We arrive at the blind in mid-afternoon. It has been a blazing hot day, still burning like an open oven even as the sun begins to dip behind the trees. Our Land Rover throws up clouds of dust as we arrive at the square barricade of dead leadwood trees. The waist-high barricade, which comfortably holds half a dozen people, separates us from the elephants that are gathering on the other side.
A few old bulls are drinking at water holes near us, but they barely look in our direction as we squeeze into the square. They are, however, aware of our presence, and the largest bull turns his soft brown eyes toward us. "Don't worry," whispers our guide, Map Ives, as he leans his .458 Brno rifle against the barrier. "We're not bothering them." As if to confirm this, the bull turns to resume sucking up the cool, clear water, some of the twenty-five or so gallons an adult requires in a day.
Elephants are ambling in from all directions, moving into the parched Savuti Channel toward water. We are in northern Botswana, which, as every wildlife enthusiast knows, means we are deep in African elephant country. They arrive as lone males or in family groups, the matriarchs and attendant females leading the way and the youngsters behind. Twenty, thirty, forty…soon there are more than seventy elephants around us, some within touching distance. One's first reaction is to be slightly afraid—a completely rational fear born out of the disparity in fighting weights and the fact that not long ago, at this very spot, the famous Zimbabwean guide and naturalist Garth Thompson was charged, crushed, and gored and had to be helicoptered to a South African hospital to save his life.
Standing in the middle of a herd is an extraordinary privilege. It's like being permitted to enter someone's home and then being allowed to watch, unnoticed, as the family goes about its business. As scientists and animal biologists have been discovering, elephant behavior is far more complex than previously thought. From the fieldwork conducted by Cornell University acoustic biologist Katy Payne, we now know that elephants, like whales, communicate over great distances by means of infrasound (frequencies too low for humans to perceive). We also know, thanks to firsthand observations by Cynthia Moss in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, that there exist in elephant herds immensely complicated social relationships. And, most significant, a paper published last fall by the British psychologist Karen McComb confirms something that was long suspected: Elephants not only mourn but remember their dead, a trait that has yet to be confirmed in any other creature except humans. (Some years ago, I followed a family group along Namibia's Hoarusib riverbed and into a clearing, where they spent a good half-hour with the remains of a dead relative, running their trunks over the bleached bones and appearing quite mournful. When I told this story to colleagues, I was accused of sentimentality and anthropomorphization, so I was rather glad to hear of McComb's findings.)
These ongoing discoveries of complex behavioral traits are greeted enthusiastically by one of my companions in the barricade, University of Massachusetts scientist Michael Chase. For three years, he has been tracking twenty-three elephants that he has had fitted with radio collars, the first study of its kind involving satellite-linked transmissions—research that has led to a significant change in his attitude. Born and raised in Botswana, Chase used to hunt elephants with his father. Today, he could not contemplate shooting one. "I find I show high emotional attachment to elephants," he says in his clipped, precise scientist's way, "because of the way they behave, the intelligence they show, the way they mourn and grieve, the affection they show their young."
Tracking the elephants' movements on his laptop, Chase has learned that they are anything but random. The animals are aware of what is going on around them, and they respond intelligently. Since the end of the civil war in neighboring Angola, for instance, more elephants have been moving back into the southern parts of that country, which their ancestors inhabited before the hostilities. Noting that first old bulls and then breeding herds crossed into the former war zone, Chase infers that "a cognitive map is passed down through generations."
Even more remarkable is his conclusion that elephants seem to have built-in land mine detection systems. Southern Angola is still strewn with the mines, a legacy of one of Africa's nastiest civil wars, and the elephants are crossing old battlefields. But Chase says that so far not a single elephant has been found injured by a land mine in the area. As we are talking, a young bull trumpets, flaps his ears, and makes a halfhearted lunge at our barricade. Some movement has obviously disturbed him, and he wants to make his presence felt. But by now the sun is beginning to set, and the elephants are dispersing into the African twilight. As we clamber back into the vehicle, Map Ives pauses and says that he's been watching elephants up close all his life and that every encounter leaves him feeling spiritually enriched. He suggests that there's something mystical about them, something cosmic.…Then he tells the story of Garth Thompson's return to this area a year after the near-fatal attack. "The first animal he saw was the female who attacked him," Ives says. "She stood near the road as he passed, as if to say, I know you're back and you'd be advised to keep out of my way."
