At around 8:00 on Friday, January 10, 2014, I sat down to the dinner table, starving and exhausted after a long day. As we dished out the servings of stir fry (a treat compared to our usual tomatoes, beans, and rice dish), Nzumu was helping Imran with one last task before he was headed home. As he worked, he casually said “There are elephants in the shambas.”
RIGHT NOW?! Yes, right then.
We explained to him that we must go track them now, and we must know when they are around as immediately as possible for all of our research goals. He told us to meet him after we were through eating, and we will go find them.
I didn’t even chew.
We jumped in the War Horse and began what turned into a wild goose chase. We went from shamba to shamba, slowly piecing together a story. The beating of drums and yelling in Swahili could be heard from every angle – each farmer working hard to try and protect their crops. At one point, after just confirming that the elephants were in a nearby thicket, I witnessed a brave woman walk off into the darkness alone, right into their path. She returned with assurance they were not headed her way.
We always seemed to be one step behind the elephants until Nzumu got a call from his wife, Josephine, telling him they were “climbing in his shamba and hitting the trees” at home. On his own turf, he was quickly able to pick up their trail, and concluded that they were headed for the water pan near Jennifer and Ambrose (two of our beehive fence farmers).
Back to the car we went, certain that we were finally on the right track. We parked and excitedly continued on foot towards the water when were interrupted by an army of safari ants. These fierce little insects cannot simply be smacked away, either. They must be pulled off of your body one by one. After having to literally strip down to shake them out of my pants and off of my skin, I finally arrived by the pan, still feeling a few sudden, pierce bites in my underwear.
After joining my team, I realized there were a few other people there, watching and waiting in an understood silence. Fires burning all around were set to keep Somali camel herders away, so we sat near them to shield the light from a possible ndovu nearby.
Not long after, a large, dark shadow appeared in the distance.
Elephants. Eight of them, maybe even ten. We could see their reflections in the water and watched them drink and blow bubbles. We heard the innocent sparring of two bulls off to the side, and the quiet rumbling of the happy herd. We were downwind and it was dark; they never suspected our presence. Every once in awhile I caught a glimpse of white. I was grateful to still be witnessing a healthy old matriarch with great big tusks.
After awhile, the herd moved off, and so did we. Returning to camp around midnight, I skipped the bucket bath and headed straight for bed. We would be up early the next day, tracking and measuring footprints, talking with farmers and assessing damage.
I tried hard to get a picture of the herd, but their identities remained concealed by the night. In a selfish way, I’m kind of glad I can keep that memory all to myself. First crop raid of the season.