It’s our first elephant research session and we’re supposed to be gathering census information on the make-up of the various elephant herds and individuals that pass through Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park in the hopes of better understanding their migratory routes. It’s part of a more comprehensive look at how to best mitigate the human-elephant conflict that so often occurs around here. In the dry season elephants and a host of the other wildlife come from miles around in the early morning and late evening hours to sake their thirsts in the Zambezi River. With Livingstone nearby, a major highway running parallel to the river a kilometer north, and various farms and other settlements dotting the landscape in-between, there can often be a high level of friction between man and beast. But it’s like searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack, and it certainly shouldn’t be this hard. How is it that after bouncing down rutted roads in the back of a pickup truck for hours on end, covering mile-after-mile of bush inside the park, up and down the banks of the Zambezi and circling back around every which way, we’ve been unable to find a single wild elephant? How does 7,000 kilos of pachyderm hide itself so effectively?
Elephants, it turns out, are surprisingly stealthy. As the sunlight fades, other species declare their presence. Throngs of zebras and wildebeests thunder by in the distance, trailing dust clouds. Cape buffalo snort and raise their horns and position themselves in front of their young. Giraffes stare over treetops, their huge brown eyes blinking, then lope away in seeming slow motion. But no elephants.
Passing bushbuck, giraffe, buffalo, baboons, vervet monkeys, zebra, a surprisingly large number of warthogs, and impala by the dozens, I shift back-and-forth from butt to knees trying to find the bouncy sweet spot. We peer determinedly at every rock, tree, and scrub of bush we pass by. Still nothing. As the afternoon sun slowly lowers itself down the sky and its light subtly changes from harsh yellows to that magical hue of orange and red, I rub my eyes, shift my body once again, and look out into the distance for the thousandth time. “Hey… wait!” I swear I see something move every-so-slightly. Banging on the side of the truck to stop it, we all take a closer look. About 100 meters in the distance is the dim shape of an elephant standing beside a tree; its slowly flicking ear the one comparatively small detail giving its presence away. “Elephant!”
It’s amazing how well they camouflage themselves. Their gray skin, surprisingly, blends in perfectly with the surrounding flora, and they move so quietly that you’d be lucky to hear them passing behind you a few feet distant. But here they are – finally. And once we find one, many more seem to materialize out of thin air. The fading afternoon is spent busily jotting GPS coordinates, snapping photos, determining their sex and age, and seeing if they’re known elephants or new ones to add to the database. While our lion work has a personal importance for us, collecting behavioral data on wild elephants and simply experiencing them in their natural habitat is something we’ve been really excited about, and it’s an absolute treat to be among these majestic creatures. About an hour after we begin collecting data, we round a small corner in the road following a pair of slow-moving juvenile bulls when something else catches my eye. “I swear I just saw a baby rhino,” I tell Kim.
But that’s a story for another time…