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Rebuilding Elephant Watch Camp

My tent room at Elephant Watch Camp. Photos by David Lansing.

I have given short shrift to Oria Douglas-Hamilton (nee Rocco), the other half of the Save the Elephants/Elephant Watch Camp team. Oria grew up along the shores of Lake Naivasha where, of course, the wildlife filmmaker Joan Root lived and was murdered five years ago this January. As Oria writes of herself, in the early ‘70s she had “a whirlwind courtship carried on via small aircraft and irregular messages” with Iain before the two married and moved to Lake Manyara in Tanzania where Iain was studying elephants.

Everyone I talked to about her told me she was her own force of nature and just as much a spitfire as her husband, and I’d have to agree with that. She’s a very strong woman, as one has to be to survive out here and run a successful business (or several of them; in addition to running Elephant Watch Camp, Oria also runs Olerai House and Sirocco House on the shores of Lake Naivasha).

What I have found most amazing during my stay at Elephant Watch Camp is the realization that the whole thing was destroyed back in March and Oria had to rebuilt it from scratch.

From a press release by Save the Elephants on March 4: “Early this morning Save the Elephants research facility and Elephant Watch Safari Camp located in Samburu National Reserve, Kenya, were completely destroyed by unexpected flooding of the Ewaso Ngiro River, along with seven other neighbouring lodges. At approximately 5 a.m. this morning, a wall of water akin to a tsunami surged through Elephant Watch Camp, catching tourists and staff unawares and sweeping away tents and facilities. It has been confirmed that camp owner Oria Douglas-Hamilton and guests managed to escape to safety by climbing to higher ground. Several members of staff were trapped in trees until the water subsided later today.”

Painted shower buckets at Elephant Watch Camp. Photo by David Lansing.

Yet here we are and the camp looks wonderful. The photo above shows my room which, like all the rooms, is built around a tree (I have to remember to duck my head when using the loo as a very low branch cuts directly through the entry way). A thatched roof covers a sandy area covered with sisal mats and behind that is the tented bedroom with mosquito netting. What you can’t see behind the netting are the colorful streams of fabric hanging from the ceiling like billowing sails “to celebrate,” as Oria puts it, “the soul of nomads.”

Oria is very insistent that everything be as ecologically green as possible and so there is solar heating of the water and solar electricity and the lights in my tent use rechargeable batteries. Although there’s a river just feet away from the tents, the water is too muddy for anything other than damping down the sandy soil and washing. Drinking water, as well as water for washing and showering, comes from a deep well that was dug for the camp. When you want to take a shower, you let someone know and a bucket of solar-heated hot water is brought to your tent and poured into a colorfully-decorated pail that has a shower nozzle attached to the bottom. No lollygagging here, for when the water is gone, it’s gone. Which can be a real problem if you haven’t gotten all the soap out of your hair. But it certainly makes you appreciate how precious water is in this dry part of the country.


What a cranky elephant can do

Iain and his smashed truck. It took a lickin' but kept on tickin'. Photos by David Lansing.

I just had to run this photo of Iain Douglas-Hamilton standing next to this smashed Toyota pickup. There’s a story here, of course.

An elephant’s life expectancy is about the same as a human’s, and just like us, you can pretty much divide it into three parts. For the first twenty years or so, they are just growing up and trying to figure things out. For the next thirty years, a male elephant is in his breeding prime. And then for another twenty or twenty-five years they grow old and grumpy and die. As Robert Ruark wrote of this stage, “There would come a day when another bull would challenge him and defeat him and drive him off from the herd, and he would then roam about with his own acolytes, growing older and sourer and fuller of malice toward everything. His feet would hurt and his teeth would ache from decay in the mammoth nerve, and ants would crawl up his trunk and drive him mad. He would run amok and trample native shambas and crush in the water holes, and finally somebody from the Game Department would come along and shoot him and take his tusks back to the D.C. in Isiolo.”

So, two researchers from Save the Elephants were out in the field doing their thing when they came upon one of these old, bad-tempered rogue elephants (I think Iain told me it was Pretty Bom Bom, but I can’t remember for sure). Probably his feet hurt and his teeth ached and he was undoubtedly in a foul mood for, without provocation, he  charged the researcher’s Toyota. You see that little crease on the door just to the left of the Save the Elephants logo? Well, that’s where the bull first hit. His tusk glanced off the door and went through the window and came out through the roof. Then he rolled the Toyota.

