Reader, I met my foster elephant.
Today, August 12th, is World Elephant Day. These twenty-four hours are designated for bringing attention to the plight of (in my opinion) the world’s most beautiful mammal, the elephant. If you add together the total amount of African and Asian elephants currently alive, you would be well below 1,000,000. That means there are 50-70% more humans in a city like Chicago or Houston than there are elephants in the world. How would we feel if our numbers were that low? Not too great, and it should be noted that things are worse for Asian elephants than their African counterparts. It is believed Asian elephants number only around 40-50,000, which is less than the human population of my suburban town. Poachers kill elephants on a frighteningly regular basis (in Africa it is estimated to be about 100 elephants killed a day) to take their tusks and sell the ivory on the black market, while particularly in Asia elephants are forced into servitude for tourism and entertainment purposes, often having to give rides to people - something they would not voluntarily do. If you take nothing else away from this post, take this away: elephants are for loving, not riding.
In the spirit of World Elephant Day, I want to share the story of meeting Ambo, the orphaned elephant calf I foster through the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, because the very fact that he is alive is a tribute to the power human's have to help. (To learn how a period of intense personal depression put me on the road to fostering Ambo, please see my post Ambo the Elephant: A Love Story.) In addition, at the bottom of this post I have compiled a new, longer list of links that includes information about elephants and ways you can (from the comfort of your home) help make sure they are around for generations to come.
And now without further ado, the tale of how I fulfilled my dream of meeting Ambo:
In February I had the absolute pleasure of spending two weeks in Kenya with my friend Danielle. Our objective was simple: meet our fostered elephants. I was chomping at the bit to meet Ambo who, at two years old, was growing quickly in the Trust’s Nairobi Nursery. His existence makes me happy. Ambo was almost a casualty of nature, having been orphaned when he got stuck in the mud in a hole from which he could not initially extricate himself. Thankfully, he did pull himself out and the Trust came to his rescue. He was brought to the Nursery where the wonderful keepers provided him with around-the-clock supervision and a beautiful family of other rescued orphans. From the minute I first fostered him, I knew I wanted to travel to Nairobi and meet the whole crew.
Arriving in Kenya, I admit I was nervous. It was strange to think that I traveled halfway around the world to see an animal. We arrived at the Trust for the public visit the following morning and I was taken immediately by how many people were there. School children, tourists, and locals, all contributed to caring for the elephants with the price of their admission to watch the little guys have their milk feeding and play in the mud. We gathered around the mud hole, kept back from where the elephants would be by nothing more than a thin rope. After an introduction by the keepers, the first group of orphans came down from the bush.
Let me tell you, little elephants love their milk as much as I love cookies.
Danielle and I were entranced. We located our elephants (Ambo was, um, relieving himself, and her foster, Maktao, threw himself into the mud with reckless abandon) and we marveled at how their grey skin was turned red by the mud and dust they use to cover themselves as elephant sunscreen. During the luncheon, we learned more about each elephant's story, and all the trauma endured by these sweet little lives. A few of them wandered over to us, curious, and ran their sides against us, smearing us with the red mud. I had never been happier or felt more inspired.
That evening life got even better when we returned for the foster parent visit which was the equivalent of tucking in a child. We waited patiently near the stalls where they slept while the keepers called them in for bed, and much like that morning they ran eagerly in, single file, excited for their pre-bed snacks. With most of the elephants being under the age of four, I was immediately impressed by their orderly behavior and how they all went directly to their own individual stalls. Their personalities were vivid as some got annoyed at others for getting milk first and one stopped his running to say hello to a favorite keeper, waiting to walk in with him. When the small collection of foster parents wasn't taking pictures, we were all staring and whispering about how excited we were for this intimate experience.
As soon as the elephants were in, we were free to disperse and visit wherever we wanted. I, of course, headed straight to Ambo's stall. There was something surreal about visiting him. For over a year, I had diligently checked my email, devouring every monthly update I received. I stalked social media, watching him grow and feeling a desperation to hug him as I learned all about his antics. Ambo, I had learned, loved his friends but sometimes hated going out in the rain. He wasn't always super fond of mud baths, and he always remembered when someone wronged him so he could return the favor. Now, here he was, in front of me, happily eating leaves and sticks and preparing himself for bed. He was beautiful, and he came over to me of his own accord, allowing me to pat him on the trunk.
I never wanted to leave.
