A DAY IN THE HERD
From Ol Pejeta we head to Elephant Watch Camp in Samburu National Reserve, a unique place to get up-close-and-personal with elephants. We leave from Kamok, the “Ol Pejeta International Airport”, where the control tower is a giraffe and planes have to buzz the airfield first to clear the zebras and impalas before landing. Bit of a contrast from London’s Heathrow and not exactly the Virgin Clubhouse.
Samburu National Reserve is drier and much hotter, characterized by dried out riverbeds with very little green vegetation except around the fast moving red mud of the Samburu river. We have a fantastic welcome from the Save The Elephants and Elephant Watch staff, many resplendent in their traditional and colorful Samburu warrior garb.
This time I skip the duty-free and mount up into the open top and side Land Cruisers and bump down the dirt road. The animals are harder to spot in the scrub, but tiny antelope, called dik-dik, are everywhere. These beautiful miniature deer are so delicate they look like every step would break them and I learned they mate for life and if one of a pair dies it’s partner will never mate again.
Straight from the airstrip we head for the riverbank. Our guide is David Daballen from Save the Elephants, a soft-spoken Samburu who has studied elephants for the past 12.5 years; his mentor is Dr. Iain Douglas-Hamilton, one of the world’s foremost authorities on the African Elephant.
As we round a corner, there it is — the dark gray bulk of an elephant, then another, and another, and another! Slowly we position ourselves right in the middle of a herd of twenty or more, sheltering from the midday sun beneath the trees, methodically stripping at branches for food.
Suddenly I realize that between 3 medium-sized elephants is a tiny baby lying down resting, her sisters towering over her, positioned in a protective triangle.
I can already see how these animals watch out for each other and are a close-knit family. I just can’t believe I am sitting in an open vehicle a dozen feet away from wild elephants! They flap their ears gently and sniff the air with their trunks like a periscope, but they know David’s vehicle, his scent and the sound of his whispering voice and are completely unconcerned by our presence.
David knows every member of every family in the reserve, as well as their family history. Poachers killed this one’s mother two years ago, another member of the family had to then step into the role of matriarch at a very early age and the responsibility of leading the herd to food, water and out of harms way ways heavily upon her, she looks a bit depressed. At first I think the emotions are exaggerations, perhaps too much, but the more I learn and observe, the more I realize how much they share with humans – lifespan, adolescence, family bonds and emotions – as David explains this I can see it there in front of me by the way they are interacting with each other.
The life histories are disturbing. So many of these animals have been lost to the poacher’s bullet, and yet they still trust us, allowing us to be a part of their lives.
For lunch we have a picnic at the riverside and we are just finishing up when the elephants decide to gatecrash our party!
More to come on that…