In a meeting recently in London, I described a particular elephant as, “the most beautiful I’d ever seen” and when questioned further, added that she was “elegant”.
I surprised myself.
There were a few smiles around the table and the conversation moved on; I didn’t think too much about it. Then, last week, back in Tsavo I found myself describing her to a fellow pilot, in case he spotted her from the air. I used the same words and then, when he raised an eyebrow, quickly added, “her tusks are beautifully proportioned”.
It set me thinking about what constitutes beauty in an elephant.
Perhaps surprisingly, elephants differ in appearance throughout Africa. Populations of elephants are rather like those of humans; those that share a common ancestry share common features. Once you have your ‘eye in’ you can distinguish an elephant from Kenya from one from Botswana or Namibia.
Savannah elephants are all the same species, but as long as there is not too much local interbreeding it is possible to distinguish elephants from populations that live close together. In southern Kenya, elephants from Tsavo, Amboseli and Shimba live within two hundred miles of each other, yet look recognizably different. I found this quite surprising when I first started spending time with elephants, as it suggested less movement between populations than I’d expected. It may well be that local differences are becoming more pronounced, as elephants lose their migration routes and populations become more fragmented and isolated.
So what made the particular elephant we were looking for so beautiful? – and I ask it in an unashamedly anthropocentric and personal way.
Well, she has symmetry – symmetrical tusks which are very long. I’ve occasionally seen longer on a female, but never with the same open, mammoth-like sweep. Her ears appear small, and both are unmarked which is rare in an elephant of her age. It adds to an overall feeling of satisfying symmetry.
Older elephants often have torn or holed ears, particularly bulls – whose huge, ragged ears can remind me of a map of Africa.
In humans, real beauty often seems to require physical perfection to be countered by some minor blemish, as if to prove that, rather than being descended from the gods, the lucky recipient of such genetic good fortune is human after all.
She has the same; low on her inner right ear is a slightly raised area, normally unnoticeable, but fleetingly visible if the light is low and from the side.
Of course, all beauty is subjective, and we are more likely to find beauty in what is familiar. It is possible that if I’d spent years around the Hwange elephants in Zimbabwe, I might find them more beautiful than Tsavo elephants – but I didn’t and I don’t.
She is probably around fifty, and her age adds to her beauty. She is a matriarch. Perhaps I should say, she has become a matriarch. She may have been ‘born to lead’, but she wouldn’t have had the chance until later in life. Her temperament and character have probably helped her achieve that status. Whether she imposed herself as leader on her family or whether they chose her, I don’t know, but I strongly suspect the latter.
There is recent evidence to suggest that elephants, in choosing a leader, look for the same characteristics that humans would. ( http://goo.gl/BDdcQA ).
For a Tsavo elephant who has lived through so much, she is remarkably calm – for me, this just adds to her appeal. She has a quiet presence. It is something she has passed on to her two year old daughter. She rarely leads from the front; most of the time she leaves that to a younger female.
We had been following her for a few weeks; always off to one side, always letting her make any move to come closer. We were getting there slowly; 50m had become 40m, had become 30m, but still, she always stood protectively between the vehicle and her calf.
One day though, that completely changed, and with it our relationship.
It was evening, at the base of a Kopje, a granite hill, around which her family was browsing. The sun had disappeared behind the rock, and I’d decided to put away the camera and just sit with them.
The golden rule with following elephants is never to get between a female and her calf. She chose to put me in just that position. She left her calf, and walked towards me, around the front of the filming vehicle until the calf couldn’t see her. They both continued to feed.
I hardly dared breathe. I thought that at any moment the calf would miss her, and call. We’d seen her lose contact with her calf only once before, and when that happened, hell had broken loose. In response to the calf’s panicked calls, she had led the whole herd at a charge for over a hundred meters, tusks up, crashing through thick bush, screaming as she ran.
I knew that if I started the engine, the noise would startle the calf, and while it might remove me from the scene, it would break the trust the matriarch had shown and there would be panic in the herd. I decided to accept whatever happened, as I felt that there had been something almost deliberate in what she’d done.
I hoped I wasn’t making a mistake.
After what seemed like several minutes, she turned towards the car and rumbled very gently. The calf lifted her head, looked straight at me and then calmly wandered around the front of the vehicle.
It felt like a test and, to this day, I am not sure who passed. I sat very still, in complete awe, and felt such a surge of emotion, that it was dark before I could start the car and drive back to camp.
Ivory has always looked best on elephants, and this matriarch is no exception. Her tusks are balanced, and extraordinary in their length and sweep. An inch or two from the tip of the right is a deeply incised grass-notch. Its rounded contours and patina have been achieved by decades of snagging seasonal Ipomea vines, and pulling tough grasses over it. It won’t last long – at some stage in the next year or so, the little nub of polished ivory will break off and the process will start all over again.
Humans have coveted ivory for millennia, but the experience of ‘dead’ ivory, can’t come close to when it is ‘alive’.
The first day I met the matriarch I remember being so enamored, that I followed her, at a distance, until it was dark – it felt like a schoolboy crush.
Dusk comes quickly in Tsavo. There is a brief period of quiet between the chatter of roosting guinea fowl and the first plaintive call of the Scops owl.
In that magical five minutes an elephant’s body seems to dissolve into the twilight while its ivory appears to glow. It develops a luminance that for a brief moment in time, seems to contain the essence of the elephant.
I feel it every time I am fortunate enough to spend dusk in the company of elephants.
I wonder if that is the origin of the allure that ivory has for us. Did our desire to covet an animal’s teeth arise from an attempt to hold on to that essence of an elephant? Somewhere along the path, ivory morphed into to a colonial, manufacturing commodity – no different from plastic or bakelite. That’s where it remains today – carved in fluorescent-lit, production lines – a continent away from where it originated, and a world away from being the essence of an elephant.
We should learn that there are things in this world, that we don’t have the right to possess or consume. Too often though, the scarcity value or the difficultly of the challenge involved, simply stimulates the desire to acquire.
There can be no legal trade in ivory; trade only fuels the market and the mindset.
The oft-repeated mantra that ‘ivory looks better on elephants’ has become a conservation cliché, but the reality is that ivory doesn’t just look better on elephants – it looks beautiful on elephants.
© 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.