Africa's New Epistle: Love Thy Elephant

Two Kenyan women help humans learn to live with the rebounding elephant herds

This sweep of African plain seems to hark back to the beginning of time. A shaggy wildebeest kicks up puffs of dust and giraffes lope across the horizon. Zebras sip at the edge of a cool blue pond, staring at their own brilliant reflection.

But as Soila Sayialel barrels across the thorny bush in a Toyota Land Cruiser, she doesn't look awestruck. She has work to do.

"Especially in my culture, people thought I wouldn't be able to do this," says the unflappable young woman as she rumbles past the site where an angry elephant once chased her into a thicket.

For the past decade, Ms. Sayialel and co-worker Norah Njiraini have crisscrossed this rolling savannah each day, charting elephant activities for the United States-based African Wildlife Foundation.

Working in the shadow of snowcapped Mt. Kilimanjaro, the two Kenyans are linchpins in Africa's longest-running elephant study, the Amboseli Elephant Research Project, directed by Cynthia Moss.

Sayialel, who wears a short Afro, a T-shirt, and baggy shorts, squints to survey the bush. It doesn't take long before she finds what she's after: "You can tell the way he's holding his head [that] he's listening; he's just smelling us," Sayialel whispers as a massive bull elephant the researchers call Tolstoy sidles closer to our vehicle, his trunk raised, sniffing the breeze.

More than 900 elephants roam through Kenya's Amboseli National Park. Sayialel says she and Njiraini can recognize each one. Notches and rips on the beasts' ears are just one means of identification.

"As you stay with them for a long time, even the shape of the body will tell you. They're like people," Sayialel says. "Some have long or broad faces. Some have big noses."

By now a family of more than a dozen elephants has gathered around us, and the volume of their constant crunching has grown louder. This is a talkative herd, calling back and forth with deep, resonating growls and an occasional trumpet. The bulky creatures dwarf the truck. But Njiraini isn't fazed.

"The elephants know all our vehicles," she says. "I think they can tell even our voices and our smell."

Beachball, the family's dominant male, comes ripping around the corner to join the group. The gigantic patriarch barely misses our vehicle, sending Njiraini into peals of laughter. She says Beachball's "emergency brakes" saved us from a collision. After more note-taking, and a tally of the rest of the herd, we make a getaway.

Home base is a cluster of tents among the thorn bushes. A few lumbering elephants wander through the camp to forage. The voracious creatures eat up to 400 pounds of foliage each day and can easily polish off a farmer's entire crop in one evening. Angry villagers recently speared three of the elephants, leading Sayialel and Njiraini to grow more worried about local attitudes toward the elephants.

"I've had arguments with some people who say I'm on the side of elephants," Sayialel says. "It's not true.... But I'm a companion to the elephants and a guardian."

Only a decade ago, nearly 1.5 million elephants wandered Africa. Since then, burgeoning human populations, shrinking rangelands, poaching, and other factors have combined to cut the number in half.

The elephant population began to rebound after environmentalists fought to ban trade in ivory and elephant products in 1989.

But the creatures are increasingly clashing with humans. Every day, they wander through farmland trampling crops, eating grain, and occasionally trampling field hands.

Sayialel and Njiraini say the key to peace between humans and elephants is to bring residents into the wildlife program. They say villagers will value safeguarding the animals if they see more of the revenue from tourists. Then villagers will begin to appreciate the elephants as something other than pests.

Some countries manage elephant herds through more controversial practices. Neighboring Tanzania sells licenses to hunters, who pay thousands of dollars for the right to kill a single elephant. In 1994, hunters in Tanzania shot at least three of Kenya's oldest bull elephants, creatures Sayialel and Njiraini had followed for years who had wandered across the border.

Training elephants to do field labor is another way of saving animals that otherwise would have to be shot as pests. For decades, it was believed that African elephants - unlike their smaller Asian cousins - couldn't be tamed. But experiments in Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa are changing that view.

Rangers at a private wildlife park in Zimbabwe are also patrolling atop tamed elephants as they guard their preserve against poaching. The sight of armed rangers atop the huge animals has had an intimidating effect on elephant poachers, the rangers report.

As Sayialel and Njiraini head across the savannah for their final trip of the day, an elephant tusk they have found in the bush rattles in the back of their vehicle. They chuckle and say that if they sold the ivory on the black market, they could afford to put their children through school. But Sayialel confides she's protecting elephants for reasons that aren't economic.

"It will be a shame ... for the next generation, if there aren't any elephants, and they just see [them] from photographs," she says.

* Shortly after the author's visit, poachers and hunters slaughtered several Amboseli elephants. A bull named Jake was shot when he strayed less than a mile across the border into Tanzania. Beach Ball was found dead close to park headquarters. Conservationists criticized Dr. David Western, director of Kenya Wildlife Services, for failing to take speedy measures to halt the poaching. Material from the Associated Press was also used in this story.

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