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.
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
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
She lives in Brooklyn.
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