Lunching with elephants

Tanzania 2014 (709)

“Do you think we’ll see elephants today?” I ask Ray, our guide and driver, as we enter Tarangire National Park, which is known for its elephant herds.

“I think so,” Ray says, with a slight smirk.

I have been to East Africa before. When I was in college I spent a semester studying wildlife biology in Kenya. I saw many animals, but I never saw an elephant. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger I once saw a herd of forest elephants, but they were at a distance and hard to see in the trees. Now, almost 30 years later, I am in Tanzania on a safari with my family. I’m determined to see an African bush elephant.

“Elephants!” Ray yells, about half an hour into our drive. He points down to a giant Baobab tree, which looks like it has been uprooted and replanted upside down. Two adult cows and one young elephant graze under the tree. They walk and feed, ears flopping to keep cool in the midday heat.

“They are heading to the river,” he says. “There will be more.”

We drive further down the road and find another group of about six animals. A parade is what you call a herd of elephants, according to the OED. I can see why, they seem to be constantly moving, in a group, toward some undisclosed destination.

Ray stops the Range Rover about fifty feet from the elephants. We are close enough to smell them, the pungency of their dung and pee. Their skin is textured like the bark of an old oak tree. Their eyes look dried up; they have poor vision but good sense of smell and hearing.

“Do they know we’re here?” I ask. They seem so nonplussed by our presence.

“They hear us and they smell us,” Ray says.

It’s lunchtime and we’re hungry, so we open our boxed lunches and eat while we watch the elephants. They feed, we feed: two species united by their necessity to eat. Elephants eat for 16 hours a day. Their digestive system is poor and they don’t digest much of what they eat. I wonder if they can smell our lunches of fried chicken and samosas.

Ray moves the vehicle. We find another group of about ten animals lumbering toward the dry river bed, a big male tusker pushing them along. A different group stands in the river bed, digging for water. Yet another group moves up the riverbed. I count 30 animals all around us. One of the males rubs against the trunk of the tree, laboriously scratching an itch. When you are that big nobody who is going to scratch your back? The sound is like sandpaper on bark, or maybe bark on bark.

Elephants are the largest extant land animals on earth. They are the sole remaining family of the order Proboscidea, which included mammoths and mastodons. I recently read that the African bush elephant population is declining so rapidly from poaching for ivory that they could become extinct within our lifetime. In a recent New Yorker article I read that the small forest elephant, the subspecies I saw in Niger, could be gone with a decade. It seems like the least we could do, as the ruling species of the day, would be to preserve their existence a bit longer.

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