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Much of this work was originally produced for UNICEF
Late in the afternoon, when the clouds had been driven from the Amboseli sky and a halo of steam was rising from the thorny foliage, Maya Saito was sitting on the roof of her land cruiser in the shade of a flat, spreading acacia. In front of her a video camera was rigged to a stand which could be raised and lowered through the sunroof of the vehicle. A small monitor fixed to the apparatus told Maya what the camera was seeing without the need for her to
keep looking through the lens.
Solo's family of ten were feeding in a sun-dappled glade about twenty yards away. Maya was parked upwind from the elephants so that her scent would
not disturb them, but they knew she was there. Earlier on Solo had come close enough to glare at Maya, eyeball to eyeball. The smell of the one-tusked elephant was particularly strong and Maya commented on it out loud as she did all aspects of Solo's behavior. She spoke about the way the elephant used her ears, how she raised her trunk more often than the others, seeking hidden scents and the way she seemed uninterested in eating that day while the rest of the family tore down the glade as if there were no tomorrow. She drew attention to the elephant's streaming temporal glands and Solo's odd walk that had become stilted and awkward, her back legs splayed out from the hips. The younger elephants, Star and Jasper were fascinated. They sniffed and bumped against Solo who jabbed nine year old Jasper making him squeal...
The Amboseli Elephant Research Project had been started in the early seventies by an American woman. Long before Maya joined the team, researchers
had begun developing a dictionary of elephant signals occurring at humanly audible levels. Various kinds of trumpeting were known to indicate playfulness,
silliness, indignation and great excitement. After Maya joined the project they began investigating lower-frequency sounds, or rumbles, some of which could be
felt rather than heard by humans. A long soft rumble meant "let's go", a short soft rumble made by a baby elephant meant "I'm lost". Deeper into the frequency register, they found an infrasonic call used by members of the same family to keep in touch with each other. Two loud long rumbles roughly translated as "I'm here, where are you?" and an even lower rumble provided the response "We're over here." The team had come to realize that all the adult elephants in Amboseli's seven-hundred strong population were probably able to recognize each others' voices. This ability allowed them to meet and avoid each other more or less whenever they chose.
Solo raised her head and the rest of the family stopped feeding. In an almost synchronized motion they lifted their trunks and spread their ears. Fluid
from temporal glands on all the older elephants streamed down the sides of their heads. Solo rumbled loud and low enough for Maya to feel the vibration in her
Off-hand, Maya didn't know what the rumble meant. The truth was that every new advance in understanding seemed to expose more of her ignorance. The elephants saw differently, classified differently, heard sounds she did not and could not hear, and detected smells that were full of meaning for them but meant
nothing to her. These few square miles of Amboseli translated for them into an entirely different world. It was this great variety in the way different species
conceptualized the planet, different people too for that matter, which was the core of Maya's fascination.
The sun poured light upon the glade and the family of elephants stood
still, holding their pose, until Solo's left fore-leg lifted slowly off the ground. Abruptly, she flapped her ears and began moving away from Maya, towards the southern end of the glade. The others followed. Maya heard heavy feet padding the earth and a rushing sound of vegetation pushed aside. Solo and her family broke into a squealing run while out of the bush came the matriarch Astra and seven other elephants. The two families ran at each other until they were mingling and touching, rubbing their bodies against each other, clashing tusks together, placing their trunks in each other's mouths, urinating and defecating with delight.
Astra and Solo were old friends, old cousins. In the early 'eighties they'd been members of the same family. Project records showed that Astra's mother had died during a drought and afterwards Astra and Solo had formed separate families. The cause for the split appeared to have been insufficient food. An adult elephant needs to consume four hundred pounds of vegetation every day which, with the failure of the rains, had become increasingly hard to find. Since the split, however, meetings between the two families had been recorded on a very regular basis. Also, the scale of the greeting ceremony shared by these families was much greater than they displayed towards other elephant groups.
