On my first visit to Kenya, we were ready to leave the Maasai Mara National Reserve and we still hadn’t seen elephants. We asked our guide: “can’t we find some?” Strangely enough, we did. Two: a mother and a young calf, definitely less than a year old. Sure, elephants are large, which suggests they’d be easy to spot. But they’re often amid trees and shrubs and their grey skin really does provide some camouflage (not enough, of course, given how many are still killed by poachers in Africa each year). On my most recent visit to the Mara, last week, I also saw elephants just before I was leaving. About 13 of them, browsing amid a stand of trees on conservancy land (more about that in future blogs) outside the formal boundaries of the reserve. We were close enough that we could hear them tearing branches off the trees and then munching on them.
The Mara elephants are rarely skittish. Kenya doesn’t have any sport hunting (it’s illegal) and poaching isn’t a big problem here – at least now. The elephants know you’re watching them (the van is not inconspicuous), but they seem almost entirely unbothered. They look in your direction, or they don’t; adults keep younger elephants close to them; but they keep on eating or drinking or whatever they were doing before you found them. It’s very clear that you’re on their turf, not the other way around.
After my first elephant sighting this trip, I also got an ethralling “recess sighting.” Three male elephants, I was told, had taken a liking to a tree nursery established by the terrific eco-lodge where I was staying, Basecamp Maasai Mara. These three, it seems, often paid visits at dusk or later, and chewed on trees. In the process, however, they’d knocked down parts of a fence – around the Obama Forest no less (yes, planted by the U.S. President and his family when then Senator Obama visited Kenya, and Basecamp). A metaphor for the current roiling U.S. political situation? Perhaps. But the trees themselves are flourishing; 8 feet tall or more.
I was most intrigued by the evidence of the elephants’ presence, not far from where I’d been sleeping. Fresh dung was a sign: large, light brown, tootsie-roll shaped bundles. So were squashed plastic bottles holding tree seedlings awaiting transport. That morning, the seedlings were being moved out of the elephants’ preferred path. And then there were the prints, the impressions of the elephants’ feet in the soil. Large and surprisingly light: not much dirt had been displaced. Made only a matter of hours before. I stared, took photos, and tried to imagine the scene. But I didn’t walk in them. I somehow wanted to preserve what was there (and would soon be gone): evidence of the elephants having walked their own path…and not mine or anyone else’s. The consensus was that they’d be back. And there would be more elephant prints in the dirt.