We have reached a critical moment in our relationship with the African elephant, and the decisions made today by the various conservationists, scientists, and NGOs will decide the future of this extraordinary animal and its wild habitats. Now, you may think you have heard all of this before, because there have been constant warnings that this species or that is on the verge of extinction—and yet the population bounces back. But the elephant is different. Having survived the poaching pandemic of the 1970s and '80s, elephants are now flourishing, but human populations have expanded even faster, so the animals' habitats have dramatically diminished. In the words of Julian Sturgeon, vice chairman of ResourceAfrica, a community-based natural-resource management organization, "Elephants eat trees. Too many elephants and you have too few trees." Zimbabwean conservationists have always referred to wildlife management in modern, overpopulated Africa as gardening, a word that, Sturgeon notes, enrages animal conservationists. "But that is what it is. If you want a park with no trees, then let the elephant population grow unchecked. Alternatively, if you cull, you'll maintain the trees."
For vivid visual evidence of the damage done to the bushveld by large populations of elephants, visit Kenya's Tsavo National Park or Botswana's Chobe National Park, both of which have trails of debris where elephants have been feeding—uprooted mopane and acacia trees in various stages of decay. Elephants are so voracious that they leave landscapes looking carpet-bombed. There is also considerable and consistent anecdotal evidence that elephants are a lethal nuisance, raiding crops and attacking—and often killing—villagers who get in their way.
In an attempt to unravel the controversial issues at the core of the elephant debate, I traveled to three dramatically varied ecosystems in three dramatically different countries with significant elephant populations. At dinner tables under starry skies, around campfires in remote desert locations, at the bars of luxury safari camps—everywhere I went I found impassioned experts who orated, cajoled, argued about Loxodonta africanaand its role in the future of the continent's wild habitats. And at the end of every evening, I would wander back to my tent wondering why, with all the local intelligence and impeccable conservation credentials, nobody seems to agree on what is best.
Here are some bald facts about the African elephant. Over the last twenty years, in the southern parts of the continent, elephant populations have doubled, and they will more than double again over the next twenty years. Some authorities are adamant that these numbers have to be reduced dramatically and immediately or the elephants will irreversibly harm the region's biodiversity. So serious is the situation that, as I write this, the South African government is being asked to approve the culling of up to five thousand elephants in Kruger National Park. If one were to extrapolate that figure to the whole of southern Africa, you'd be talking about a cull of maybe twenty thousand, maybe forty thousand, maybe even fifty thousand elephants. In other words, slaughter on an unprecedented scale in the name of conservation.
Various alternative solutions, particularly mass contraception and massive translocations, have been debated and even tried, but such options are prohibitively expensive, impractical, or both.
Julian Sturgeon is a reluctant advocate of culling. He says that unless the issue is addressed in the big elephant countries, the repercussions will be with us for centuries. He predicts that Kenya's Tsavo National Park will take a hundred years to recover from the damage caused by elephants in the 1970s. "Culling is a hideous business," he says, "but it makes scientific sense for local populations—even though it requires enormous effort, is very alienating for everyone, and we have no idea the psychological impact of culling on the elephant population."
On the other side of this increasingly acrimonious debate are naturalists, hunters, scientists, and safari operators, who argue that culling elephants is a crime against the planet. Let nature take its course, they say: Overpopulation will inevitably lead to a natural die-off, perhaps brought about by the kind of relentless drought that this part of Africa is used to. They contend that this natural order—population buildups, then habitat destruction and food and water shortages, and then population crashes—works in two-hundred-year cycles, whereas our wildlife management theories work in twenty-year cycles, which is the average term of office for a park warden.
