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Walk This Way
A trip to a Kenyan national park yields a bumper crop of elephants, along with some positive news about the future of these massive, magnificent animals.


As the elephants in my viewfinder kept getting larger and larger, I started to panic, frantically asking Simon Trevor, a filmmaker and former game warden.

“What do I do? What do I do?”

“Shhhhhh” was his only response. With shaky legs, I held my breath and continued to click away from my perch in the open jeep. The elephants altered their course just enough to go around us. They returned to the road and then literally walked off into the sunset. “I think they had a destination in mind, don’t you?” said Simon. I collapsed in the jeep, grinning from ear to ear. I had just been introduced to Tsavo National Park’s famous red elephants.

I had come to Kenya as one of nine volunteers on an Earthwatch elephant conservation project run by Dr. Barbara McKnight. Meeting Simon, who was a cinematographer for Out of Africa and Gorillas in the Mist and who actually lives in Tsavo, was pure serendipity. This was my first trip to East Africa, and I was wowed by the color of the earth, the beauty of the light, and the enormous size of these animals that I could describe only as living dinosaurs. It was hard to believe something so large still roams freely on this planet.

These elephants will continue to do so as long as McKnight has anything to do with it. She takes their welfare personally, regarding many of them as old friends. “She’s only had one tusk since I’ve known her,” McKnight says of Crystal, a female we encountered during one of our dawn-to-dusk surveys of the park. As one of just a few researchers to have actually witnessed an elephant birth in the wild, her eyes still sparkle with excitement when she describes the mother digging a hole to bury the placenta. Our group was lucky enough to see many nursing mothers and a pregnant female who seemed as wide as she was tall. We worked with maps and a GPS to record the location and behavior of every other animal we observed, too, including lions, oryxes, giraffes, and the plentiful dik-diks (which my cohort Rekha described as deer that had been shrunk in the dryer). Our two-week elephant tally reached 784. This was great news. Prior to the ivory ban in 1989, an average of 5,000 elephants a year were being killed in Kenya—three a day in Tsavo alone.

Some of the park’s older elephants remember people with guns, and these are the ones that can be dangerous. “What would we do if they got upset?” I asked Simon.

“There’s not much you can do,” he said. “They could roll this car like a ping-pong ball if they wanted to.” But these elephants didn’t seem to mind our presence, most likely because they had been shot at only with cameras, not guns. Tourism in Kenya is booming—about 1.5 million travelers visited in 2006. Clearly, live animals are worth more than dead ones, so educating local populations is crucial. Few make this point better than Simon, who travels around Africa showing gritty documentaries his company, The African Environmental Film Foundation, has made about the animals. “Nobody’s going to sit by and destroy themselves if they know the problems,” he says, “and if they know the benefits of saving the wildlife.”

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