As the excitement died, most of the elephants moved off to resume feeding while a couple of young males engaged in dominance games. Astra stayed beside Solo for a while, touching the other elephant's face with her trunk, then letting the trunk flop down to the ground. The two matriarchs stood quite still
for a moment, then Astra also moved off to feed in the swampy ground on the edge of the glade.
Keeping the camera trained on Solo, Maya sat up and stretched. She wore a loose olive vest and khaki pants. Her face, long and narrow with sharp
cheekbones, was shaded by a floppy brimmed hat. Most of the people who lived around the park were Maasai, like her, except she came from Nairobi. Her father
was a successful businessman who had joined the Chamber of Commerce and Rotary instead of passing through the rites of passage of a Maasai elder. Her mother was a teacher at Kenya High School. When she'd come to Amboseli Maya had brought with her a baggage of prejudice against Maasai who refused to embrace the modern world. That was before she slept in a boma, lulled by the gentle sounds of cattle, which are a Maasai's measure of himself. Before she saw the soaring, leaping celebration of circumcision performed by Maasai warriors, which actually mimicked the mating dance of the male whydah bird.
She'd understood that for a Maasai the red earth symbolized blood, fertility, life, the cycle of things and they used this soil as an adornment, dressing themselves in their world. They decorated themselves, also, with feathers, the stuffed bodies of birds and the manes of lions slaughtered single-handed in the name of courage. She'd argued with them over these killings of lions and elephants which accompanied the ritual passage of every new Maasai age group from boyhood to warriorhood, but she was also in awe of the closeness of these people to the natural world and of its symbols which permeated every facet of their existence.
She knew the Maasai around the park found her strange. Who was she? A woman without a family was nobody, unfulfilled, a ghost of herself. A grown woman without a man was a cause for laughter. She wasn't unappealing; too thin maybe, but there had been offers, a number of cows had sometimes been mentioned (and not always jokingly) as a basis for her dowry.
Maya slipped down inside the cabin of the vehicle, grabbed a bottle of from the ice box and took it back to the roof of the cruiser. A couple of bright red and black butterflies flitted across the hood and off into the trees. A cattle egret swooped into the glade landing too close to Solo. The matriarch swirled around, tossing her trunk at the bird which jumped out of harm's way. The icey water bathed Maya's throat and she thought about Sam Hawthorne, knowing that he would be in a foul temper over everything that had happened since Kariuki's death. She would have gone up to Nairobi herself to protest against his detention but that morning Kariuki's deputy, Elijah Kipkoech had told her on the phone that Hawthorne was a free man. She was glad, not only because he was free but because she would not have to face him. Her pride was still hurting. She told herself that it was only pride.
Right from the beginning, they'd made it clear that theirs would be a relationship without ties. She'd welcomed it. She didn't want to commit herself
to anyone. She'd argued about it for years with her mother.
"You can come back to Nairobi and become a professor at the University, have your career and your husband and children. You cannot live in Amboseli for
ever. No man is going to accept that."
Maya had always insisted that she didn't want to work at the university, with its factions and politics, that she didn't want to get married, or have children, because she was perfectly happy the way she was. It was true. She was happy. Except that she'd found herself, after seeing generations of elephants being brought into the world, wondering about herself and thinking about a child coming out of her own body. Then she turned thirty five and time seemed to be running out.
It had not mattered, in the beginning, because it was all theoretical.
There had been no man in her life. Then Sam came along. It was crazy to think of Sam as a father but she had not been able to stop herself. They suited each
other so well. It had annoyed him so much when she teased him about not being an African. Really, he had understood her better than any other man she had ever
known, African or not. He let her be the way she was, did not try to change her.
