There is a lot of news about elephants, and a lot of noise about them. I subscribe to forums, and newsletters from elephant-centric NGOs, and sometimes it can be hard to remain positive. Every day we get email alerts highlighting yet another atrocity. If elephants aren’t having their faces hacked off, or their babies kidnapped, then they are being shot from helicopter gun-ships, poisoned, or slowly fenced out of their former range. Bad news makes headlines and, to stand out, the headlines and images compete with each other to be the most graphic, the most violent. The clamour for our attention and our funds can be deafening.
By the end of 2014, I was starting to find it overwhelming. We were tired. Filming had been going well, but we’d been running at full-throttle for over two years – so we decided to take a rare break. It was a family decision – to leave behind the media, and the commercialisation of the holiday season, and go for a walk.
We’ve done it almost every year since our sons were small boys. It’s now over a decade that we’ve walked with Helen Dufresne, and her partner Pete Ilsley, in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District – with a train of camels, accompanied by her Samburu crew of elders and warriors. With each walk lasting a week or so, we have probably covered over a thousand kilometers.
There is no set route, just the daily routine – starting with the dawn coffee pot on the embers of the previous nights fire, and the knowledge that we’ll walk for the next six or eight hours until the camels, that carry the camp, catch up with us. Then there’s a search for good shade and a sandy lugga where we can dig for water, or a spring fed-pool where we can soak away the afternoon.
On those first walks we never saw elephants north of the Milgis lugga – they had been first hunted, and then poached out of the Ndotos over twenty years previously. A generation of Samburu had grown up without them. Old traditions remained, such as using dry elephant dung to make the first fire in a new homestead, but they were forced to travel thirty miles to find it.
Along with the elephants went the waterholes they kept open, and the paths that they made. Once the elephant paths disappeared, the herders were unable to walk their livestock to grazing on the mountains, so they started fires to clear the bush. It was the first step along a path whose enevitable conclusion would be deforestation, erosion, dry watercourses,…
Helen sensed the decline. She had the respect of the Samburu community – earned by living alongside them, sharing droughts, rains, learning, helping… She held meetings, but the community now lived apart from what they saw as ‘Helen’s elephants’. They feared them, they saw no reason to encourage them back. Without the support of the community, there was a limit to what Helen could do.
It was the death of a bull elephant that was the catalyst for change.
In 2004, we had been walking with Helen when we came across the tracks of a large bull in the lugga. We’d followed, picking up on her excitement that a lone bull had come into an area that had not seen elephants for decades. Our euphoria quickly changed to concern though, when it was apparent from the spoor, that the bull was dragging a leg. When we caught up with him, we found his femur smashed by a bullet. The area is so remote, that despite radio calls to vets and KWS, Helen was unable to get anyone up to treat him. The bull died two days later – in agony and alone – slumped in a grove of tamarisk. It was heartbreaking.
The thought that a trusting old bull, scouting territory that he’d last fled from as a calf, should come to such an end was the turning point for Helen – for he had not been poached, he been shot out of fear, by a herder. The death galvanised Helen and Pete to set up The Milgis Trust ( http://www.milgistrustkenya.com/ ). Their friend and conservationist, Halvor Astrup, promised funds, and made it possible. Their aim was simple – to promote the harmonious coexistence of elephants and pastoralist Samburu, and to encourage elephants back to their former stronghold.
Helen’s dream was that one day elephants would return to Mt Nyiru – the sacred mountain of the Samburu, a remote forested citadel that arises from the desert haze.
In the years that followed, the trust employed community scouts, built schools, put in boreholes, funded eye clinics…but behind it all, was the drive to welcome back the elephants. Elephants know where they are safe. Gradually, on our walks, we started seeing bulls, then eventually, cows with their families.
Now here we were ten years later, standing on the summit of Upé, looking down on the forested slopes – the beard moss-strewn cedars, the secret glades of cycads, with flitting sunbirds and tree ferns.
