We returned to Tsavo, at the beginning of the year, to a park deep in grass. At times, it is so high that we can only see the backs of the elephants. In this sea of green, buffalo can disappear altogether and giraffe are periscoped to delightful proportions. The rains have ended, the waterholes are full, and life is easy. It is the time of year that animals give birth – in the last few days we’ve seen enough baby zebras and warthogs to populate a children’s book. Wherever we go, ground-nesting birds dart through the grass with their chicks, and the raptors are so full that they barely glance down from their perches. The atmospheric violence of the rainy season has been replaced by soft, grey dawns and a haze of somnolent inactivity. We know it won’t last for long – already the sun manages to burn through in the afternoon and there is the hint of a breeze, but it feels as if the land has earned a respite.
In the short time we have been away, there has been a remarkable change in the elephants. We left towards the end of the rains, late in December, when the elephants were all concentrating on feeding – the fresh shoots, sappy bark and lush grass, seemed to be all they could focus on. That’s all changed; they’ve bulked up, joined up, and hormone levels have shot up. Many of the bulls we now see are in musth – a testosterone-fueled state of heightened aggression and sexual arousal. The normally-docile bull herds no longer have the ‘codger’s club’ feel to them – they are more edgy. Bulls test each other out, and they are more alert. The energy is different – we feel it when we drive amongst them. The larger bulls have attached themselves to female herds and they follow each female in turn to ‘trunk’ her to see if she is coming into oestrus. The first morning out I witnessed a herd, a mile distant run, screaming and trumpeting along the base of a hill for over twenty minutes. At any other time, I would have thought an elephant had just been poached, and I did check, but it was a ‘mating pandemonium’, initiated by a big tusker as he tried to catch up with a cow in season, who was running with her herd.
It is the start of out final year of filming in Tsavo and I sense that the tide is beginning to turn for elephants. The appalling attrition due to poaching is still there, but the recent success of a viral poster campaign in China by NY designer and conservationist Asher Jay http://news.mongabay.com/2013/1029-hance-pandas-of-africa.html proves that there is a thirst for information in the country that can ultimately lead to a change of attitude. Education is an incremental process, but the change it brings can be enduring. The question remains though, as to the state the continent’s elephant population, once the change in hearts and minds in China has been translated into a reduction in poaching in Africa. Towards the end of 2013, we had a single week in which we found three orphaned elephant calves. We helped the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust rescue two of them which were subsequently taken into care (http://www.sheldrickwildlifetrust.org/). Sadly both died before the new year; one collapsed in Tsavo, the other died of pneumonia at the orphanage in Nairobi. They are among the uncounted victims of the present poaching pandemic. Often female elephants that are killed for their ivory have infants with them, and if they are still suckling, then they will most likely starve or die of dehydration.
In camp, we think a lot about elephants. I have always been mindful of the role of elephants in spreading seeds, and we used that thought to close the film we made about an African fig tree (The Queen of Trees: http://www.deeblestone.com/films_cat.php?filmId=1). I was reminded of it again this week by an article that linked the importance of Africa’s forest elephants to the dispersal of tree seeds and the health of the forest. It went on to extrapolate that idea out to the forests’ importance in the water cycle and the weather (http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20140114-elephants-the-forest-gardeners). It was gratifying to see the dots being connected in a ‘How elephants affect the weather’ story that illustrates the inter-connectivity of the world we live in. Besides the elephant-centric subject of the article, I am encouraged that mainstream media is taking a more holistic, inter-connected view on the world, rather than the traditional isolationist approach. Taken to its natural conclusion it will result in an appreciation and celebration of biodiversity – that is something we need, and something I’ll applaud.
© Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.