Justin Fox’s elephant encounters have led to a lasting love affair
I woke with a start. What on Earth was that?
It was midnight. Camel-thorn pods were raining down like hail on my tent. I could hear his stomach grumbling above me. Like thunder. As long as I lie dead still, he’ll think my one-man tent is a termite mound, I tried to convince myself.
The giant leaned against the canvas, reaching for a branch. My bubble world contracted. Yes, I was scared, I suppose, but in a detached sort of way. Resigned even. I felt completely at his mercy. A child in a room with an unstable adult.
Then his foot came down, crushing half the tent. I rolled away from the spot being flattened. Make that a potentially violent adult.
I heard banging: metal on metal. ‘Hey, big boy, voetsek!’ It was Anthony, our guide.
Someone threw a stone, hitting the elephant with a thud. A branch was ignited on the fire and tossed at the bull. Disturbed by the commotion, he stepped back from the canvas termite mound. I ripped the Velcro and made a run for it, out between his legs.
There was pandemonium in the Okavango’s Khwai River campsite. Our group huddled round the fire as a mightily pissed-off elephant patrolled the perimeter. We pulled our tents in close to the truck like ostrich chicks around mother. Throughout the night, the grumpy grey thundercloud circled our camp, moving from tree to tree, creating pod storms that prevented anything but the most fitful sleep.
A few days later, we reached Vic Falls, the end of our overland safari. The final excursion was elephant-back riding. (This was before the ethics of such practices had been fully ventilated.) I was still a bit spooked, having so recently had an elephant try to join me in my sleeping bag.
Climb straight back onto the horse, I figured. Within moments of mounting Mashumbi, all fear evaporated. She was one of a group of orphans being reared on Nakavango Estate. We glided through the bush, each elephant topped by an induna, acting as ‘jockey’, and one or two wide-eyed tourists.
Mashumbi plucked branches to munch on the hoof. The vegetation all around had been decimated by pachyderms. My induna said there were ‘too many elephants’ in this corner of Africa. But I stroked Mashumbi’s back, marvelling at huge vertebrae moving under my hand, and couldn’t imagine how anyone might conceive of culling something so beautiful.
When we dismounted, I fed her molasses pellets and was drenched in her saliva. Staring into her eyes and running my hand over coarse, hairy skin, I was smitten. ‘My ellie’s eyes are nothing like the sun,’ I had the Bard’s words in my head. ‘If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head… In some perfumes is there more delight than in the breath that from Mashumbi reeks… And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare as any she belied with false compare.’
Don Pinnock is equally captivated by elephants and his story (page 78) suggests the very best places to engage with them in Southern Africa. Don is busy completing a book inspired by the Great Elephant Census of 2016. The study found that there are fewer than 450 000 elephants left in Africa (down from three to five million a century ago). In many of their home ranges, elephant numbers have fallen by a third in the last decade. The census found that, on average, an elephant is killed every 15 to 20 minutes.
As active citizens, we must call on governments, and Cites, to close all loopholes in the iniquitous ivory trade. Countries that still use ivory (whether legal or poached) – such as China, Vietnam, Laos and Japan – must ban and police its trade and use.
We pay tribute to all those who work for the welfare of elephants, communities that have embraced them and the brave field rangers and anti-poaching teams who risk their lives for elephants every day.
Enjoy our elephant-filled October issue,