What I Learned from Elephants
The second morning I was in the Okavango Delta of Botswana I awoke before dawn to my tent shaking somewhat alarmingly. I opened the door and saw the tree-trunk like legs of a bull elephant who was browsing in a tree within arm’s length of me. He backed up, extended his huge ears, lifted his trunk toward me and gave a snort of disgust. For a moment we looked at each other eye to eye and then he turned and trotted off shaking his massive head. My heart was pounding. I felt fear but even more awe.
Officially, elephants are protected from hunting in Botswana. The toll of illegal ivory poachers is less than in most of southern Africa and the country employs army-like bands of anti-poachers who shoot first and ask questions later. Herds of females with abundant young, bachelor male groups and solitary massive bulls with long unspoiled tusks roam the northern wilds of Botswana as the dominant species. They coppice the trees so their young can feed and wander in and out of villages more or less unmolested. Wherever they gather they have the right of way. Everyone stays clear because females with young and males in musth can be dangerous if approached. Even lions rarely attack them unless a pride is very large and there is no other food. The elephants seem to be thriving, although a few say there are too many to co-exist peacefully with humans.
The Okavango Delta and Chobe River regions of Botswana are sparsely populated with people, who live in small villages. Each village I visited has a general store, a school, a library, a health clinic, and a courthouse, police and jail complex. The people who live there raise hardy cattle by grazing them in the surrounding scrublands and work in the tourist trade staffing and maintaining the luxury camps like the ones I visited. They know the value of their biodiversity. They often interface with the wild animals in their midst. Elephants, giraffes and zebra come into their villages to browse their trees and graze. The government of Botswana has decided to try to live in harmony with elephants, a challenge given many competing interests. So far, the people in the villages are on board with the plan.
But the elephant memory is long. These huge pachyderms have not forgotten that we are the biggest threat to their survival. When viewed from a safari vehicle, elephants are ever vigilant when humans are near and seem to exude a sense of ownership of their space, unlike lions, leopards and African wild dogs who allow a very close approach and hardly seem to notice our proximity. Profoundly social animals, elephant family groups exhibit strong loving ties. They stand their ground, appearing both majestic and embattled. To me, their stance seemed to say, “We’ve been here for millions of years before your kind arrived. We make this landscape what it is. We belong here. We are a lot like you—trying to survive, protect our young and carry on our way of life. Respect us and let us be and we won't bother you.”
As humans we must understand our limitations and live within them somehow so that others, human and nonhuman, can also live and thrive. I am not sure exactly how we are going to understand this. I am not entirely sure that as a species we have the capacity to evolve into life within limits. Throughout our existence homo sapiens wiped out every other species that has challenged its supremacy including all the ancient relatives of the elephant and also other members of our own genus, homo. Are we a plague on the earth that will deservedly be wiped by our unchecked depredations? With all my heart I hope not.
I learned from the elephants and the people of Botswana is that it is only us, only our species, who can protect what precious biodiversity we have left. We are the only ones who can preserve or destroy that which gives us awe, wonder and comfort, our fellow creatures. If we are so wise (sapiens), let us show it and honor the rights of our fellow creatures by limiting our population growth, our exploitation of resources and our dominant impact on this fragile world. Our world is the handiwork of an awesome creative power. We still have a chance to evolve. The elephants are watching.