Adopted by an elephant

Last evening a lion wandered through camp at dusk – just yards from where we were finishing up work for the day. It skirted the fire, and walked calmly down the path, between the tents and out onto the floodplain to join its mate. We live with lions. They are a constant presence but we don’t often see them in camp during the day. They are normally crepuscular – walking around the periphery, brief silhouettes glimpsed through openings in the Dovyalis, as they skirt the floodplain. We hear them though – their nocturnal roars are the soundtrack to camp nights. When a pair are mating, the regular post-copulatory snarls can go on for days. They make it possible to track the couple’s progress through the night.

Leopard are here too, but we rarely see them. Recently, one killed a baboon in the grove of figs behind us. We never saw it, but we heard the pandemonium that the attack caused in the troop, and heard the crack of bones in the night. The next morning, Mzee Musili, camp cook and first to rise, found the drag mark it had left. Before feeding, leopards often partially pluck their prey. We discovered tufts of baboon hair, snagged on acacia thorns. We inhaled the musk-sweet baboon smell that lingered. We followed the tracks to where the leopard had climbed, with the carcass, into a Dobera tree next to Etienne’s tent. It had dropped down with it just before dawn, when Musili’s soft footfall, the fanning of the kitchen embers and the smell of brewing coffee, prompted it to move to where it could finish its meal in peace.

Besides the cats, we share the camp with an alphabet of animals – from agamas to zebras. Some, like the squirrels, are constant and chattering. Others, such as cobras, are shy and silent. It is elephants however, more than any other animal, that we are most aware of – they pass by on their way to the shade of fig trees. Sometimes they’ll linger and trunk-twist the Sporobolus grass that grows around camp. Occasionally young bulls venture closer – their nervousness temporarily subjugated by curiosity. They never stay long though and elephants, generally, rarely come right into camp.

Last week, that all changed. We were visited by a magnificent bull, who calmly and deliberately walked into camp and stood there looking around. He couldn’t have wished for a better entrance – everyone put down what they were doing and stood there in awe. Silence. As if assured of the impact he’d made, he started to feed. No one moved. Such was his presence, that it would have been difficult to look away had we wanted to.
It was a while before we started to move around, looking to record the moment. The bull stayed for an hour, and then melted back into the Dovyalis scrub from where he’d come.

The next day he was back. The effect he had on us all was the same – we spoke in hushed tones, we smiled more and we couldn’t keep our eyes off him. Whatever we were doing, our gaze would slide over, or we’d find an excuse to walk to the kitchen, where he stood feeding quietly, next to the washing line.
The next day was the same. I wondered why he kept coming – the grass in camp was no better than that on the floodplain nearby, and it was nearly exhausted. There was clean water in the riverbed two hundred yards away – both were good reasons to stay in the area, but to come right into camp?

His behaviour was very different from any bull we’ve known. Bulls are normally more approachable than cows – some Tsavo bulls are happy within 5 -10m of a vehicle, but would flee from anyone on foot. Many more are nervous; some are aggressive; some are so wary that they run from a vehicle almost a kilometer away. Our camp bull, or ‘Chota’ as we came to call him, was happy with people only 5 -10m away, upwind, and on foot.

I didn’t think he came for food or water, instead it felt as if he just liked ‘hanging out’. If a elephant family came past, he’d wander out to greet them. Sometimes he’d go and feed alongside them, and then he’d drift back into camp. It might seem fanciful, but my impression was that he came for company. It felt almost as if he’d adopted us.
Interspecific relationships amongst ‘higher’ mammals are rare in the wild, but not unknown. I only have to think back to my childhood spent on the Fal Estuary in Cornwall, when I met a wild bottle-nose dolphin, known locally as ‘Donald’, who actively sought out human company. There have been others since.

I wondered if perhaps Chota was one of the ‘ex-orphans’ that had been reared by the Sheldrick elephant orphanage. I didn’t think they went back that far, but I checked their records online – the first orphaned bulls raised in Tsavo were in 1987 – the likes of Olmeg, Taru, Ndume, and Dika – but, as elephant society demands, all left the orphanage when they were about ten years old, to join herds of wild young bulls. Most were last seen at least a decade ago.
Chota is in his prime, probably about 30 years old – if he’d been orphaned in 1987, he’d be 27 now … it would explain his ease around humans, but it would be remarkable if he had returned.

Almost all Tsavo bulls have had contact with poachers and bear the scars and arrow wounds to prove it. They’ve grown up in a culture of fear – a fear of our kind.
Traditionally, elephants here were hunted by Waliangulu – hunter-gatherers who used longbows to deliver poisoned arrows. Then came Europeans with guns – now they are poached by Somalis and Wakamba, using both.
The extraordinary thing about Chota is that he doesn’t have a mark on him. His flanks are clean, indicating that he’s never been close enough to poachers to take a poisoned arrow.

I don’t know what Chota’s story is, but I am intrigued. Is he an ex-orphan who, almost thirty years later, has returned to the area that he was raised in?
That would be remarkable – a real success story, and a lasting and living testament to the work of the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust.

If not, he might just be that ‘one in a thousand’ – a wild Tsavo bull who has never encountered humans that have meant him harm. That would be extraordinary.

I will try and find out.

© Mark Deeble & Victoria Stone and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Mark Deeble and A Wildlife Filmmaker in Africa with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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