.
It’s the main reason elephants have become the poster child of the conservation movement. “We tend to admire qualities in other species that we recognize in ourselves. [And that] makes it easier for us to relate to them. As a result, we empathize more with gorillas [and elephants] than guppies,” says wildlife filmmaker Mark Deeble.
I’ve been fortunate to see elephants in the wild many times over the 33 years I’ve been going on safari in Africa. But this time, if I could have counted them all, I estimate I saw 1,000 elephants in the three weeks I recently spent in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. That’s more elephant encounters than I’ve had on all my trips combined.
Elephants are a keystone species. Trees and plants, whose seeds are spread in their manure, support hundreds of different types of animals.
Elephants rule Africa’s land.
As a humble visitor here I am grateful to them for every encounter. To hear their rumbling communication when calling each other closer, their trumpeting protests, and the flapping of their ears when they are telling us we have come close enough.
I rejoice in their obvious joy as they rush down the sandy hill towards water where they play, swim, submerge themselves, and drink.
Wild elephants visited my tent at 5 of the camps I stayed in. And they sniffed me, lifting their trunks towards the back of the safari vehicle where I sat silently. A few of them stopped eating or walking, turning to stare at me. I wish I knew what they were thinking.
At dusk a herd of about 100 elephants surrounded me and my driver/guide. We spent an hour with them watching adolescents jostle each other, and one brave guy repeatedly sniff and mock charge our open topped truck. Anyone of them could have easily flipped our vehicle. But they tolerated us.
On a visit to the Living With Elephants Foundation I met Jabu and Morula, two human-habituated elephants. I stroked their wrinkled leathery skin and wiry tail, looked inside their mouths, and supported their heavy trunks across my shoulder. They trumpeted, squirted water, and kissed me. I learned elephant facts from their owners as I walked alongside them through the water laden lands they call home.
Of all the amazing things I understand about elephants, what remains with me is the feeling I experience whenever I am in their presence. They exude a powerful but gentle energy. They are strong and independent, yet comforting and caring. They seem to be present, and highly aware of each other, their surroundings, and me. It’s how I feel in the company of a spiritual guru. Or similar to how I felt years ago when I touched a wild baby whale in Mexico’s San Ignacio Lagoon as she maneuvered her body towards me to look deep into my eyes. One soul acknowledging another soul. The contact was so powerful I cried. That’s how I feel being among the elephants. There is a wordless harmony, as if I’ve found a missing piece of myself.
Each and every day there are about 100 less elephants than there were the day before. Ivory poaching has drastically cut their numbers from an estimated 10 million in the 1900’s to about 35,000 today.
In Carl Safina’s book, Beyond Words, he explains why ivory poaching is so difficult to terminate. “Ivory is about poverty, ethnic rivalry, terrorism, and civil war. Orchestrating much of this are…- criminals, corrupt government officials, official governments – who are mining elephant populations to finance savage conflict. …Blood ivory has been helping finance Joseph Kony’s Lords Resistance Army, Sudan’s murderous Janjaweed, and possibly Al Queda’s Al Shabab wing. Fueling all this is simple consumer craving for carvings that people could – quite literally – live without. So ivory is not just about elephants. It would be far simpler if it were.“
Elephants represent wild Africa like no other species. Safina says, “In a generation or two, the memory of wild Africa will be lost as utterly as an American prairie of head-high wildflowers swirled by bison, darkened by wild pigeons, bordered by towering forests of chestnuts, as it all was, mere moments ago.”
Safina’s words create panic in my heart. Without wild elephants in the world I will die from a great loneliness of spirit, for whatever happens to elephants, also happens to me.