No Sudden Movements


Eric Van Cleave, International Intern

Date Published

I was distracted by the call of blue-naped mousebird, so distracted that I had forgotten that our vehicle was surrounded on all sides by a large herd of elephants. As I glanced off to my left to spot the source of the bird call, a stiff gust of wind carrying a thick cloud of dust instantly greeted me, choking my eyes and nose with the sandy Samburu soil. I was immediately propelled into a violent coughing fit that broke the serenity of the small clearing where we were parked. A nearby elephant, disturbed by this sudden commotion, turned towards me, flared its ears outward, and let loose a low, drawn out groan. Our driver shot me a glance from the front seat, and though his lips were silent I could read the message on his face full well. “No sudden movements”, lest I draw the ire of one of these elephants.
Part of what makes East Africa so special is that it is one of the last places on Earth where one can view the lingering vestiges of the type of megafauna that were once common throughout the rest of the world. Elsewhere, examples of such imposing and charismatic creatures have long since gone extinct during the Pleistocene epoch, seemingly in the wake of human migrations into other continents. At Samburu National Reserve, not only can one simply view elephants, but they can also be seen in great abundance and at very close distances. This is due, in part, to Save the Elephant’s long-term monitoring program and the many tourists who visit Samburu, both of which have allowed elephants to gain experience around humans so that gawkers in the many vehicles passing by no longer disturb the course of elephants’ natural behaviors. The result of this habituation to human presence is that visitors to the park get spectacular views of these amazing animals that are difficult to find outside of Samburu National Reserve and the safety of a vehicle.

Experiencing an elephant up close (within, say, 3 meters) is also special because it serves as a sobering reminder of their power and majesty as well as the danger they pose to the humans with whom they share these landscapes. One need only ponder the origin of the numerous cracks, chips, and scratches on an elephant’s tusks or observe how effortlessly they can tear apart an Acacia tree to feel relatively powerless in their presence. And for all visitors to the STE research camp in Samburu, the crumpled husk of a flatbed truck sitting near the entrance to the camp, utterly destroyed by an elephant bull, reminds them not to be complacent and to remember that venturing into the park where these elephants roam is still an excursion into the wild.