But this dream of a child had got out of hand. She began making plans, without saying a word to Sam. She'd thought that for the first year, while the baby was really small, she could go up to Nairobi and they would both live with Sam. She would use the time to write up her research. Then she could come back to the park with the baby and an ayah. Sam could come down when he could. She wouldn't have to pressurize him. Life would hardly have to change. Besides,
Amboseli was a wonderful environment for a child to grow up in. When he was old enough to start school (she imagined him as a boy) he could start off locally.
It would be years before she would have to think about being in Nairobi.
She never told Sam about it, never even hinted, but she'd thought that if she waited he would soon see how obvious it was. Then, just when she'd expected
him to start getting closer, he'd backed off, creating arguments about how hard it was for them to meet and she'd fought back because that was her nature. She
wouldn't let him put all the blame on her. Even when he suggested that they should split up she'd appeared to agree with him because her pride would not let
her do anything else. She could be as strong and hard as he was. She'd smiled when she said goodbye, as if she was just going home after a pleasant lunch.
The gap left by the separation had been enormous. It felt worse because Sam had become a kind of anchor for her, an assurance that she could have her
life the way she wanted it, and a man she enjoyed being with as well. She did not think of "love" as such, being too aware of the physical urgings of nature to trust that the passion of a few moments should be a guiding principle for life. She didn't want to loose him. She had even been ready to give up the dream, the child, everything, just to continue seeing him.
On a trip to Nairobi soon afterwards she'd bumped into Sam's boss. He was a funny old man, very flirtatious. He'd told her that Sam was in town and she'd decided to go and tell him how she felt, right away, before her pride interfered and told her that she shouldn't go crawling after a man like that.
She'd taken a taxi to his place in Karen a little after five in the afternoon. Walking up the drive she'd heard music coming from his house. The Dobermans had come across to check her out, and padded alongside her all the way to the front door. She'd knocked and waited. A muffled sound came from inside, then the door had been opened by a girl, not much more than twenty. She'd caught a glimpse of Sam as he emerged from the bedroom with a towel round his waist,
before she fled back to the taxi and away.
Later, he'd sent a note saying that the girl meant nothing and that he wanted to see her, if only she would call next time she was in town. She never
did. She'd been too offended and didn't really trust herself not to break down in front of him, and lose all her self respect. Also, these emotions had been
interfering with her work too much. She had to shut them away, realize that not all women had children, not all women needed children. Her life was wonderful,
rich and full as it was. Certainly it had been very busy in the last few months, since the movement to curtail the ivory trade again had got under way. Things had been going so well, but without Kariuki she wasn't confident.
For months, Kariuki had been promising to replace his deputy. Elijah Kipkoech was an ex-army man with a dozen years experience in anti-poaching
operations, but Kariuki and Maya had both seen his shortcomings. He lacked the instincts and negotiating skills required in dealings with politicians and business people. These abilities were crucial if the trade was going to be stopped. Kipkoech's lack of diplomacy had been all too evident just in the way he'd spoken to her on the phone.
"I can cope with everything," Kipkoech had said. "It is a shame only that they have postponed the parliamentary debate on the ivory trade. If I had that vote today I know I would win. They would vote against the trade because of Kariuki, out of respect. A month from now, who can tell? They will forget."
In a sense he was right. Kariuki had possessed an ability to make men feel bigger than themselves; he'd done it with rangers working for him in Samburu. He did the same with politicians, enabling them to think beyond the petty concerns of their individual careers, and to see the ivory issue in terms of 'Africa' and 'the survival of a species.' Kariuki had almost intoxicated them with his vision but every day without him was a day in which that vision would fade.
Maya had replied, "Elijah, you have to take every opportunity you can to tell them what is happening. Every day I hear stories about more elephants being killed. There was a whole family wiped out on the Tana River. The babies as well. You must tell people about it. Kariuki would have got photographs and given them out to all the politicians and the press. Do you want me to come up to Nairobi right away? I can help you."
She'd heard Kipkoech sniffing. "I don't think that will be necessary. You have your work to do down there."
