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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,

Justin Fox

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