30 DEC 1995 - Abu's Camp, Okavango Delta, Botswana
"He ain't heavy; he's my brother." A big elephant helping a little one - struggling up a sand dune - and a television commercial for IBM saying, "we're there to help you every step of the way." I am sitting on the actor's leg; he is stretched down, and his name is Abu.
There are bulging calluses on the side of his head. He spent many winters sleeping on the concrete floor of a safari park in Texas. The suppurating infections were caused by his own excrement and urine. His eyes are gentle. He waits patiently for a man - a portion of his size - to bark a command.
The man is rough. He says what's on his mind. If he is not happy, he will tell you sharply and with strong words; you will feel uncomfortable, but then it is done. There are many elephants - a herd - they are chained as they were in the various zoos of the world, but now they are in Africa - for some, the land of their birth. This man is not tall; his name is Randall, but we get along well. He is generous. I see a thing in him that I understand. This is heavy machinery; there are some people who would like to see him fail. There is the tremendous weight of responsibility. It will be the moment that he is not watching and yelling at someone that something will go wrong, and someone will probably be killed.
The huge elephant is chained - the front foot and back foot from different directions. I approach when I am told to, then I climb onto her back. A man named Molekoa with a black face and white eyes smiles down at me. He is seated in front. He holds an "ankus" - the stick with a hook. Here also, they are called Mahouts. The elephant lurches and rocks to her feet. The world drops several meters. I can only smile as light filters through the trees across my face. There are other elephants. A man with a lighter and more Asian skin speaks Sinhelese. The elephant follows his command; She is 54 years old and doesn't understand English. Gently, like camels, we move out from beneath the trees and into a wilderness.
It is for money. Tourists pay four and a half thousand dollars for 5 days. The film companies pay more. We lumber on, splashing through pools, with light shimmering from the world beneath the grass. This is a delta, and the water surrounds us. The Sri Lankan has stopped by a large tree. Like a skilled tractor operator, he collects the tree, breaks it into pieces, and moves them carefully to the side.
Everything relates to the left, like the near-side of a horse, and quietly I watch a mouse command a mountain. "Come here;" Molekoa's right foot kicks the back of Cathy's right ear. She shifts to the left. "Get over," and she is back to the right. If she pauses too long, the hook of the ankus digs into her forehead to remind her and to persuade her. It is so smooth. Beneath me, a carpet of leather covers tremendous machinery that I can feel churning and pulling our heavy mass along. "Steady," and we stop. I swirl around with a camera and try to capture a string of saddled elephants passing across a marshy clearing. My mind flashes to images of Carthaginians at war, but their African elephants would turn and run from the Asian elephants. There are stories of 80 bullets not bringing down an Asian elephant in a farming village in India; one does not know how accurate the bullets were. "With an Asian elephant, you must be strong," I am told. "The African elephant is more timid and softer; therefor you must be more careful."
Attum is an accountant for Coopers & Lybrand in Gaborone. He has four elephants. His daughter, Thushara, describes Randall's elephants as one might a car in America. Abu is like a Rolls-Royce; Cathy is a Cadillac, and Mthondo Bomvu, "well, he is not a good ride - he feels all the ruts." Thushara's name means "dew drops." She is fine featured and very beautiful for so young a girl. Her name was chosen according to astrological "sounds" from the Eastern constellation source almanac at the time of her birth. The same sound was used in a previous life, I am told; "it pleases you, because you were called this before." In the East, if an elephant kills a man, the magistrate decides if the elephant is a natural born killer, has turned into a killer, or if it is just an accident - seldom is the elephant condemned. In the West, if an elephant kills a man, it is shot.
In a curious way, East meets West - here, in Africa. The rough American, the humble Sri Lankan, Abu the African elephant from America, and Bibi the African elephant from Asia. It was the ideas of many, but the vision and tenacity of one who brought them here. I stare into Bibi's eyes. She is highly trained, but will only listen to one master and is dangerous to approach. Sometimes, a mahout in Asia will train his elephant to kill any other human that tries to give it commands; it is a form of job security. Bibi spent most of her life in the Colombo zoo on exhibition - a symbol of Africa. Now, she is here, in Africa. It must be like growing up in a crowded city, then moving to the country - the space and solitude can be frightening.
Little Seba is one and a half years old. Her name means "whisper" in Setswana. She is the star of an upcoming Walt Disney feature film. Swinging her trunk mischievously amidst the collection of elephants, she is related to none, but she is not alone; they care for her. She is like a young child, testing everyone and demanding attention. "Free time is very important for a young elephant, but there must be discipline." Randall's words filter from behind a thick smoky cigar. Seba seems to have two masters. She walks with her gentle giants in the mornings, being aided and guided and spoken to. Then, she enters a world of rules and loud commands and people with sticks who have the food.
"A lot of people want to dominate the animal," Randall explains. "This doesn't work; you ruin them. I can't be worried that an elephant will want to kill me someday. In a zoo, you go home at night; there is no report - it's a job. Here, we are living with the elephants. You are dealing with a highly intelligent creature." Seba perhaps has it easy. She is being brought up in the care of two worlds. For others, it is different. Mthondo Bomvu was caught two years ago in the wild at age 18. "It takes three months to go from a wild elephant to one that you can start putting a saddle on. For the first three weeks, they try to take you apart. You have to break their spirit." It involves chains and trilifon - a sedative to take out a bit of the fight. For one elephant, it also involved having a front leg chained to a tractor in front and a back leg chained to a land rover behind. He didn't eat or drink for six days. After three weeks, he stopped throwing his trunk at people. He escaped, was found under a tree, darted and brought back. Finally, by leading him in a half-drugged state, he learned to respond to "move up."
My mind drifts back to the circus elephant in Honolulu that killed its
trainer then escaped into the main street of town. The police shot it thirty
times with 38 caliber pistols and shotguns before it collapsed in a car park.
The news crews were there. We take these animals from their world then modify
them to suit ours. There must be a balance - a way of increasing our sensitivity
and appreciation of these animals without destroying them. Here now, I am on the
back of an elephant, surrounded by other elephants. We are approaching kudu in
the bush. Strangely, they are not frightened by us; we roam past, and we leave
no vehicle tracks. Perhaps, this is a balance - at least it is an attempt.