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24

I remember my first encounter with wild elephants. “Quiet”, the person with the flashlight beaming under my tent flap whispered. The light stunned me awake, and as I shook off my grogginess and pushed back the cover of my sleeping bag, I saw the face behind the flashlight belonged to Noah, our Tanzanian guide. He held his finger to his lips and then waved my tent mate and me outside. When my eyes adjusted to the night, I could see what the others in our group were looking at. My jaw dropped. At the edge of our campsite, standing by a makeshift water fountain of piled stone, was a herd of maybe nine elephants.

They were gathered in a remarkably straight line, each one patiently awaiting their turn. At the front of the line, a matriarch had fitted the end of her trunk over the spigot and was suctioning water from the faucet and hosing it into her mouth. When she had her fill, she turned and walked away so quietly it was impossible to hear her feet padding past our tents. The next elephant in line moved forward to the spigot and began to drink. Each took a turn at the water fountain. After an hour, the last elephant turned to leave, following the others back across the plain, her image soon evaporating in the dark. All that remained was the water fountain, continuing to run, until Noah, using a wrench pulled from the back of our safari vehicle, turned it off, and we all returned back to our tents.

For one brief hour, I got to share my world with nine elephants or, better yet, they shared their world with me. In the wilds of Tarangire, four hours from Arusha, I was the intruder in their world. That they had allowed me to stand quietly among them, though at a distance, still fills me with awe and gratitude.

My second encounter with wild elephants occurred outside a lodge on our tour group’s way to the Serengeti. The owner of the lodge fostered an anti-poaching brigade, a team of young Africans that drove around a wide perimeter of landscape, forcing out poachers and providing a protective land rover shield for the elephants.

As Noah drove us out to view a recently sighted herd, we found an old elephant, a matriarch, bracing herself up by her tusks in front of a sprawling acacia tree. Clearly, she was dying. It was a horrible scene: the matriarch struggling to stay upright as life ebbed from her, leaning heavily on her tusks, her legs sagging beneath her. It was only a matter of time, Noah told us.

I wanted to stop the vehicle and get out. I wanted to rush to her. I wanted to scream the word “no” so loudly it would stop time. But of course I couldn’t. I didn’t. I watched from the window of the land rover, as my heart cried for her. Looking back, I now realize that, as deaths of elephants go, this was a good one. The matriarch was lucky.

Around her, her family had gathered, some caressing her with their trunks, others shuffling in the dirt, flapping their ears and slowly moving their trunks back and forth as if keening. I don’t remember what sounds they made if any. But I do know there was communication and communion. They were holding her in their presence. Like any good family, they let her know they loved her. When she finally succumbed, the circle of elephants remained. For three days they showed no signs of retreat.

In the Jewish religion, such behavior is part of the ritual of death, called Sitting Shiva. The friends and family of the deceased gather together to support and comfort each other and provide emotional and even physical sustenance. In their own way, these elephants were Sitting Shiva. Perhaps not as my family had done when my father died, but in their own way, and just as powerfully, these elephants were honoring their dead.

It is now twenty years later. Someone recently asked me why I want to help elephants. I tell him about the Tarangire elephants drinking from the stone water fountain and the matriarch dying in front of the acacia tree. And then I tell him about a forty-year-old bull elephant in Zimbabwe, who was recently murdered for the psychopathic pleasure of some unnamed, cowardly, killer, who paid $60,000 to end his life. The story isn’t unique, nor is my response.

Yet, for some reason, the slaughter of this bull elephant has pushed me over the edge of impassivity. My anger runs deep and to the core. I am no longer overwhelmed by the fact that I am just one person, by the fact that I live thousands of miles away, by the fact that I have a mortgage, and a work deadline, and a family – all the traditional excuses of why I and others do not get involved. I am outraged and I let that outrage fuel me. It propels me up off the sofa of sitting-idly-by, it makes me push away the seat cushions of there-is-nothing-I-can-do, and it thrusts me through the door of I-don’t-have-time.

I will join others. I hope others join me. Together we can band as one and say, “Enough is enough”.

 

Karen Levenson is a writer and researcher in the field of social justice and animal and environmental protection.  She has a B.A. from Brandeis University (1979) and a M.A. from York University (1996).  With nearly two decades of experience in the animal protection field, in both Canada and the United States, her areas of focus have been on lobbying against wildlife and farm animal exploitation and the use of animals in research.  In 2008 and 2011, Karen ran as a candidate for Canada’s federal animal protection party, Animal Alliance Environment Voters, and has spoken at both conferences and to university audiences about the politics of Canada’s commercial seal hunt and the secrets of Ontario’s animal research industry.  She is currently writing a book on Canada’s commercial seal hunt and continues to consult with both national and international animal protection organizations on issues as diverse as feral cats, the dog and cat meat trade, and harp and hooded seals.  Her passion for elephants began on a trip to Tanzania’s Tarangire National Park in 1991. 

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  • Murray Tucker

    Incredible story about interacting with these intelligent animals in the correct way. One can only hope that those humans (I use the term loosely) who would rather kill then observe will eventually be removed from the gene pool and everyone will have the same attitude towards elephants – indeed, all life – as Karen.

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