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Sitting with Elephants - Sarah Foster

Many ancient traditions teach us that to find the answers to our deepest questions we must sit quietly on the earth and observe nature. Life's lessons will unfold in front of our eyes if we simply allow ourselves to take it all in with an open mind and unified heart. 


The humbleness of an auburn sun as it languidly slips behind a mountain range after hours of illuminating the sky, the courage of water bubbling over small pebbles in a stream as it flows towards the vast ocean, or even the acceptance of the trees as they let go of their dying leaves each fall might reveal in that moment a hidden reflection that one is searching for.


With this in mind, you may guess that sitting with elephants could teach even the wisest of souls, a book full of knowledge. The fervent flapping of ears, the symphony of high trumpets, low rumbles, and raw earthy roars, the clanking of tusks and entwining of trunks all speak volumes to the listening ear.


During my three months at LEO Africa, I never tired of being with the elephants, taking their photos and documenting who's who of the elephant kingdom. There were days, however, when finding them was the biggest challenge of all, but the journey to getting there was always an extraordinary adventure. 


Elephants are the largest land mammals of our time, so you would imagine that tracking an entire herd of them would be quite a simple task. For a creature so physically magnificent, I have come to learn that they can be exquisitely elusive. There were many days when I felt as though we were searching for a mythical being, never seen before by the human eye.


Three days each week, one of the LEO Africa guides Conny, Mike, or Mark, and I would navigate around the reserve in a 4x4 trail vehicle, bustling along winding dirt roads, covering endless kilometers of dense bush in search of the mysterious Loxodonta africana. We would follow fresh tracks, deciding which direction they were heading in by observing where the pressure of the foot fell in the print. 'Are there recently broken, thorny acacia branches littering the path suggesting that they are feasting as they meander along, or is it so scorching of an afternoon that they are on a set course heading directly for the river where they can leisurely indulge in a delicious buffet of juicy reeds while bathing and spraying in the cool waters?' 


If there are the small footprints of new born calves among the adult tracks then we might assume that this herd could be taking short breaks along the way so the little ones can rest in the shade of a tree or under a loving mother while the others eat and play. There are always many factors to consider when tracking an animal, and having to imagine the numerous possibilities of the elephants' daily shenanigans filled my heart with pure excitement. 


Some days, simply spotting a shaking tree in the distance or homing in on the sound of a cracking branch would be enough to disclose their whereabouts. On other occasions, just as we were calling it quits and packing up for the day, a herd would silently appear out of nowhere with absolutely no forewarning whatsoever. Because their feet are composed of fibrous, spongy tissue, elephants are capable of stealthily floating in and out of sight on bouncy, shock-absorbing cushions like a creature from a beloved, sci-fi cult classic film.


Once in the presence of these noble pachyderms it was quite simple to understand why it has become such a popular pastime for the human species to fanatically travel halfway around the globe just to view them in their natural habitat. And, of course, once one has had the great fortune of sitting with the elephants it becomes impossible to shed the enchantment and reverence for their kind.


What has resonated with me the most while observing these charismatic creatures is the abundant array of similarities that we share with them. Elephants are one of the few beings, along with humans, that are not born with built-in survival instincts. Having a similar lifespan as we do, they learn these valuable lessons over time from paying close attention to their mother, aunties, siblings, and the rest of their complex elephant society. The death of an elder could mean the tragic loss of invaluable knowledge and wisdom that had taken years to accumulate, if not passed on to younger generations. 


The elephant's innate knowing of the land and the remedial benefits of plants means that they are able to self-medicate through geophagia (eating clay soil to supplement minerals in their diet and to eliminate toxins and intestinal parasites from their body), and by seeking out specific botanicals to consume when needed for their vital healing powers such as curing indigestion or inducing labour.


Elephants are without a doubt one of the most expressive of all animals, displaying emotions ranging from love, compassion, joy, and playfulness, to anger, rage, stress, and grief. They too will weep when mourning the passing of kin, and are known to celebrate the birth of a new calf with exuberant bellows of bliss.


What I found myself admiring most of all were their character traits that have been deemed less and less valuable within our own societies as generations pass and globalization dictates that economic and technological advancements take precedence. Their ability to unselfconsciously engage with the world around them with such pure contentment, their wholehearted integrity to protect and nurture each of their familial relationships to the dying end, and their nomadic, carefree lifestyle that brings with it no territorial wars and knows no borders, except the ones that we place upon them, all make me want, more than anything, to help preserve what they bring to this world. 


Humans, climate change, habitat loss, and depleted food and water sources, are the most prevalent threats to elephants today. As we well know, what we do to the earth, not only affects the succeeding generations of our own species but has a huge impact worldwide for all life forms on the land, in the air, rivers, lakes and oceans. 


The decisions that we make now are crucial for the prosperity of elephants. Protecting their habitat, supporting legitimate wildlife and environmental conservation projects, not supporting the domestication and exploitation of elephants for tourist rides, petting or circuses, refusing to purchase products made with ivory, and by living an environmentally friendly lifestyle are simple steps that we can all take in order to help protect these highly intelligent, deserving creatures.


Thank you to LEO Africa for the opportunity to spend this time learning from the elephants. I hope to take what I have gained and use it further in helping with the preservation of their species.


"Humankind has not woven the web of life. We are but one thread within it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves. All things are bound together. All things connect." - Chief Seattle, of the Duwamish and Suquamish Tribes (1854)