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Gray Thunder: Listening to Elephants

Breaking the human/nonhuman divide

by Cyril Christo
Photographs by Cyril Christo and Marie Wilkinson

Published in the May/June 2008 issue of Orion magazine




AMONG THE HUNTER-GATHERERS of Kenya, whose last remaining forests are in jeopardy due to deforestation, the Ndorobo, or Ogiek, share tales about their people having followed the migration paths of elephants for centuries. They tell of olden days when elephants used to live peacefully with humans. This was a mythic time, when the Ndorobo would eat the olerondo fruit in imitation of the elephant and boil acacia bark for its sugar. Tales of being given milk from elephant cows in times of drought, and of the Ndorobo giving the elephants honey as part of their family, are part of the lore of the first peoples of Kenya.

I first went to Kenya in 1975, for four months in the wilds of Nakuru. I studied vervet monkey behavior, climbed Mount Kenya, and, en route to the Indian Ocean, crossed the volcanic Chyulu Hills and the haunting red sands of Tsavo, where tens of thousands of elephants overwhelmed the landscape, causing one of the singular ecological holocausts of the twentieth century. I experienced the last vestiges of old Kenya, before the elephant hunting bans were put in place, when the Waliangulu still hunted elephants with poisoned arrows and Kenya felt like one of the last great frontiers on Earth.

Shortly after 9/11, my wife, Marie, and I went again to Kenya’s north, to visit the Turkana, who insist that the droughts have only manifested since the first appearance of the white man in East Africa. A medicine man—a seer—told us, “In the old days, there was always rain and the Turkana lived peacefully.” Today the rains no longer come when they used to. The Turkana believe that the elephant is next to God and that the sighting of an elephant signals rain is imminent. When Satan and God quarreled, they say, thunder and lightning shook the ground. Since God could not materialize he had to ask the elephant to go in his stead to respond to Satan’s thunder with his trumpeting calls. When the thunder ceased, Satan had departed, leaving the elephant lord over the land. Today the lack of elephants in the north, due to poaching, is believed by many Turkana to be an omen that rain will not come. The recent droughts, which have been some of the worst in decades—can they partly be explained by the near total disappearance of the revered elephant from Turkanaland?

The Samburu of Kenya believe that, like the seers who can foretell rainfall, the elephant knows when rain is coming. The sudden appearance of elephants after many months of drought suggests that rain is on the way. How the elephants know that the rains are approaching is a secret even the seers do not know. That knowledge is on the order of another language.

It was from the pastoral Samburu, whose relationship to the elephant is perhaps unique in Africa, that we were able to glean something of a sacred and remarkable alliance. After many trips to Africa, in September 2007 Marie and I took our son, Lysander, to touch the ground of East Africa for the first time. We were told by Pacquo, a Samburu elder from central Kenya, that during the peak of the elephant slaughter thirty years ago, a herd of twenty or more elephant orphans who had lost their entire family somehow managed to make its way to Samburu country, having traveled for days to reach a village where they were given sanctuary. Today the extant herd of elephants in the Matthews Range is due to the Samburu’s kindness and their acknowledgment of the elephant as an extension of their own being. Indeed, the Samburu as well as the Maasai have a concept—tenebo—which sees the coherence of elephant family dynamics as a model for human interrelationships.

One story told by Pacquo tells of a rogue elephant who was destroying crops in a nearby village. The elephant’s repeated intrusions prompted the authorities to threaten to kill it if the problem was not solved. A Samburu elder faced the elephant and somehow communicated that people were going to come and shoot it if it did not go away—and within a short while it disappeared in the bush. The elephant never returned.

Another story, which goes back decades, has taken on the status of legend. It concerns a Samburu tribesman, Lesematia, who lost a leg in the British army while fighting the Italians in Ethiopia during World War II. Many years later, back in Kenya, Lesematia was walking on crutches at dusk toward his uncle’s house when he noticed a pair of male lions stalking him, lions who knew he was a cripple. He thought to himself, What can I do? I am going to be eaten by lions. He pondered his predicament and realized he could call on his brother the elephant. He sat down and meditated on his elephant friends. Eventually, three elephants came and stayed with him, keeping the lions at bay, waiting the whole night next to Lesematia. When dawn finally arrived, and the lions had gone, Lesematia thanked his brothers the elephants as they returned to the bush. This story, firmly fixed in the oral tradition of the Samburu, expresses the uniqueness of the relationship between beings who have broken through the Berlin Wall of interspecies communication. It tells us, the dominant species, that we can either call out to the other, reach across the gulf that supposedly separates us, or reject at our own peril that which is not human.

Today, humanity needs to reach out to elephants and hear a singular voice, a mind that has evolved with us and influenced us biologically, culturally, and mythically, for our entire evolution. The trauma that elephants have experienced over the last few decades is not completely measurable by humanity. Indeed, only a few people have been willing to break the human/nonhuman gulf to insist that elephants—in killing villagers in India and Sri Lanka, in raping rhinos as they have done in South Africa, and in exhibiting post-traumatic stress disorder as documented by psychologist Gay Bradshaw—are exhibiting symptoms of a much larger malaise: the breakdown of not just habitat and family structure, but also of mind across an entire species. This breakdown is symptomatic of the unraveling of nature as we have known it. The irreplaceable bond we have had with the elephant is an alliance we need to salvage not only for the sake of the elephant’s future but for ours as well.

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Cyril Christo is coauthor, with Marie Wilkinson, of Lost Africa. Assouline will publish their new book, Walking Thunder, this fall. They live in New Mexico.

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