Pete McBride ready to go look for elephants. Photo by David Lansing.

Amazingly, it landed back on its wheels. But the old fella wasn’t through. He came back for a second charge and this time his tusk went clear through the back seat and came out the middle of the roof. You can see the entry and exit points and all you can think is, My god, those poor people inside the Toyota must have been smashed and bloodied.

But, no, they were not. Miraculously, neither researcher was hurt. And the bull elephant, having spent his anger, marched off.

But here’s the really remarkable thing: After the elephant left, the two quivering researchers wondered how in the world they were going to get back to the research center. Because they were crazy with fear and not thinking clearly, they tried to start the pickup. And it cranked right up. And drove just fine all the way back.

It still works. Iain told me that when they want to freak out Samburu tourists going around in minivans, they’ll crawl into the wrecked pickup and drive it around. “We always get a chuckle out of that,” he says.

So just for fun, I had the photographer, Pete McBride crawl into the Toyota so I could take his picture. It wasn’t easy. He had to carefully slip through the shattered windshield, trying to avoid all the rusty sharp edges of the smashed frame and then fight through all the cobwebs and insect nests. But it made for a great photo.


Baby Breeze and Pretty Bom Bom

Simeon and our Samburu guide running into a family of elephants. Photos by David Lansing.

Late this afternoon Pete and I went out with Simeon and a Samburu moran looking for game. It didn’t take us long. Five minutes from camp we came across an open woodland where at least two families of elephants were feeding. Even though there were lots of totos in this group, the elephants weren’t the least bothered by our presence. We sat in our open-air vehicle while the cows with their calves passed within feet of us. Simeon was able to identify most of the elephants.

“They all have different characteristics,” he said. “Some are playful, some are cranky, some are mischievous.”

There is Baby Breeze, he told us. “Do you know Baby Breeze?”

We didn’t know Baby Breeze. Evidently Baby Breeze is almost as famous as Dumbo. Last year Iain Douglas-Hamilton and his daughter Saba were involved in a BBC documentary called The Secret Life of Elephants which shadowed several Samburu elephants and their struggle for survival. Two of the stars were Baby Breeze and his mother, Harmadon. Baby Breeze was born during the bad drought of 2009 and the question in viewer’s minds was, Would Baby Breeze survive? Well, he did. And now people come to Elephant Watch Camp just to see Baby Breeze and his mom, along with other members of the Winds family.

Is this Baby Breeze or Miro? Who knows.

I should explain about the whole elephant family thing. Iain and his staff at Save the Elephants have named all the elephants and put them into families. So there’s Chagall and her calf Miro who are members of the Artists family, Baby Oscar Wilde who is from the Poetics, and, of course, Baby Breeze who is from the Winds family.

This all makes me a little uneasy. I can see how, if you’re studying elephants or any other animal, it is necessary to distinguish amongst them, but anthropomorphism is always a slippery slope, particularly with wild animals. First we give them names, like Chagall or Breeze, and then we give them human characteristics, like this elephant is playful but not very bright and that one is a trickster, and then we turn them into cartoon characters and they stand up on their hind legs and start singing “Hakuna Matata” like Timon, the “no worries” warthog from The Lion King (Timon, by the way, is Swahili for “absentminded or careless”). And then they’re just like people, aren’t they? Or maybe they’re better than people because they’re “simpler” or “purer.”

How do you make rational policy decisions regarding wildlife once they’ve taken on human characteristics? An old bull elephant may be raiding the shamba of a Samburu manyatta and destroying the crops that feed an extended family of 100 people, but who is going to give the order to cull Pretty Bom Bom, a notoriously bad-tempered bull elephant in Samburu?

