When she was discharged after I was born, my mother walked out of the hospital. This was back when new mothers were normally discharged in a wheelchair, holding their babies. As I remember the story, my mother walked out of the hospital, a nurse carried me, and my father was in the wheelchair.
He had broken his ankle during a vigorous game of basketball. In his telling, he didn’t dwell on the fact that he took my Mum’s place in the wheelchair but on the fact that he played the second half of the game despite his injury.
Turns out, he’s not the only one who can run on a broken ankle.
On our big Christmas camping trip, we spent a night at Xade. At the gate, the ranger asked us if we were sure we wanted a particular site, 10km from all of the others at Xade and without amenities.
“It’s remote,” she said. “There is nothing there.”
“Are you sure? There’s no shower, or even a. . .pit toilet.”
“That is exactly what we want.”
On the drive from the gate to the site, we counted 21 elephants. It took us an hour to drive the 10km because two big bulls were walking the road in front of us. At the site, we spied two more bulls in the bush, snacking on some trees. The lone acacia in the campsite had been pretty well mangled by them at some point and they had moved on to the surrounding scrub.
Hobbling around the wilderness on a broken ankle (and foot, in fact) is tiring. I took a minute to sit and rest while Steve looked at the two giants.
“Grab your camera,” he whispered. “There is an amazing shot from this angle.”
I grabbed the camera and my cane, hobbling over to where Steve was standing.
One of the bulls turned to look at us. His ears flared. And then he ran.
Friends, with that elephant coming at us, I didn’t even think. I dropped the cane and ran back to the truck. It was awkward with the aircast on, but it might have been the fastest I’d ever moved in my life. I made it to the truck, shaking, and watched as the elephant abandoned what was clearly a bluff and stalked off into the wilderness. I didn’t stop shaking for 10 minutes. When I could think again, my first thought was of that basketball game my father played. It would have made a hell of a story for him.
My second thought was something along the lines of “how the hell am I supposed to tell my doctor that I didn’t obey orders to keep weight off my foot because I was running away from an elephant?”
Steve and I had both expected that seeing elephants would inspire us with awe. Instead, we were mostly terrified.
The first elephant we saw was three years ago in Makgadigadi. We rounded a corner and there he was. Alone in the car, with no guide, we were struck by the sheer magnitude of the guy. He was bigger than anything we had ever seen, than anything we had ever imagined. And he was right there.
Since then, no matter how many times we see elephants, we’re a little afraid. And yes, we’re in awe too. When I spotted them on the drive into Xade camp I couldn’t even speak. I couldn’t manage to get the word “elephant” out of my mouth. I just hammered on Steve’s shoulder, trying to form the word, eventually resorting to pointing out the window.
Hunting is illegal in Botswana. Elephants are safe here. The country is a leader in conservation, which means that the elephant population has exploded. Studies show that there are over 130,000 elephants in Botswana. That’s over 30% of the total population in Africa. Some estimates put the number even higher – at 40%. This is a huge number in a country of only 2.5 million people. In some places, elephants outnumber humans, and a fellow Fulbrighter is here studying human elephant interaction as part of her PhD research. A guide we met in 2015 told us that they communicate with each other and that elephants from surrounding countries have migrated into Botswana because they know they are safe. This is no small thing – elephant trophy hunting is big business, and our government’s confusing positions on it don’t help.
Botswana recognizes the value of their wildlife and is justifiably proud of efforts to lead in conservation. In 2016, Tshekedi Khama, Environment Minister, wrote about the symbolic importance of the elephant, as represented in a statue made of ivory tusks at the airport in Gaborone:
“[The statue] serves as a reminder to people who pass through this building each day that conservation of this iconic species is our collective responsibility. Complemented with a conservation awareness message, we are saying that one live elephant is worth so much more than all the art made of ivory. The statue is a lasting memorial to raise local, national and global awareness of the devastating impact of illegal ivory and the determination of Botswana and the global community to put an end to it.”
I love all animals, and I’m one of those people who has to work hard not to anthropomorphize them. But watching elephants makes me realize that they’re not human so much as we’re animal.
In Nxai Pans, we came upon a waterhole where a lone bull was taking a mud bath. He was clearly enjoying himself, sending sprays of deliciously cool mud up over his head and back. We sat on the roof of the truck and watched as he was joined by ten other bulls, some of whom abandoned their stately walk for a swift trot when they caught site of the water. Two waded in, relishing their long drinks. In between big mouthfuls, one would gently sweep the tip of his trunk across the surface of the water in a gesture I immediately, as a fellow water-lover, recognized. . .that extraordinary feeling of letting the tips of your fingers barely skim the surface. It was obvious – there was no other purpose than pleasure for him.
Another, impossibly nimble, stood on three legs, folding his right front leg over his left, scratching an itch in an extraordinarily fluid and graceful movement for an animal so large. A third curled his trunk and rubbed at his eyes, perhaps cleaning them of the mud that coated the rest of his huge head. Two others stopped along the side of the waterhole and exchanged greetings by lightly sweeping their trunks over each other’s faces. Forgive me if I say that it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen. “Hello. You are here. I recognize you.”
We watched those giants for a long time. There is absolutely no mistaking it – these animals have consciousness. They have complex social structures that are more like ours – including families with grandmothers – than we might think.
I wish I could better express what crosses my mind when I see them but, as I mentioned, words leave me when confronted with elephants. Something about them makes my chest constrict with emotion. More than any other animal here, they make me want to cry. Their sheer size, beauty, and unknowability move me. I recognize something in them and I lament the world that sees them as more valuable dead than alive. I lament that these bulls, reveling in that waterhole, have cousins in zoos and behind bars. I find it impossible to think that elephants in such conditions don’t pine for wide-open spaces, don’t remember their families, don’t long for that touch of recognition and acknowledgement. Of the many cruelties our own animal species inflicts on others, this is one of the saddest.
I don’t know what the future holds for Botswana’s elephants. I do know that, for as long as I live, I will remember that bull in our campsite, and the herd at the waterhole, and the feeling of waking up in a tent and seeing an elephant next to the car, watching his back – eye-level with us in the moonlight – as he made his way to wherever he was going to next.