Words by Mantality writer Tom Cressey…
In April 2015 I took a trip to Botswana for a month to work on an elephant conservation reserve, little did I know I was going to face one deadly truth eye to eye that I would never forget.
I have always been fascinated by elephants, by their sharp intelligence, loving family connection and their ancient memory.
Elephants remember the location of deceased family members and even make a pilgrimage to the location. Elephants have a ritual when it comes to remembering their family members, they first approach the bones and stroke their trunks across the bones whilst crying and trumping to the other family members, after they finish remembering their loved one, they come together as a family and often entwine their trunks, the whole ritual brings the family closer together and makes them stronger for the dry seasons ahead.
Botswana is the only country in Africa where The percentage of elephants born is higher than the percentage of elephants killed.
That’s the first hard truth you learn when you do conservation work. Also you come to learn the dark truths about the heavily decreasing populations of elephants and the industries that fuel the ivory trade. It is estimated that in ten years all wild elephants will be extinct if the rate of killing carries on at the same rate.
On a happier note, there are so many individual people, groups of people and NGOs conserving the elephant populations and doing as much as they can to stop the ivory trade.
Away from the facts and onto my experience, most of the days were spent working on the reserve.
The work was tough, Waking up early to dig waterholes, remove fences or traps and later in the day Animal watching and Baobab tree check ups.
I remember one morning whilst removing fences, just as I was questioning my efforts, tangled in fence wire and bathed in sweat, A large herd of elephants crossed the path where we had just removed the fence, now the elephant herds could move freely between the reserves for water and food. Elephants travel a long way for water and can drink up to 200 litres of water a day. Seeing them cross the path reinforced the work I was doing and made me push through sweating in the gruesome heat of the day.
The real fun happened after the sun had set, when the darkness creeped in after a long day of work and the sounds of wild Africa came alive and echoed out into the open landscape, as the moon elevated in the clouds and shone down and spotlighted the camp with its thick hazey glow the stars peered out There I stood in the middle of paradise, in the middle of the wild, waiting for the elephants…
Due to the amount of water at the camp many of the wild elephants would feed on the rich plants and trees around the tents we were staying in. most nights after dinner there would be a herd of elephants feeding somewhere nearby. I remember always hearing them tearing down trees with their raw strength and stripping trees of their leaves in seconds.
One full moon I decided to go closer to this stray bull elephant next to my tent, he was apart from the main herd and away from the young therefore I thought it would be safer he was just munching to himself. I would often watch them from outside my tent or the toilets, not this time, no I had to get closer. The young bull elephant was feeding on a fallen tree about 7 metres from my tent. I started crawling on my hands and knees through the thick grass and dry sand to etch closer to this beautiful beast. As soon as you are in the presence of a wild animal that can be so unpredictable your heart thuds strong, deep inside your rib cage, adrenaline is fuelled through your veins which gives you heighten senses, you become in tune with your surroundings and can monitor the slightest changes such as; wind change (you want to be down wind from an elephant) if the animal moves or becomes guarded. night vision becomes impeccable. Being this close to an elephant gave me a primeval high that can only be explained properly if you experience it for yourself.
I was crawling closer to this elephant very slowly, I would stop every 20cm and analyse the elephants behaviour. Because I was down wind from the elephant and crawling like a tiger, the young bull had not sensed my presence. I crawled until I was three metres away from the fallen tree that the bull was munching on, I could hear his jaws smashing together like industrial machines, his trunk ripping branches and leaves and crunching them down. Elephants are truly intelligent beings, not only observing their behaviour but how they feed and tear trees down is fascinating because some elephants use different techniques, some grip onto trees with their trunks and rip the tree from the ground, others use their tusks to ram the tree down. This bull I was three metres away from was using his trunk because he had no tusks, they seemed to be short and stubby, they must have been broken off from fighting other elephants.
The moon light up the elephant so I could see even directly into his shiny dark eyes. I felt ecstatic yet ready to move at any point, I had learnt from the members of staff that if you get charged by an elephant you should stay perfectly still and it wont charge through you. It will stop in your path.
All of a sudden The bull looked up, straight at me, as I had been so enchanted by the elephant I hadn’t notice it munch through most of the tree which was the one barrier between me and the elephant. The elephants head rose up sharply, ears perked and he kicked one foot to the floor which rumbled through the earth and through me, to show his strength and that I really don’t want to mess with him. I stayed dead still, staring into the elephants eyes the whole time watching every detail of it’s movements. His head scanned left to right slowly, until he realised I was not a threat and got back into munching his food again. My heartbeat started to steady as I realised that if I didn’t make any sudden movements or make a sound I was okay, I could be safe. So I continued to stay perfectly still and not at all provoke the at least 4 ton beast feeding three metres in front of me. He knew I was there, or at least around, so I had to be smarter and not move from where I was, which made me pretty stuck, and the elephant was nearing the end of his tree meal.
I got back down, lying on the ground and decided to slowly crawl away when I saw a snap of a powerful torch being turned on and highlighted me on the ground and the bull elephant next to me, a staff member shouted:
“Come straight back here we told you that you cant be that close to the elephants GET BACK NOW!”
As soon as the elephant and I were highlighted I shot my head round and looked at the elephant dead in the eyes as it noticed I was directly in front of him, He flicked his head into the tree, the one barrier between us and rammed it forward a metre whilst releasing a thundering trump that echoed through the savannah, the noise completely deafened me for a minute, My ears were ringing from being so close to him trumping. I fell back in complete shock into an acacia tree, and tore my arm deeply on a barbed hook as the elephant thundered back and away from me in fear. I lay there on the ground for 5 minutes contemplating what had just happened, with that image burned onto my mind of the elephant glaring at me and shooting through the tree. I thought I was going to die, I expected to get completely trampled on or gored. But no, on that night an acacia tree stopped the elephant fully charging. I would be dead right now if that acacia tree hadn’t created a barrier between me and the elephant.
I nearly got kicked off the reserve by the staff for being so close to an elephant, and I had warnings given to me before for running in the savannah and exploring where it was ‘dangerous.’
I have had some of the best adventures in Africa, it is a continent like no other with a vast array of wildlife, the roots to humanity and the rich landscape will never cease to blow my mind. Every day I think back to that moment when I was faced with the elephant directly, with death directly.
I will never stop appreciating life because of that. Every day we are close to the unexpected, the unknown, and we must always have the unexpected in our life, because it keeps us alive, it keeps us excited and ready for whatever life can throw at us, good, bad or both.
I will never forget the eye of the elephant.
That moment will replay in my mind for eternity.