Don’t you like elephants? I was asked that when we stayed overnight at Elephant Sands in Botswana. This camp has a watering hole where large numbers of elephants stop to drink and socialise on their migration across Botswana.
No, I replied, I love elephants, but I prefer to keep reality at a distance.
The last time I went to a circus my children were still at nursery school. After the show we walked past the off-duty elephants. They were tethered with chains round their ankles. At the far end of the line someone was feeding them treats. The little chap closest to us wasn’t getting any. I suspect that is why he stormed us. Although we weren’t close, his chain was long enough for him to dash over, grab my little girl by her free hand and pull her away from me. All I could do was yell, but perhaps that was enough, because Ellie immediately threw my daughter down and rushed off. This is not the stuff of children’s stories, but it taught me that elephants can move incredibly quietly, at an amazing speed and can do almost anything with their agile trunks.
At Elephant Sands you sit sipping your beer only metres away from wild African elephants and watch them come and go, saluting each other with raised trunks, caressing old friends and chasing off any that misbehave. All you have between you and the elephants is a small sign warning you not to go “beyond this point”. As we watched, one elephant gently fondled it out of shape – a reminder not to become too complacent! Most of this happens in silence or, if the elephants are “speaking” to each other, it’s at a frequency that humans cannot hear. Fortunately, these amazing animals are usually preoccupied with the water alone, jealously guarding it from all other animals. The wild dogs didn’t seem too upset, tumbling and rolling over when chased, like domestic dogs at play.
A few days earlier in the Caprivi, an enormous herd of elephant had stormed out of the bush ahead of us without warning. Suddenly twenty-something elephants were racing across the road. It happened too fast to photograph. The dust had not yet settled before they had completely vanished. Breathtaking. But I wondered what they were running from. Hunters? Or another wildfire?
Botswana has had two years of drought, so water is at a premium. Two days before we arrived at Elephant Sands, frustrated elephants had destroyed the last of the large trees at the camp. All that remained was a sandy wasteland. On our way there, driving through Chobe, we had seen many more elephants. They were beautiful, healthy, noble looking beasts. But large trees are rare there too.
When I asked what can be done to minimise this destruction I was told that culling is the only solution. It is a difficult option for anyone who’s ever been eyeball to eyeball with an elephant. Perhaps that’s why debate continues to rage among conservationists. It is certainly why I prefer to keep reality at a distance.