So here’s the dilemma people like Iain Douglas-Hamilton face: His organization depends on the generosity of donors, most of them Westerners and primarily from the U.S., to support his research. In order to get people to cut him a nice big check, he has to do more than just shout, “Save the elephants!” He has to make a Disneyfied documentary that gives elephants names, like Baby Breeze, and then write a heart-breaking narrative about the Winds family struggle for survival and accompany it with a moving score and the whole thing has to make you feel that if you don’t send a big check off to Save the Elephants today, Baby Breeze just might die.

Now if you do all that, and your funding depends on donors who are now invested in Baby Breeze and want regular updates on how he is doing, how do you ever make logical, scientific decisions that might call for the culling of some animals?

Here’s what Iain Douglas-Hamilton said to me: “I’m not universally opposed to hunting as a form of wildlife conservation in Kenya. I have to say that it depends. And what it depends on is whether it could be a controlled policy and with the proper profitable land use. But it could never be used with elephants because elephants are smarter than other animals.”

Are they? Or, in giving them names and families and human characteristics do we just like to imagine that they are? I mean, have you ever heard of the Save the African Wild Dog organization? Well they’re out there. And African wild dogs are much more endangered than elephants. They’re just not as cute. They have a reputation for being ruthless and vicious and pests. So they don’t get the financial support that Save the Elephants does. But are they really less worthy of our attention? Are elephants “smarter” than African wild dogs and should that really determine which species gets saved and which one doesn’t? Anybody up for Save the Hyenas?


Elephant streaking

David Daballen. Photo courtesy of Save the Elephants.

I should have mentioned that joining us for lunch yesterday was David Daballen, the chief field researcher for Save the Elephants. I know a bit about David. He’s a Kenyan who grew up near Lake Paradise on Mount Marsabit and last year he and seven other crazy individuals walked from Marsabit across the Kaisut Desert to the Mathews Range following a nomadic bull elephant named Shadrack. Actually, not all of the eight men walked across the Kaisut Desert; some gave up and had to be evacuated. But David Daballen, along with his brother Teteya, completed the trek.

So why did David walk across one hundred and thirty miles of Kenyan desert following an elephant? They wanted to see what it did when it crossed the road. No, that’s not correct. David and the others followed Shadrack because they were trying to learn something about the elephant’s habits. They wanted to learn how he knew where to go. And how he survived what David calls “streaking”—covering immense distances from one safe spot, like Marsabit National Reserve, to another sanctuary, like Samburu. As Iain told me, “Streaking is when an elephant runs like hell, usually in the middle of the night, over open land because he knows he’s not safe.”

David knew that Shadrack was a streaker because two years ago, they’d put a GPS collar around his neck and monitored the big bull elephant leaving Mount Marsabit in May and heading south, across the Kaisut Desert, traversing the same inhospitable stretch of lava fields, dry riverbeds, and thick bush we’d just covered from Lake Paradise before eventually reaching the elephant-friendly Ngeng, a river valley in the Mathews Range. He’d covered 129 miles in five days.

What David Daballen and the other researchers at STE wanted to know was: How did he navigate his way to the Mathews Range? Was he following some unknown and ancient elephant pathway? How close had he come to people? And they figured the best way to get those answers was to walk behind Shadrack. For as long as it took.

The only problem is that when elephants streak, they generally tend to sleep very little. In order to keep up with Shadrack, David and his team needed to cover over 25 miles of desert a day—for five days. Which, they discovered, just isn’t possible. “We could keep up with him during the day,” he told me, “but he’d walk all night long too. That’s where he lost us.”

Anyway, I mention all this because David was sitting down at the far end of the table during the somewhat heated discussion between me and Iain and a couple of times I looked down at his end of the table and tried to get him involved in the conversation, curious to know what a Kenyan who grew up near Lake Paradise thought about some of these issues on animal conservation, but each time I did, I’d see him look nervously at his mentor and then defer to him. I think he was afraid to speak up in front of Iain. Which was a shame. I really would have liked to hear what he thought about all this.


A nice family of elephants

It’s the day after Thanksgiving and all of us, particularly me, are too stuffed to do anything other than sit back on the couch and watch a football game. Or, in my case, watch a family of elephants not far from the appropriately named Elephant Watch Camp here in Samburu. So rather than me going on and on about what we saw and what the guide, Simeon, was like etc., etc., here’s a very brief video that you can watch on your laptop while burping away on the couch.


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