One of the main issues is that elephants are a big tourist draw. In South Africa, tourism has overtaken gold mining as the top earner of foreign currency, bringing in $8 billion last year—$2.5 billion more than gold exports. And in Botswana, where the philosophy of high- revenue, low-impact vacations was forged two decades ago, tourism is a major employer; in the north, almost every second person earns a living from it. So even those who see a massive cull as essential to the future well-being of the African bush recognize that images of platoons of armed rangers mowing down herds of elephants will have a profoundly negative effect on tourism. More disturbing is the potential response of the surviving animals: Culling may well turn them into rampaging pachyderms that attack intruding humans. The current culling theory is that you take out entire families so as not to leave traumatized and often delinquent youngsters. However, given that elephants are known to communicate over large distances, "news" of a cull is certain to spread from herd to herd.
Before our encounter in the Savuti blind, we'd spent a couple of days watching elephants from a distance in a place that is the antithesis of Botswana's wilderness: the seemingly endless desert of Namibia, home to no more than eight hundred elephants—desert elephants, to be precise—in an area that covers 31,000 square miles. There are but 1.9 million citizens in this beautiful country that has established one of the more progressive and successful wildlife conservation programs on the continent.
Which is why Christiaan Bakkes came to live and work here. He is a long-haired heavy metal fan who, after a horrific crocodile attack in South Africa's Kruger National Park in 1994, took to the road to find himself and ended up finding the Damaraland Desert. What is so seductive about the desert, Bakkes says, is that huge animals such as rhinos and elephants are dwarfed by the landscape. "You can live here for a lifetime," he explains, "and there will always be a hill unclimbed and a valley unexplored. You can travel through this ecosystem forever without feeling the presence of man."
Bakkes works as a guide and conservationist for Wilderness Safaris—a profound change from his previous profession. His voice lowers an octave as he recalls when, as a Kruger ranger, he took part in elephant culls. That was in the early 1990s, just before Nelson Mandela came to power and the new South Africa suspended the somewhat rigorous management policies that had contained the park's elephant population to about seven thousand. He even trembles a bit as he describes how they did the culls in the late afternoons and "how we used to leave the base with all the low-bed trucks carrying the tarpaulins and the block-and-tackle for lifting the dead carcasses, and the cranes and the crates.
"In those days, we only shot the adults," he says. "The under-five-year-olds were captured and relocated to wildlife parks such as Addo and Pilansberg in South Africa. As soon as the helicopters lifted off, the skies would fill with vultures and they'd follow the choppers to the cull. They flew in formation like the bombers to Dresden, ready for the feast. And the elephants knew what was coming. For them the sound of helicopters was the sound of death. It was Miltonian.
"Being involved in culling was an extremely emotional experience," he continues, "and it is something I would not like to be involved in again, whatever the scientific argument. And I challenge you to find anyone who has watched these animals, studied their behavior, who says anything else."
In Namibia, there is no need for intervention. The small desert-adapted population is contained by the scarcity of resources, and a trip with Bakkes to the dry riverbed that is the Aba Huab soon reveals some of the secrets of the delicate relationship between mammal and desert. Although it is bone-dry now, this part of the country has had excellent rains over the past few years and the animals have flourished, so much so that predators are increasingly moving into the area.
The three-mile journey from Damaraland Camp to the Aba Huab takes us over a rutted road that is the African desert close up. Although it appears at first barren and unable to sustain an antelope, never mind an elephant, it is a deceptively fertile place. And as we come out of the gravel hills and down into the sandy riverbed, we see clusters of camel thorn trees, the staple of the desert elephant's diet. Soon enough, we spot a healthy-looking female tearing at the camel thorn leaves. A few hundred yards away is the rest of the herd, ten in all, ambling slowly west along the winding riverbed.
We leave the vehicle and climb a steep granite promontory. Bakkes urges us onward and upward, promising that our exertions will be rewarded. And they are. We look down on the riverbed and an endless sea of sand and rock—the oldest desert in the world. The elephants are dots on the magnificent landscape, and Bakkes is bristling with excitement. "Now you see what I was talking about," he says triumphantly.
We watch the herd move slowly from tree to tree, carefully stripping only the higher branches. They seem aware that this is a sparse environment. They appear to me to be much smaller than the elephants in both South Africa and Botswana, but according to biologists they are pretty much the same size. The biggest difference is the spoor they leave behind, a relatively consistent footprint because their feet are worn smooth by this harsh, rock-strewn landscape.
