The surreality of protecting wildlife from inhumanity.
The ear of a massive 35-year old bull elephant wraps over me like a warm blanket, shielding me with shade from the hot African sun. I’m crawling underneath as if into a humid cave as its rough wrinkled skin makes my hands feel soft and fragile. The scent of a large mammal and the dirt and the Earth are so potent, so alive, so foreign yet so familiar, they blast their way with physical force deep into each of my nostrils. Time slows down.
Suddenly, unexpectedly, as I slip ahead, a giant eye appears, inches from my face. Wide open, unblinking, staring at me. I’m shocked by the soft beauty of the tan iris. It is loving, and that jars me. He’s no longer an elephant, a huge dangerous animal, he’s an individual being, a soul on his own journey. The eye is so human-like I’m uncomfortable with the intimacy I just created without his permission. But his eye does not move.
This African elephant, the largest of land animals, a beast with deadly ivory tusks over six-feet long each weighing over 100 pounds, who topples full-grown acacia trees with ease, lies motionless on his side in the red mud of the harsh savannah. Lying like this, he’s an impossibly large fallen monument of flesh celebrating billions of years of evolution through natural selection. In the unforgiving landscape of northern Kenya, only the strong survive. He is built for this place. He is built BY this place. And yet here, surrounded by the environment where he is king and warrior, where he should fear nothing, he is completely helpless.
Fortunately, this elephant is not the victim of poaching, but rather an involuntarily-sedated participant in a critical conservation project to determine the geographical range of elephants in the region. It’s a collaboration between the local conservancies, Save the Elephants (STE), Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), and the Northern Rangelands Trust (NRT). As human populations increase and development and farms encroach on elephant habitat, the data gathered from the GPS tracking collar that is placed on him will aid in land-use planning. If successful, elephant herds may again roam freely for hundreds of miles as they have since prehistoric times.
During the harrowing minutes leading up to my encounter with the elephant, I sat in a helicopter with the project’s team, circling him as he charged his way through the bush, trying to get away from the loud helicopter. The veterinarian from KWS waited for the exact moment to tell the pilot to swoop in so he could fire a tranquilizer dart. High above us two airplanes, which had located this elephant before the helicopter took off, circled to keep an eye on the surroundings and make sure other elephants didn’t approach us.
I kept reminding myself that the horrible stress we were causing this animal was necessary to protect his herd and his species. But still, as he crashed into trees and turned to threaten the helicopter as if he could charge into the sky, I couldn’t shake the feeling that this was the worst day of his life. We were causing trauma he’d remember forever. Elephants never forget, they say. And this one, who had no idea that he was part of an endangered species, didn’t know or care about the “big picture”. I knew the work was essential and the team did everything with compassion to minimize stress to the elephants, but I’m angry and sad that we live in a world where this work is even necessary at all. It’s too surreal.
Unfortunately, the first dart doesn’t slow down this powerful bull. So after ten minutes, the vet fires a second dart and soon after the elephant slowly sits down and rolls onto his side. It’s hard to watch him fall and I feel my tears forming, but there’s no time for dropping in to really feel all these emotions. The helicopter immediately lands nearby and we all sprint towards the animal, carrying heavy equipment to outfit him with a GPS collar. It’s very hard work both mentally and physically (we do this for three full days to collar several elephants).
The team pushes themselves because they know they must succeed to save elephants from humanity’s inhumanity. The species that invented the miracles of helicopters and airplanes and satellites and smartphones (all used to track down this animal), who have capacity for so much love and compassion, also have a dark side: some people value an elephant’s disembodied tusks for decorations more than they value his life (see footnotes for more details).
An elephant’s tusks are weapons honed and perfected by battle with the elements over countless generations. Anything less would mean extinction. Perhaps flirting with that razor-thin line between life and death is why some people selfishly crave these trophies of destruction for their homes and offices. Within the safe walls of sterile, controlled environments, a six-foot lethal ivory tusk that is both a piercing sword and a crushing hammer, calls out to the ancient wild part of us that was built to survive alongside deadly monsters. Our subconscious, that reptilian brain that functions far faster than our “higher” primate intelligence, doesn’t believe in a safe world and won’t let us trust that peace will last. So it manipulates us to keep the fear alive, to keep the adrenaline going, anticipating a potential attack at any moment. “Just behind that bush up there. What’s that? What’s that cracking sound behind me?”
If only we could find healthy ways to satisfy our primordial survival instincts then maybe we could stop being the bully on the playground, acting out pain and fear by hurting others who we see as weaker than us. Maybe if we could do that together as a species, using the gifts of our collective intelligence, then perhaps we could coexist with our fellow inhabitants on Earth. If only we could extend our compassion to include all beings who can’t fight back against humanity’s advanced technologies and exploding population.
Maybe one day we will allow other species to survive and thrive not because we are too weak to dominate them as we once were, but because now we are unimaginably strong and don’t feel the need for reassurance.
I’m incredibly grateful to have joined this expedition to collar several elephants in northern Kenya, an area where age-old armed violence and human death tolls have decreased recently, in large part through a commitment to conservation. Many organizations and villages are rallying around the belief that people and wildlife can coexist. Communities who commit to conservation are more resilient and reap economic benefits to support better healthcare, education for their children, and most of all… peace.
*Notes on poaching and human-wildlife conflicts
I highlight poaching elephants for ivory because it is a luxury product and killing sentient animals for decorations is senseless and selfish. To me, it’s one of the most egregious examples of humanity’s sickness. Unfortunately, thousands of elephants each year are slaughtered (usually in front of their loving families) despite the international ban on ivory. It’s not the poachers who are to blame (most are poor people just trying to survive) but those who buy the ivory and create a lucrative market for crime syndicates to operate. WildAid does excellent work to reduce the demand for ivory, primarily in Asia.
But, sadly, poaching is not the only threat. Many elephants break through fences to eat people’s crops and end up being killed by farmers who must protect their livelihoods and their families (people get killed by elephants, too). In many places, this is a far bigger problem than poaching. Farmers don’t want to kill these animals, but their families come first. You’d do the same thing.
As agriculture continues to expand to feed people, it encroaches on elephants’ habitat thereby increasing human-wildlife conflicts. This is true in most places around the world leading to the decline and extinction of countless species. So, don’t think this is solely an Africa problem.
For example, half the land in the United States is used to grow crops, primarily to feed livestock (quite inefficiently) and our meat-heavy diets. That land was once a healthy, biodiverse ecosystem home to many wonderful animals and plants. Now, when you fly over the country, you see an infinite checkerboard of organized rows of mono-crops (mostly corn, soy, and wheat). There is little conflict with wildlife now because long ago Americans intentionally killed off most of the big dangerous animals (bears, lions, wolves, bison, etc.) that we now now rarely find outside of national parks.
And, when these animals do wander outside national parks, they tend to get shot. Wolves were re-introduced to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 and had a huge positive benefit to the ecosystem. Unfortunately, many have been shot by cattle ranchers in the surrounding areas. Often (though not always) the wolves were shot to protect cattle and other livestock that represent significant future income for the ranchers. It’s hard to blame the ranchers in many of the cases (though some wolves are definitely shot unnecessarily).
As much as I want wildlife to thrive and roam freely, who am I to say that people far away from me should have to deal with dangerous animals just so I can rest easier knowing they exist? There’s a lot to wrestle with here, which is even more of a testament to the success of conservation in northern Kenya.