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June/July 2007
Elephant Walk
By Mia MacDonald


Elephants in the Maasai Mara. Photo by Mia MacDonald

I’ve seen elephants in my time. In zoos, as a child, where I’d be amazed at their size and deflated by their small often concrete enclosures. I’ve seen the wretched parade of elephants through the Queens Midtown Tunnel and the streets of Manhattan when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus comes to town. I’ve been explored by an elephant’s trunk outside the Cathedral of St. John the Divine while trying to get the Cathedral to stop having elephants walk up its aisle for the St. Francis Day Blessing of the Animals celebration. (At the time, the Dean defended the elephants’ presence as evidence of the spectacle of God’s creation.)

I’d even seen elephants in the wild. It was several years ago and my last morning in the Maasai Mara National Reserve in southern Kenya. The reserve, and surrounding ranch lands that are home to many Maasai communities (traditional pastoralists), is the northern extension of Tanzania’s great Serengeti Plain. It is also a veritable Mecca for wildlife. On that trip, we’d seen lions, wildebeest, giraffes, gazelles, warthogs and many birds. But until that final day, we hadn’t seen any elephants. Our driver was keen that we find some, if possible a large herd. Instead, we ended up coming across two: a mother and her baby, probably younger than a year, eating in an open area.
I was struck by how relatively still they were and seemingly untroubled by our being there. They were very gray, not speckled with pink like so many captive elephants. We could hear them—the soft swoosh of their bodies—even though they didn’t move much. We only stayed for a few minutes, time enough to snap photos. As we drove away, their large, elegant, unmistakable shapes receded into the distance.

Elephants Being Elephants
A few weeks ago, I was back in the Maasai Mara. It was the rim of the rainy season and the grass was tall and intermittently a soft green. My companions were six Swedes, members of an extended family and friends, all on their first visit to the Mara. All of us stayed in an eco-lodge just outside the reserve called Base Camp, which seemed to be walking the green talk: lights and hot water provided by solar power, composting toilets and sensitive building. The permanent tents on the riverbank had been constructed around and amid large trees. Vervet monkeys wandered the unmanicured grounds and even played on my porch. Each morning, a family of baboons processed past some of my companions’ tents to the river and the trees and prairie-like land beyond.

On our first morning drive, we spotted giraffes, elands, warthogs and ostriches, all in the ranch lands surrounding the park. Then we saw the elephants—first looming in the distance and then closer. They were moving toward the river—and us. We counted: at least two, no three, another there behind a tree, two coming in from the left. As their bodies became distinct, we saw big, full-grown females, younger adolescents, and some who, on an elephant scale, were tiny. If an elephant is less than a year, our driver Gideon informed us, he or she can fit under the mother’s belly. Two fit this description, their trunks flapping in a way that indicated it was still something of a mystery to the near-infant elephants.

As we watched from the confines of the van, we could see the elephants converging, heading to the river, which was just beneath us. Fourteen in all we counted as we watched them walk. We could hear the sounds of soft calls, mini-trumpets, and the elephants’ footfalls as they walked down the sandy banks to the water. En route, one of the adolescents lay down in the sand and rubbed; one of the babies tried to do the same, not quite as gracefully. When they got to the river, they moved along, making way for the others, the youngest ones protected within the legs and trunks of their elders.

I’m sure they saw us: how could they not? We were perhaps only 50 feet away. But I couldn’t detect any fear or disdain in them, even as our digital cameras buzzed furiously. They kept doing what they were doing: drinking, a few moving their feet into the water, and observing each other and their surroundings. It was a warm sunny day, and with the elephants drinking right across the river, we didn’t think of looking for other animals. They were our sole focus.

Pachyderm Power
Here’s what startled me most, apart from the mere fact of our being there with them. While large and broad, the adult females had a leanness about them. They weren’t wide. Theirs was a self-containment, both physical and essential. I thought of their cousins, the Asian elephants in circuses, and how large they are in comparison. And how different. I thought how captive elephants, performing or in zoos, must be so bored, so denied the chance to be who they are, so frustrated kicking against the goads of their confinement (physically and metaphysically) that never give way, that they must eat to fill the voids. And the food is readily available.

There’s an agenda here, too. There’s a dismaying cuteness to a fat elephant that curtails the elephant’s power, makes her (most often) or him seem no longer the giant of the forest or grasslands, but a cartoon, Dumbo created just for your amusement—no need to be scared. He’s just a big baby. Surely this is an intentional diffusing and diversion of power, from the elephant to her captor or keeper (often it’s hard to know the difference).

It was depressing, this contrast, and the starkness of it. As I watched the elephants, I wondered why this hadn’t been obvious to me on my first visit to the Mara. It made the tragedy of captive elephants more visceral, my watching their extended family drink and trumpet and simply enjoy who they were and where they found themselves. A-ha, I thought. This is what it means to be an elephant, here in the Maasai Mara on an April morning. These elephants were inhabiting their beingness, their elephantness, which, of course, is what those of us watching were finding exhilarating and awe-inducing, too.

Those other elephants, I reflected, in zoos and circuses, or “working” in the logging industry or assisting panhandlers in Asian cities, are shadow selves. But I can’t blame them for the blunted power of their elephantness. That was done to them and can only be undone by granting them the freedom to rediscover who they are in the world. In a place like this.

It must have been an hour that we watched the elephants at the river. About ten minutes before we left, I heard a call, not a trumpet and not a grunt, but something low and slightly musical and, to my ear, kindly cajoling. I saw the other elephants begin to shift, backing up and taking their feet out of the water, bringing the youngest among them closer with a movement of trunks, looking up and out and just slightly, back across the plain from where they’d come. That’s the matriarch, I thought to myself, and isn’t it amazing to see her doing what the books and public television specials and scientific studies tell you she does: lead the group not by dominating but directing?

Each of the three days I was in the Mara we came across elephants, in groups of full-grown females, adolescents and toddlers. We also got very close (too close, I told Gideon) to a single male, an august and ornery old pachyderm who, justifiably, was not happy to be disturbed and made as if to charge, but didn’t. Each time I was struck by how elephant-like they were, and how their elephantness had absolutely nothing to do with us. We could observe and appreciate it, but had no role in its being or its denial. We were animals together and on these grasslands, the elephants were at home. We were only passing through.

When I got back to New York, I told Ingrid Newkirk of PETA about my experience with the elephants in the Mara in an e-mail. “Seeing elephants being elephants is always stunning, isn’t it!” she replied. That’s it exactly. Until that morning in the Mara, though, I didn’t realize, how rare that experience is, or how much elephants in captivity have been denuded of themselves. It made me want to work to get those elephants free—and to be with elephants being themselves again soon.

Mia MacDonald, a Satya consulting editor, is a policy analyst and writer who works on environment, gender, rights and conservation issues internationally. She lives in Brooklyn.