It was a privilege to walk the wind-whipped spine of the Ndotos, and feel so mentally and physically removed from the rest of the world. A week in, we saw a distant plane – but it couldn’t pierce the bubble we walked in, for our attention immediately switched to a pair of fan-tailed ravens – delighting in their acrobatic barrel rolls and side-slips. Most days, after sunrise, these accompanying court jesters were momentarily displaced by their monarchs, a pair of Verreaux eagles who patrolled the ridge – stately, windward and shadow-sliding.
Little by little, like water trickling between stones, a sense of renewal seeped in – filling the voids created by ‘headlines’, ‘commentary’ and ‘issues’. They’d been important, and would be again, but for a glorious ten days they were meaningless. Without thought and context, they simply ceased to exist.
Below us was the lugga where the bull had died. He’d not been forgotten. Some years ago, we’d walked past his pitted skull, sprigged with tamarisk – left as a sign of respect by passing warriors.
The difference now, was that the slopes beneath us were alive with elephants. Every day we were treated to tantalising glimpses of their grey backs sliding through the vegetation – then every now and again one would step out into a clearing and we’d smile.
Compared to their ‘flat earth’ Tsavo cousins, Ndoto elephants are mountaineers.
It was hard to imagine how they negotiated the steep hillsides. On gradients which required hand-holds, we’d suddenly come across an elephant path, which we would follow to the very top of the ridge. A decade before, we couldn’t have reached it without days of cutting.
As elephants have reopened paths, there has been less need for herders to burn, and mountain fires are now rare.
Helen estimates there are about six hundred elephants now, and the Milgis Trust scouts and her network of informers are so effective, that in recent years only a handful have been poached. It’s an achievement that is probably unequalled in Kenya.
Besides a pilot’s licence, Helen doesn’t have a qualification to her name. She doesn’t do publicity, nor does she take a shilling for administering the money she raises. She doesn’t attend fundraisers and cocktail parties – she simply gets on quietly, life-dedicated, with what she believes in.
That the elephants have returned should be tribute enough. What makes Helen light-up though, is when she describes how it’s happened with the encouragement and the blessing of the community. A new generation is growing up with elephants as neighbours. In conversation today, the Samburu refer to the elephants, not as ‘Helen’s elephants’, but as ‘our elephants’. Now, to bless the hearth of a new homestead, rather than walk thirty miles to find elephant dung, they simply look down at their feet.
Recently, a family of elephants returned to Mt Nyiru for the first time in decades. People were so excited that they turned out in their hundreds to see them, and the elephants became nervous and fled. Helen was thrilled that they had retraced their ancestral paths, but moreso that they hadn’t been chased away. As she said, “Elephants don’t forget, they’ll be back.”
We climbed down from the ridge on the eve of the new year – reluctant to leave the forest-shade cool for sunlit slopes, and re-engage with the world. We need not have worried. Herb-fragrant meadows eased our passage and fan tailed ravens followed us down.
That night we camped next to an extraordinary gathering of rocks. I wrote recently about an elephant rubbing rock. It is single rock. That last night we camped in the Keno valley, where there was a herd of them.
They sit in a glade of acacia and figs, on a smooth granite dome. Nearby, a clear stream. They are not worn by water, for only their outer-flanks are burnished – rubbed smooth by elephants. The history they exude is almost intimidating. I found it hard to imagine the elephant gatherings that the rocks must have witnessed.
Elephants have found them again – there were footprints in the sand, dung beside the stream – the rocks shone from rubbing.
We sat amongst them as the sun set on the old year. I felt stronger and re-centered. I felt grateful that our sons, now 19 and 22 still chose to see in the new year with us, in this place, and this way.
The next day we’d disperse – back to Tsavo, to England… but for that moment, we were all together, and nothing else mattered.
The rocks remain. More elephants will find them this year, and re-establish an ancient relationship. That they have the opportunity, is testament to the work of a remarkable woman.
Thanks to Helen Dufresne, a small corner of Kenya is a better, more hopeful place.
I know of no greater accolade.
Photos: Freddy & Jacca Deeble
© Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone 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.