Among Elephants

In 2015 I travelled to the Namib desert to work on a volunteer project for the rare desert-adapted elephants that live there. These elephants have developed a specialised desert culture. They feed on the trees and bushes that grow along dry river beds, and they dig wells in the sand to reach the drinking water they need.

I was fortunate to meet one particular elephant whose presence made a powerful impression on me.

He was standing among the bright yellow flowers had had sprung up from the red desert soil after rain, gathering them in bunches with his trunk-tip, and tapping them neatly against one tusk to shake off the dust before tucking them into his mouth.

We stopped our jeep at a courteous distance, careful to respect his space, and he went on calmly plucking, tapping and chewing the flowers, his gaze soft and benign, his great ears slowly flapping back and forth to a regular pulse, like the visible beating of his enormous heart.

The red dust ignited in the sunlight as he tossed trunkfuls across his head and shoulders for protection against the sun; the air smelt of sweet jasmine, dry dust and fresh elephant dung.

Then he draped his trunk across one tusk, resting the weight like an arm, and turned his face towards our jeep and I knew immediately that I was in the presence of a remarkable being – an individual, with real living knowledge and calm authority.

A person in elephant form.

The elephant’s name was Voortrekker, an Afrikaans word which means “the pioneer” or “the one who shows the way.”

You can read the story of Voortrekker’s vision and leadership in this article I wrote with the desert elephant researcher Dr Laura Brown:

Remarkable Beings, by Eleanor O’Hanlon (PDF),
(Parabola magazine, Winter 2017-2018)

Voortrekker (elephant)

Over the last few decades, Laura Brown and many others field biologists have devoted their lives to greater understanding of this depth and complexity of elephant consciousness. They have witnessed their love and attachment for each other, the devoted care they give their babies, and the intensity of their grief for the ones they lose in death. And they have come to see each elephant as an individual, with his or her own distinct personality, gifts and strengths.

And this is what the indigenous peoples who live among them have always known – each elephant is a unique being – in shamanic language, each one is an “other-than-human person.”

That first meeting with Voortrekker woke in me a great love and respect for all elephants, and deep concern for the suffering and violence they experience in the poaching epidemic of the last decade. And it began a new direction for my work, which lead me to the elephants of the Okavango Delta, the great wetland wilderness in the Kalahari desert, which is among the most important safe havens on earth for the elephants and other wild beings.

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