Bakkes notices that the infant elephant in the herd, probably no more than three months old, seems to be struggling to keep up. "I don't think that calf is going to make it," he says. It is said without sentiment, for Bakkes more than anyone recognizes that only the fittest survive in this constant battle with the forces of nature.
That night at our campfire, Bakkes celebrates the wilderness by reciting Robert Service's "The Spell of the Yukon," swigging Jameson whiskey and praising this distant place where nature takes its course and living creatures merely fit in as best they can. It is, as Bakkes says, an ecosystem devoid of the presence of man.
Sitting around a campfire in Botswana, I engage in similar conversations—this time with a glamorous filmmaking couple, Dereck and Beverly Joubert. They have been makingNational Geographic documentaries here for a quarter of a century, and their take on the "elephant problem" is impassioned and unbending. At the core of their argument is the aesthetic value of wild animals. Dereck, a magnificently bearded alpha male, ridicules the sustainable-utilization argument: that animals require a commercial value to survive in modern Africa. "People like Julian Sturgeon come from a management background, and they believe that it is their divine responsibility to manage nature.
"Here in Botswana, we have the luxury of a small human population and huge space…so please don't screw us around with all those South African and Zimbabwean management theories. This may be the last place in Africa where we have a chance to make it right by leaving it alone."
After flying around this country for twenty-five years, Dereck has a gut feeling that there are probably about 70,000 elephants now, although later in the evening he concedes that Botswanan government officials think there may be as many as 120,000; the same gut feeling tells him that this country could support some 450,000 elephants. He may be right. It is believed that there were as many 400,000 elephants in this region in the early nineteenth century, before the rinderpest virus wiped out huge populations.
The morning after our debate, I follow the Jouberts onto the open plain, where we suddenly find ourselves in the middle of a lion hunt. The local Tsaro pride, a large and powerful group of twelve lions, has spotted a weakened buffalo in the middle of a herd, and in a choreographed pincer movement, the three dominant lionesses are closing in. For two hours we watch the attack, the kill, and the feeding. The Jouberts are engaged in the drama, shifting, filming, exchanging observations in whispers, and I realize that, much like the animals they track, the observers have integrated themselves into this ecosystem. No wonder they oppose any intervention in the environment by Western managers and scientists. Like Christiaan Bakkes, the Jouberts have detached themselves from the modern world and inhabit a place that is part of our romantic, nostalgic memory of what wilderness may have been. As wildlife tourists, we get glimpses of it, but for them it is day-to-day reality.
I find myself envying the couple their life in this relatively uninhabited, totally uninhibited wilderness. I'm en route to the sociopolitical quagmire that is South Africa's Kruger National Park, where the pressures of the impoverished rural communities along its borders provide one of the most compelling arguments for elephant population control—and pose a whole raft of questions about land utilization.
But we have one last encounter with Botswanan elephants before we leave. As we bump along on the drive back to camp, we notice a great shaking in a clump of acacias and palms. We slow down and, sure enough, find a small breeding herd inside, feeding. Once aware of our presence, the matriarch bursts into the open, fans her great ears, and lets out a ferocious bellow. Nobody moves. Then a young male, a teenager, stumbles out in the shadow of the matriarch, shakes his head as if to say, Who the hell are you guys and what are you doing on our patch? Then he struts toward us in a sort of mock charge but stops well short of the vehicle. The matriarch looks on approvingly before they both decide that we're not worth the effort and turn back to the undergrowth to resume their feeding. The whole encounter lasts no more than a couple of minutes, and although it is a common experience, I find it profoundly moving. It's as if one has almost touched nature in the raw and, in doing so, has been briefly liberated from the humdrum life we lead in the place called civilization.
Crook's Corner is an isolated wedge of land where the Luvuvhu River joins the great Limpopo, the river that separates South Africa from Zimbabwe and Mozambique. This, the last stop on my elephant safari, is significant in many ways, not the least because the trading post that stood in this remote corner a hundred years ago was a notorious meeting place for smugglers, bandits, and ivory hunters. One of those hunters was Cecil Barnard, who was known to the local Makuleke tribe as Bvekenya ("the one who swaggers when he walks"). Barnard, like other Victorian hunters, gradually transformed into a naturalist. In 1929, he finally found himself standing in front of a giant elephant called Ndlulamithi ("taller than trees"), whom he had been hunting for all of his adult life. Barnard raised his rifle, took aim…and found he could not shoot the magnificent bull.