In 2016 I had been at my personal lowest, and following Ambo's journey from struggling orphan to thriving little boy kept me going. I developed a love of elephants, growing to understand their intensely loving ways and resilient personalities. Seeing how, with the care and attention of their keepers and the older orphans who became their adoptive families, they were well on their way to reintegrating into the wild filled my heart with joy. Now, in 2018, I was face to face with the innocent, craft little guy whose story inspired me every day. I was thankful for him and for every piece of aid he ever received. I could not (and still cannot) fathom wanting to harm these animals, to kill their mothers for their ivory and leave orphaned babies all over the world. Being there with Ambo was a special time, where everything else faded into the background and I could feel how far he came, how far I came, and how far we both had to go. An elephant's lifespan is roughly comparable to a human's, so since he is multiple decades my junior, he could actually outlive me. I hope we both have long lives, and that I can continue to watch him grow into a magnificent bull, and that we are both strong enough to push through any more bad things that might come our way.
If I could have stayed there forever, I would, but we had to leave because baby elephants need their sleep. Danielle and I spent the night talking about how we wished our whole trip involved visiting our foster elephants every single day. It would truly never get old.
The next morning we left Nairobi to visit two safari camps. I fully admit the only reason I was able to do it was because I knew I would come back to see Ambo again before returning to the United States. (Yes, that visit was as magical as the first one, and I actually got to witness him put himself to bed for the night. When I left, he was snoozing happily.) First we set off to Laikipia, where we stayed at Ekorian’s Mugie Camp in the Mugie Conservancy, and the first thing we saw upon landing in the area were these beauties enjoying some water on a hot Kenyan afternoon:
The trip was filled with these sorts of sightings. We regularly encountered elephants moving in herds with babies and older ladies and every age in between. One day we went kayaking on the Mugie Dam where we had the pleasure of seeing the elephants cooling off nearby. No one has to tell you to be quiet, because the sheer size and beauty of them makes you lose the ability to speak. They communicate, chastise misbehaving children, and frolic just like we do, but with such easy grace that it is hard to imagine how anyone could prize the ivory of their tusks over the awe-inspiring nature of their lives. (Side note: did you know elephants, like humans, have a dominant side? Check out which tusk is smaller, that’s the dominant side. It is shorter because it is the one more worn down from use!)
Moving from Laikipia’s Mugie Conservancy to the Mara North Conservancy brought us in contact with a whole new population of elephants. Here, one day we spent nearly fifteen minutes simply idling in our safari vehicle (we were now staying at Offbeat Mara Camp) because an elephant calf had left the side of her browsing mother in order to take her time standing in front of our vehicle and fighting to pull one specific plant from the path we were following. When a baby elephant wants to eat, you let it.
The most impressive sight down in the Mara though was Hugo, the tusker. I had never seen tusks as magnificent as Hugo’s. He stood, languidly hanging out beneath a tree, resting his trunk atop one of his tusks. You may notice in the picture below that Hugo is collared. This is because, although he is a completely wild elephant, there is a fear that his tusks make him a prime target for poachers. Danielle and I were sad to know he had to wear it (though we were assured that he barely notices he even has it on and no other elephants have treated him differently because of it), but glad that people were watching after his well-being. We were further gladdened that he was tracked several months later, when the Sheldrick Trust posted a news update that Hugo had been speared! Luckily, it was not a poisoned spear and they were able to help him recover, but the fact is that human-elephant conflict is always a threat.
The key, of course, to prevent losing the world's population of precious elephants, is also humans. In the United States, movements are taking root that have resulted in laws preventing the use of elephants in circuses in certain states, while China recently ceased the government-sanctioned trade of ivory. Whether you choose to foster an elephant or sign a political petition, you are lending your voice to help the elephants who cannot speak for themselves. Elephants are known to love and thank humans, and also to help them when they are injured and protect them until they can be helped, so the least we can do is show them the same level of love and concern.
Should you be interested in helping elephants or reading more about them (and I hope you are), I have many suggestions for how you can do that, so please check out the links below and mark World Elephant Day in whatever way best suits your life:
Elephant Sanctuaries and Conservation Foundations
Elephants in (Footnoting) History
---, (#1) The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra.
---, (#2) The Perplexing Theft of the Jewel in the Crown.
---, (#3) The Strange Disappearance of a Bollywood Star.
---, (#4) Murder at the Grand Raj Palace.
Travel Locations Mentioned in This Post