OnSafari: Elephant Eye

OnSafari: Elephant Eye

W. Banzhaf photo stylized.
W. Banzhaf photo stylized.

She usually gave a warning before charging. This time she didn’t.

There are too many elephants in northern Tanzania. I worry each time I guide here. The normal dozen people crushed to death annually surged a few years ago to two dozen. Fortunately, my car squeaked out of a dangerous situation.

From Mama Tembo’s point of view I understand completely. She was born onto a grand, seemingly endless savannah. All her emotional energies derived from strong bonds she first developed with her mother, then her two aunts who also nursed her, then her siblings.

There was a cocky teenage brother that she knew from the getgo she shouldn’t get too close to. He was already half the size of her mother; two-thirds of her second aunt. All the ladies were jabbing him all the time, and Mama Tembo never let him know like she did everybody else with her secretive low decibel growl when the family was moving on.

Her 6-year old sister became closest. At first it didn’t look like it was going to be a good relationship. Her older sister kept pushing her against Mama Tembo sometimes so hard she could hardly breathe! But she learned quickly how good that was. Sometimes there were unknown smells wafting with the breeze or funny sounds.

She was a 6-year old herself before she first encountered any other elephants but her own dear family! Mama Tembo was never very social, and even long after the errant brother was evicted and another 2 brothers born, Mama Tembo always growled a stern warning if another elephant group was around and then they would walk far, far away from them.

The first time Mama Tembo invited a terrifyingly large bull to approach her, she flapped open her ears in disbelief, ran towards it fast, then ran back quickly to Mama Tembo. She did this several times before the old big male lifted his trunk gently and touched her.

Now, with her first-born hardly 2 months old and Mama Tembo gone, she was living altogether differently than Mama Tembo had. One aunt had also disappeared, the other was enfeebled and followed her everywhere. She was the new Mama Tembo.

They were always with dozens of other elephants. Some she barely knew. Others seemed to stick with her family for weeks, or months, then go away. It was very difficult sorting out one from the other.

She was horrified one day when below she realized suckling her wasn’t her own little child, but some stranger! She let him continue, because she knew her child might be somewhere else doing the same.

On our first game drive in Tarangire, lasting from about 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. with 90 minutes for lunch, I estimated we drove past several thousand elephants.

Over the years I’ve learned to gauge how friendly an elephant is, how likely they will allow us to come close. In Samburu, where the elephants are much fewer because of the harsh climate, and where they’ve grown so accustomed to tourists, we drove right up to a family of 13, 4 which were lying on the ground asleep. Our truck wasn’t 8 feet away! But they didn’t even stir.

Tarangire is different. Hardly an elephant generation ago this was a famous hunting reserve. Long after it became protected few tourists yet visit the southern portion where we were, where our camp was.

These ele see far fewer tourists, and I initially decided to come here about a decade ago because these weren’t just wild ele, they were natural ones. Now, even that has changed with the exploding populations.

So we approached a group of about 40 coming from the river. The track was higher than the river, following a hard ridge that didn’t erode during the heavy rains. There were a few beautiful old baobab and muratina trees along the track, but then a gorgeous field of green descended towards the river.

Forests cloaked either side of the river, but right at the bend we saw a dramatic parade of ele coming towards us, their slow incurious walk out of the water sending fountains of foam and spray all over the place.

I knew if we were quiet they would walk right by us. My friend and long-time driver, Tumaini, knew exactly where to place the vehicle before turning it off.

We waited patiently. Everyone made sure their cameras didn’t click sound. The parade lumbered forward with a gigantic matriarch easily 5000 pounds at the front. Her family clustered around her, the younger ones taking more steps than they needed to for fear they would fall behind as they ascended the grass incline right towards us.

The wind was perfectly in our favor, and everyone was dead still. Ele lose most of their sight at 10-12 years old. But their sense of smell, vibration and even the discerning touches of a changing breeze are unbelievable. Their hearing is beyond our estimation, because 90% of it along with their vocalization is below our decibel level.

So not only can they communicate vociferously without disturbing the peace of the veld to our ears, they hear the soft movement of a shoe on the rubber mats of the car. They might not at first know but might surmise the low sounds of elbows on the plastic seat covers.

So the giant matriarch hesitated about 50 yards from us. The rest of the line did as well, except for the big bulls at the back who seemed to care less. Their lumbering might be difficult to stop, so they just came on. Perhaps their wisdom and age assured them we were no danger.

So the great matriarch had to start up, again. She couldn’t let these monster males jeopardize her authority. It was hard enough just keeping her distance from them these days, even when it wasn’t time to mate!

Mama Tembo was right behind the matriarch with her first, new little child.

The males moved quickly, not because they were fast but their stride is so much greater than Mama Tembo’s. Mama Tembo didn’t know what to do. Should she follow the great matriarch, who she had only met that morning, or outpace the bulls?

Suddenly they were at a track which wasn’t normal. Something big and clunky was there. There were new smells that triggered the adrenaline. Their heartbeats increased. The flapping of their ears went faster to cool their blood. Sounds that weren’t those of monkeys jumping in the trees or warthogs running away from their feet seemed to surround them as if the trees were moving or the ground opening up.

Her baby was just too innocent. The little tot practically touched that clunky thing.

Mama Tembo mustered all her physicalness and opened her right eye widely. It hurt. It hadn’t been opened for a long time and the pupil was fully enlarged. Light flooded into her like a fire, but she kept her calm and came to the conclusion what was in front of her was not natural, not even confusingly natural like her life had become. It was alien, dangerous.

I stared into Mama Tembo’s wide opened eye. I saw the oversize black pupil, the wet dusty yellow iris riveted with veins of brown blood, pieces of grit pricking red bits at the white edges. I sensed her struggle to keep the heavy, flabby eyelids from falling back down and taking my image away.

Mama Tembo bumped the clunky thing, then whipped her trunk at it, again. It neither responded or went away, so it was time to end this folly and shove it, crush it, turn it over.

Then her little one ran away towards the matriarch. What should she do? How could she protect the little one in these modern, confusing times?

Mama Tembo walked away. No one in my truck realized how close we had come to being turned over. Tumaini and I looked at one another like exhausted runners who had just made it inside before the storm hit. We didn’t even notice all the other elephants before they were all gone and the people in the car in wild elated, congratulatory conversations.

We shook our heads silently at one another, wondering ourselves what we do the next time.