This moving story was captured by the South African author T. V. Bulpin and also survives as an inscription on a stone placed near the site of the old trading post. It reads: "He saw the elephant's eyes, its weather-beaten face, the wrinkles in its skin, the tremors of its body, the waving of its ears with the ragged ends where the thorns had torn them. He saw the scars of ancient battles. He saw the elephant in its strength and its wisdom, its savagery, patience, and courage. He saw Africa, and he knew that he loved it. He put the gun down. 'Let him live,' he said."
As I read that passage, I felt a sudden surge of nostalgia for the other Africa, that ancient order before satellite-connected radio collars, before science and medicine and modernity had found their way into these remote regions. I also felt a surge of understanding of why Bakkes had fled to a remote wilderness where there are still hills unclimbed and valleys unexplored.
But not everyone can run from the modern world. Here resides both the problem and possibly the solution to southern Africa's elephant quandary. Kruger's 7,500 square miles are the most successful and well-managed national parklands on the continent, attracting more than a million visitors a year. Since the park stopped culling in 1995, the elephant population has doubled and continues to grow. Park managers say that there is already evidence of massive habitat destruction, which, if allowed to continue, will lead to a Tsavo-like ecological disaster.
The other problem is the millions of people living along Kruger's borders and their increasing demands on the government to allow them access to the park—to reestablish themselves in what is, after all, their ancestral land. As one conservationist put it, South African parks officials would rather eat their children than let cattle and goats in among the wild animals of Kruger.
The Makuleke tribe was forced out of the park in the late 1960s by the apartheid government. Then in 1998, in what was seen as a test case for Mandela, they were awarded rights to their ancestral lands. After several years of operating this area as a hunting concession, the Makuleke have now entered into an agreement with both the government and a tourism company, Wilderness Safaris, that will, it is hoped, earn them enough revenue to preserve this wilderness without resorting to grazing their livestock here, or hunting.
This beautiful northern part of the park is also at the center of another big wildlife experiment, the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park, the planned superwilderness that will traverse national boundaries and incorporate large swaths of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The creation of this so-called Peace Park is a slow process, and although a small section of the Kruger fence has already come down, there's still a long way to go before this becomes a viable, coherent wilderness—not the least because Zimbabwean participation will remain on hold as long as president Robert Mugabe continues running the country into the ground. Which is a shame, because the new park is another straw that the anti-culling lobby is rather ferociously grasping at, arguing, quite reasonably it seems, that if tens of thousands of acres of bushveld are going to be available to the Kruger elephants, surely the cull can wait.
At Pafuri, Wilderness Safaris' new camp on the banks of the Luvuvhu, I see a small herd of elephants drinking. Beyond them nyalas, a troop of baboons, and a family of warthogs are variously grazing, playing, and resting. Above, a pair of eagles float on the thermals. It seems as remote and untouched as the other places I've been, but I know better. And I'm beginning to wonder whether in the early days of this century the concept of African wilderness is nothing more than a figment of our imagination that serves the travel industry and, if they're lucky, some local tribespeople: Disneyland with blood and guts.
Even as I'm thinking this, a delegation of South African wildlife officials is flying to Europe, in hopes of convincing the international wildlife community that a cull is necessary. The Humane Society of the United States has already declared that it will advise its 8.5 million members to avoid vacationing in South Africa if a cull takes place. The way things are shaping up, a cull could cost the country millions of dollars. But then so could the destruction of the wilderness by tens of thousands of elephants.
As I board the 747 and head out of Africa, the word comes that the helicopters will start to fill the skies over Kruger in March or April 2006. But by the time I've landed in London the following morning, the news has changed. The South African authorities have decided, reluctantly, to postpone the cull until early 2007.
This sudden shift in the space of twelve hours sums up the volatility of Africa's elephant debate. But at least the debate is taking place, and as I witnessed on my trip through this raw and magnificent wilderness, it is being conducted with dedication, passion, and a commitment to the future of Africa's wildlife. On a continent that has known so much suffering, it gives one more than a glimmer of hope.