"Elijah, we have to work together. We have to win this vote and we have to persuade other countries to support the ban again. If we do not then poaching may become as bad as it was in the seventies." She had the statistics in her head. During that decade alone in Kenya they'd lost more than fifty thousand
elephants. "Look, Elijah, Kariuki and I had plans you should know about. I should come and talk to you."
There'd been a silence. Then Kipkoech had said, "Okay, you come up next week, Wednesday. But I have set some things in operation myself already."
It was plain that Kipkoech did not want her around. It was ridiculous because after Kariuki, Maya possessed the strongest contacts with the Americans
and the Europeans and others who mattered. She'd been with Kariuki when they'd discussed pressurizing the Gulf states into meeting more stringent ivory import regulations. Kipkoech knew nothing of this. Kariuki had said that his deputy was a "solid field man" but he had no imagination, he didn't understand tactics, he didn't know how to trap an opponent and use him. Maya also had Kipkoech down as a man who had trouble working with women.
She nudged the camera around so that it captured the interaction between the adolescent Star with her baby niece Ava. Star had draped her trunk over the neck of the tiny elephant and looked as if she were trying to suckle it. Solo meanwhile put her trunk in the air, flapped her ears and spread her legs.
Back at the camp, where Wanja Mugo was working, the computer clicked and ran, hummed and paused as it absorbed and sorted incoming elephant signals. When it began emitting a repetitious bleeping alarm, Wanja stopped work, saved and cleared her files, reset the screen in front of her to check incoming data and ultimately focused on Solo's voice print. The pattern was there. The sound was low and strong, repetitive like a song, soundless for human ears but a kind of music for an elephant. Wanja picked up the radio and called Maya. Solo was summoning a mate.
Solo's song was resonant, beautiful, powerful and demanding. It shimmered in slow waves across the eastern swamp and through a glade of bark-stripped fever trees beyond. It sang across the bone-dry pan skirting a herd of silent wildebeast and wrapped itself around the lodge where seventy tourists gossiped over the evening game drive, ignorant of the ancient low music that drifted around them. The notes skimmed the surface of the azure swimming pool and danced through a wall of bougainvillea to the garbage pits beyond, where the maribous sulked over dinner.
The song also drifted north, covering three miles of dense bush to finger the thorn-enclosed bomas of the Maasai beyond the park boundary. A pie dog rolled over and sat up yawning, not for the song but for the Maasai boy who crawled out of his mother's hut to toss him lumps of last night's posho. The boy did not hear the song, and neither did his hump-backed steers, snorting their steamy breath and scraping their toes over the dry dirt. For most of the planet's creatures, the song was barely discernible. It was a fragment of a barely felt vibration with not even the whisper of a feather.
Solo's song ran through the air, covering miles, fed by breezes, relentlessly questing those who would hear and understand, and for whom it was irresistible. There were ten who caught the song that evening and the effect on them was devastating. They turned with one head, from the waterhole towards Kimana and the land beyond the swamp, from the weakening stands of acacias and the southern forest that led towards the mountain. They listened and took the song inside themselves so that their glands bled secretions making them stink with desire. Then, denying hunger and thirst, they went in search of the singer of the song.
Some took longer than others. The younger bulls ran at the sport. They had no experience, no finesse, and not much hope. They tracked Solo by sound and smell and found her surrounded by her family who were aroused by the song and the new odors it heralded. Solo backed away from her family, spreading herself wide open, tantalizing the young bulls. Her sister Stroker snorted and tossed her head, rumbling her own low song of warning and excitement. Star, curious and full of adolescent dreams, mimicked Solo's odd walk and spread herself triumphantly between Solo and one of the young bulls. She stood still while the bull tested her orifices with his trunk but finding nothing he abandoned her. He tried his luck with Solo, but she bellowed and dodged his advances. Her song would not be appeased by such a creature that bore none of the ravages of life, with his unchipped tusks and untorn ears. By the time the sun had slipped behind the trees the novices had all tried, failed and given up the pursuit, but they hung around the fringes of the family hoping, hopelessly, for the miracle that would deliver them from frustration.
