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July 27, 2006

Elephants

I wrote this shortly after returning from Africa in 1999.

It was hot and dusty. The wave of heat blasted me as I stepped from the car. The air conditioning was deceptive. It made the African plains seems almost hospitable. But as I walked from the car to the edge of the small hill the sun beat down on me sapping my strength. I peered into the heat haze that blanketed the entire area. My uncle was positive we would see the elephants here. He was a man on a mission. He would find the bachelor group and I would see them. I felt the sweat break out on my forehead. As I raised my small pair of binoculars to my face my uncle grabbed my arm and turned me to the west. “There”, he said, “right by the water hole.”
The four elephants were indeed by the water hole, three good sized males and a huge male with a straight tusk. I was dumbfounded. We were miles away from them and they looked huge. As they wandered around the vicinity of the water stopping to drink or to blow dust on themselves I was struck by how graceful they were. These were massive six ton animals, the largest land animal. Yet with the grace that most ballerinas lack they eased their massive bodies around. They looked so serene I didn’t want to go closer to see them. I wanted to let them be. But my uncle piled us into the car and we drove with breakneck speed down the hill. We passed all kinds of wildlife on either side of us, monkeys, buck, and birds. But we wanted to see the elephants.
We came upon the watering hole and the bachelors eyed us with weary acceptance and then proceeded to ignore us. The largest male was just standing there, his trunk draped over his one long straight tusk. He eyed the other males. The other males moved about aimlessly. The smallest went for a drink. He eased himself onto his knees and extended his trunk to the water. I swear I could see the water level go down as he drank. He then removed his trunk for the water and placed it in his mouth. Most of it ended up on the ground at his feet in puddles that quickly seeped back into the parched soil. He small male then tried to get back on his feet again. A bit of the magic of the beast was destroyed then. He was so clumsy. He looked in our direction embarrassingly as if to say sorry for spoiling our image of elephants. As he hobbled up the other elephants came towards him. They sidled alongside and began to rub against him. The largest male stood in front of him and they began a pushing match. The match was over very quickly as the small male capitulated. The big males then stood in a circle in front of the watering hole as if guarding it.

It was then that the warthog family came by. My Uncle had turned the car off and was snapping pictures furiously. The grunting and snorting caught our attention. We turned our gaze and a mother with her three piglets passed ten feet in front of the car. They made their way to watering hole and passed right between the male elephants to gain access to the water. The males did their best to ignore them.

Then another car pulled up behind us, and the magic was broken. Before it was a private show, just the elephants and us, sharing an African afternoon. Now it was a zoo. People were staring and the fences that were a mile to the north revealed themselves for what they were, a really large cage. I loved seeing those elephants but a sharp tinge of guilt went through me when I realize that we nearly killed them off and to save them we have to put them in jail. Maybe their graceful movements were not borne out of peace but out of resignation over their life sentence for crimes they did not commit.

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