The longer scientists study elephants, the more we realise how special they are. These are creatures that live for around 65 years. Females teach younger elephants about the geography and food of their world, and how to raise young. Elephants display many of the emotions we associate with humans: for example, they love, play and empathise with each other.
Elephants can also smell the bones of a dead friend or relative, and will mourn them with sounds too low for humans to even hear. New discoveries concerning elephant behaviour are made all the time. Scientists now think elephants can sense the movement of other herds (particularly those fleeing danger) up to 13 miles away, by detecting sonic vibrations through their feet.
Even claims elephants destroy vegetation are not entirely accurate. Yes, they eat a lot and have a habit of knocking over trees and uprooting bushes. But by snapping the trees, ellies allow sunlight to hit the ground, allowing grasslands to flourish that are crucial for herbivores such as zebra and wildebeest, which in turn provide food for the big cats.
One of my most memorable encounters with these grand giants was in Botswana. I’d met up with soldiers from the Botswana Defence Force (BDF), which has caught, arrested or shot dozens of poachers around the spectacular Okavango Delta and across the country. But poachers are still active. Just days before I arrived, the last two white rhinos in neighbouring Zambia’s Mosi-oa-Tunya (Victoria Falls) National Park were shot by poachers travelling on speedboats. The gunmen are often former soldiers or guerrilla fighters and carry Kalashnikov assault rifles. They don’t think twice about shooting guards or soldiers, let alone elephants. Between 1979 and 1990 at least 600,000 elephants (half the African population) were slaughtered. The commercial trade was banned in 1989, but ivory is still being smuggled to China to be used in jewellery and medicines, and to the Middle East to make handles for ceremonial daggers. A few weeks before I visited, 13 elephants had been killed in northern Botswana for their tusks.
At the regional army base, an hour outside the Botswanan town of Maun, gateway to the Okavango Delta, Captain Solomon Mamadi gathered supplies for a journey into the delta to check on an army anti-poaching patrol. There was anger at the latest elephant shootings. “The order has come down from on high. We must hunt down the poachers and kill them,” he said. I climbed into the back of a dark green army Land Rover with the captain, and his driver took us towards the buffalo fence marking the boundary of the Okavango Delta. It’s a line stopping buffalo from spreading disease. But it’s also a clear demarcation between a world of cattle and goats on one side and true wildlife on the other.
We crossed into the delta and the world began to change. We passed nervous giraffes with legs so gangly they appeared to flee in slow motion. Another two hours of driving along impossibly bumpy tracks brought us to bushes concealing 10 silent soldiers, invisible in their green jungle camouflage uniforms. Aged 25 to 35 and loaded with assault rifles, knives, GPSs, field radios, binoculars and dozens of magazines for their guns, they were a potent force. Many African armies suffer from poor discipline, ancient equipment and corruption. By contrast, BDF soldiers are well trained and well disciplined.
The men reported no contact with poachers. So the captain decided to show me what his soldiers were protecting. We headed into the bush on foot with the squad, and went hunting for elephants, walking slowly behind an expert tracker at the front, a young lance corporal with keen sight and a sharp mind.
“He’ll find them,” said the captain confidently. “He reads the ground, the bushes, even the air.”
Within 10 minutes the ‘corp’ found a dry grass stalk that had been broken by an elephant within the previous hour. The stalk had snapped under a giant foot — still just a shadow in the hard dust. The corp could tell the age of the tracks by how long a spider had taken to rebuild his web in a damaged bush, or termites had spent repairing a trodden mound. My brain needed a retune to understand this world. For the corp it came naturally and immediately. There were three elephants, and he had their trail.
The corporal pushed us forward, talking quickly about his hatred of the gunmen shooting “our wildlife”. He led our squad through the sweltering bush for half an hour. Then we heard our targets before we could see them: three young adult bull elephants, fresh from a swim, were ripping at the undergrowth in search of food.
We approached quietly from downwind, but wary elephants can easily sense a squad of soldiers and a film crew. Two of them peeled away and headed deeper into the bush, leaving the biggest, bolshiest elephant staring at me, staring at him.
“Don’t make any sudden moves,” the captain warned. “You don’t want to annoy him. If he charges, run in a zigzag and hide behind some thick scrub.”
Run in a zigzag? Hide? Where? The elephant flapped his ears, swung his trunk and glared at us.
Fortunately, hunger won over indignation. The bull was standing next to a tall ivory nut palm. At the top were bunches of seed-bearing fruit, so hard they’ve long been used to make buttons. Elephants love them.
The bull squared up to the tree and then repeatedly headbutted the trunk, shaking and pushing it violently. I could feel the ground moving under my feet. Fruit started to rain down. It bounced off his head, trunk and back, but he kept shaking. After 30 seconds the earthquake stopped, checked we weren’t planning to steal his meal, and began to graze, reaching down with his trunk and popping fruit into his mouth.
The captain and I looked on with wonder. Solomon beamed the smile of a man eyeing his children at play. His men were watching for poachers from the undergrowth and here was one of their charges. Solomon turned to me.
“I’ve seen them many, many times, but they still fill me with wonder,” he said quietly. “Now, Simon, you can see why we’re under their spell.”