The blistering sun beat down as a herd of around thirty bush elephants feasted on umbrella trees. Mothers and their young of various sizes milled around, inquisitive trunks extended, scooping foliage into ever-hungry mouths.
Our vehicle approached slowly, the engine cut, and we watched in awe as the group bellowed and blared in excitement. We could have happily watched them all afternoon, but our close-up experience with the largest terrestrial species on earth was cut short.
The matriarch turned towards us. Standing three metres tall and weighing around three tonnes, she stomped the dry ground, clouding herself in red dust. Her ears spread wide on each side of her head and she began to charge. Our guide fired up the spluttering engine of our open-topped four-wheel drive, and put his foot to the floor as the elephant thundered towards us.
Several of the adult females joined her, forty metres away. Charging at 30km an hour, they were gaining on us. With hearts pounding and jelly knees, holding tight to a thin metal rail, we bumped along the dirt track until our pursuers, satisfied we were no longer a threat, slowed and then stopped.
Back in the safety of the lodge, the guide explained the matriarch’s protective behaviour. That particular herd lived within but very close to the boundary of the Serengeti National Park. Though protected by rangers, they had lost many members to poachers.
Despite the ban on international ivory trade introduced in 1989 by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) poaching and illegal trade continue.
In the 1980s, hundreds of thousands of elephants were slaughtered every year. Though the numbers have dropped, tens of thousands still die annually to supply the mainly Asian demand for ivory ornaments and jewellery.
At the David Sheldrick Sanctuary in Nairobi, the tragic results of poaching are a stark reality. Dozens of orphaned elephant calves are hand-raised with the ultimate goal of releasing them back into the wild. The park wardens reveal further insights into the fascinating traits of these magnificent creatures.
Their life span is close to that of humans, and they share attributes with us that allow them to create a sense of kinship. Elephants are capable of sadness, joy, love, jealousy, fury, grief, compassion and distress. They have long memories, are playful and social, and will touch each other with affection.
Agricultural expansion also threatens the future of these great grey beasts, reducing their grazing area and increasing contact between humans and elephants.
I was moved by the senseless slaughter of these elephants, and the plight of the orphaned calves, so much so that I wrote the story of an elephant orphan into one of my novels. This plotline saw a family foster a baby elephant, with whom a girl formed a special bond.
Ultimately, this story didn’t make it into the book. Research and experience can be like an iceberg, where a huge amount of ideas, experience and information lie unseen behind the scenes and only a small portion becomes visible in the final book. But the elephants have remained a part of my life: after our awe-inspiring experience on the Serengeti plain, I decided to sponsor Roi, a female elephant orphaned by poaching. You can find out more about Roi on her page at the Sheldrick Trust website.
You too can become a part of the effort to save these beautiful and awe-inspiring animals. A fantastic way to contribute to elephant conservation is to become a part of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust fostering program.