Monday, November 10, 2014

The Elephant, the Gazelle and Consciousness

Music to accompany article: Ayub Ogada "Kothbiro"

Some years ago, when I was in Kenya, I observed a scene that changed forever my views of elephants’ consciousness. My companions and I were staying at the auspicious Treetops Lodge, where in February 1952, Princess Elizabeth spent a night only to discover the next day that she was Queen Elizabeth II.

   We took seats in the comfortable lounge to relax and take stock of the day’s adventure in the Aberdare National Park. We still felt slightly shaken by the fact that during the afternoon drive, a wheel came off our jeep and we had to get out of the vehicle in order for it to be repaired. Our only hope was that the resident lions had already had their dinner.

   It was a beautiful July evening and the sun was setting behind the snow-capped Mount Kenya. In my imagination, I could hear the soundtrack from my beloved film Out of Africa, and was almost expecting Robert Redford to join us for a drink.

   Taking our seats by a large window to have a good view of the adjacent watering hole, we were hoping to watch animals coming to drink. It was getting dark, but the watering hole was well lit by powerful floodlights. At first, there were only a few birds dotted around the water’s edge. However, gradually, a procession of some larger animals began to take their places: waterbucks, warthogs and I thought I could just make out a pair of zebras in the distance. Then, to our delight, the huge figure of an elephant loomed out of the bush. A lone bull, he was in no rush as he came to the water and began to drink, sucking it up his long, muscular trunk, before squirting it into his mouth.

   Suddenly, a nervous gazelle darted into the clearing, and scampered in the direction of the elephant. Trembling slightly, she stood by his side. In height, she did not even reach his knee. I remember commenting to my companions: “That’s probably not very wise of her. Even if he is in a benevolent mood, he could squash her accidently.” To my surprise she moved even closer to him. And then a companion whispered with some distress: “Look! Some hyenas! There are several of them in a pack, lurking in the shadows”. We knew that the elephant would be safe from these hungry predators, but what about the gazelle?

   For a while, our proboscidean friend continued drinking the water nonchalantly, eyeing the situation. Then, very slowly, he lifted his left leg and moved it towards the gazelle. I wanted to cover my eyes and shout with horror. What he did was not what I had feared. He stretched his leg around the gazelle so that he now stood over her, sheltering her with his massive frame. Frightened as she was, she must have understood his intention and did not move. He continued to drink. After a while, we saw the hyenas skulk into the bush, no doubt disappointed at the outcome of their plot. The gazelle stumbled towards the water and lapped gently, glancing sideways with some trepidation. Then, as quickly as she had appeared, she skipped off into the bush, in the opposite direction to where the hyenas had gone. The elephant appeared to smile to himself.

   I shall never forget this scene and the impact it made on my understanding of elephants. One could only wish that humans could behave in such a compassionate and magnanimous manner. I believe that elephant poachers should be tried in court for murder or attempted murder.

   Recently, I read Lawrence Anthony’s most enlightening and beautiful book, The Elephant Whisperer. He was a man of great mind and great heart, and it is to his memory that I dedicate this short story.