Published: September 2008

Samburu Elephants

Elephant with long tusks

Family Ties

The Elephants of Samburu

By David Quammen
National Geographic Contributing Writer
Photograph by Michael Nichols
National Geographic Photographer
Update: The riverside research station of Iain Douglas-Hamilton, Save the Elephants, in northern Kenya, was destroyed on the morning of March 4, 2010 by a flash flood, which resulted from a storm many miles upstream. Although no one was killed, due to hasty evacuation, buildings and equipment were wrecked, computers and cameras were washed away, and some precious data were lost. The nearby tourist camp of Douglas-Hamilton's wife Oria, Elephant Watch, and seven other lodges were also devastated. Readers who wish to help the rebuilding effort can do so through the website savetheelephants.org.

The biologist Iain Douglas-Hamilton is walking up on an elephant, a sizable young female, nubile and shy. Her name, as she's known to him and his colleagues, is Anne. She stands half-concealed within a cluster of trees on the knob of a hill in remote northern Kenya, browsing tranquilly with several members of her family. Around her neck hangs a stout leather collar along which, at the crest of her shoulders, like a tiny porkpie hat, sits an electronic transmitter. That transmitter has allowed Douglas-Hamilton, flying in by Cessna, proceeding here on foot through the tall grass and acacia scrub, to find her. Crouching now, he approaches upwind to within 30 yards. Anne gobbles some more leaves. She's oblivious to him, or maybe just not interested.

Elephants can be dangerous animals. They are excitable, complex, and sometimes violently defensive. Douglas-Hamilton is a world-renowned expert who has studied them for 40 years. Don't try this at home.

He wants a clear look at the collar. He has heard reports that it may be too tight—that she has grown into it since having been tranquilizer-darted, fitted, and thus recruited as a source of research data. Ordinarily, Douglas-Hamilton does his elephant-watching more cautiously, from the safe containment of a Land Cruiser, but no vehicle can drive this terrain, and Anne's comfort and health are at issue. The collar should hang loose, with a dangling counterweight below. He wants to be sure that Anne's isn't snugged up to her throat like a noose. But at present, amid the thicket, she's showing him only her imperious elephantine butt. So he creeps closer.

Three other men lag back. One is David Daballen, a bright young Samburu protégé of Douglas-Hamilton's, who often accompanies the boss on missions like this. The second man is a local guide holding a Winchester .308 rifle. The third is me. As we watch Douglas-Hamilton edging forward, we notice another female elephant, a big one, probably the group's matriarch, sidling around craftily on his right flank. We duck low to escape the matriarch's view. We freeze. As this female comes on, suspicious and challenging, Douglas-Hamilton seems unconcerned with her, but Daballen begins to look nervous. He is calculating (he'll tell me later) how fast an elephant might be able to charge across such a rocky, rubble-strewn slope.

Then the big female commits herself to a sequence of gestures suggesting nonchalance, if not outright contempt: She pisses torrentially, she defecates galumphingly, and she turns away.

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