Solo waited. Maya waited, and night fell. Maya fixed an infra-red lens to the camera and pulled up a back shield to give some protection from the evening's predators, though she did not allow that fear to concern her. She'd done this too often. If an elephant under observation was giving birth, or dying, or mating Maya had to stay with them until the end, night and day or until she was relieved. Right at that moment, she wanted to see Solo mate more than anything else in the world.
The glade rang with the full-throated songs of countless toads, the rattle of myriad crickets. An owl hooted, a hyena cackled, a lion coughed and Maya chewed on a carrot stick. When Judith, who was now back at camp, called up on the radio to see how things were progressing, her voice sounded oddly remote, from another world.
The bull eventually arrived around one in the morning. Maya was dozing against the backshield. It was his smell that awoke her and at the same moment a cloud uncovered the moon, flooding the glade with light. Maya noted that this was Rameses, a bull of around forty five years, and that he was clearly in musth.
A male in his prime is aggressive and possessive. Agitated glands, each side of his head, stream in dark rivers down his cheeks, staining his thick grey hide. His ears waft the scent of his enraged senses. He dribbles incontinently and his sheath oozes viscous green fluids, creating odors that both warn and seduce. He releases long, low rumblings that spread for miles around, warning other males away. In this temporary state he can overcome any challenger. Females in estrus will welcome him.
Such was the condition of Rameses. He was a massively threatening beast with ragged ears and one tusk half broken. He offered none of the usual displays of non-aggression, such as politely draping his trunk over a tusk. His penis was unleashed, almost scraping the ground. He dwarfed Solo, five and a half tons to her three.
She stood with her back to him, legs splayed, every scent of her body urging his approach. At the last moment she moved, stepping forward awkwardly. He stopped her, laying his trunk flat along her back and lifting his front legs to rest either side of it. She spread herself. The hard S-shaped penis, four feet long, moving independently, found her vagina and he thrust the entire length inside.
They were still for almost a minute before he withdrew, a torrent of semen gushing onto the ground. She released a bellowing cry, loud and low. Her sisters, cousins, children, nieces and a couple of young nephews ran at her, flapping their ears and joining their voices with hers. They urinated, defecated and filled the air with low, rumbling vibrations. The cacophony of those voices spread like ripples on a pond. The higher most audible notes were soaked up by the sponge of the surrounding foliage but the deeper sounds flowed out over the land. Those who heard and understood this resounding chorus would know that a mating had taken place. Some males would be alerted and might come in search of Solo but Rameses would remain with the family as long as she was in estrus which would be for at least three days. He would act as her consort, feeding alongside her, mounting her, chasing other males away and ensuring that his seed was planted. In twenty two months it would be ripe for harvesting.
Maya laughed. She laughed with joy, amazement and at the absurdity of her life. She stopped when she saw Rameses turning in her direction. The average male elephant is not particularly aggressive but the most gentle bull becomes dangerous when he is in musth. Rameses bellowed, shaking his head, the moonlight glinting on the jagged edge of his broken tusk. Maya jumped down off the roof, flipping the catch on the video stand so that it slipped down behind her. She rolled forward into the driver's seat. Rameses was in front of her, his ears spread out, supposedly to make himself look bigger, his head raised and feet scraping the soil. She clicked open the radio channel and pressed the alarm. At the same time she turned on the ignition and revved the engine.
"Trouble," yelled Maya. "I might need.." She crunched the gears into reverse and at the same time Rameses made his charge…
Natural Enemies was written in 1990 and set in 2000. I had to imagine the technology of elephant observation. In 1990 there was no Internet and no cell phones…By 2000, although the Internet was functioning in Kenya, the mobile network was very limited.
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